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Parsha Matot-Masei

08/01/2019 08:16:24 PM


The first half of the Parsha discusses the battle between the Jews and Midyan, a fight initiated by the Jews to purge themselves of any spiritual contaminations they had absorbed from Midyan’s influence. In the aftermath of the war, Moshe discovers that the Jews failed to kill the female Midyanites and is incensed at this decision, and when the Jews offer some of the spoils as a Korban to God, Moshe even suspects them of offering this Korban as atonement for further promiscuous activity with the Midyanite girls.  In truth, they respond to Moshe, not even one person sinned with the girls, and the Korban was offered not as atonement for sinful acts, but rather as atonement for lustful thoughts they had for the girls.  (Shabbos 64a)  Many commentators are bothered why these thoughts warranted atonement, as given the principle that “God does not consider bad thoughts like actions,” (Kidushin 39) one does not need atonement for sinful thoughts that are not acted upon.  

In analyzing the context of this Korban, it is important to note that they did not offer this Korban immediately after the war, but rather after another key theme that transpired in the aftermath of the war with Midyan.  With all the spoils of Midyan available for taking, the Jews are taught the Halachos of how to “kasher keilim”- to purge the cooking Midyanite utensils of all non-kosher residual flavors in their walls, and this Kashering process permitted the Jews to use the pots for their own purposes.  Why were these Halachos first taught in the aftermath of the war with Midyan, almost 40 years after the rest of the Torah was taught?  Surely the laws of kashering could have been pertinent to the mitzvah of cooking meat and milk together, to dictate how to kasher a pot that cooked meat and milk together, and yet God waited to teach these laws until the war with Midyan.  

The novelty of the laws of kashering are two-fold, because besides for the explicit point that there is a way to purge a pot from non-kosher flavors, the implicit message is that there is a need to kasher keilim and that the flavors in the pot’s walls that would subsequently be imparted to another dish are forbidden.  As rudimentary as that is to our knowledge, the truth is that the prevailing opinion in the Tana’im is that this principle of “ta’am k’ikar”- flavors are treated like substance itself- is only known because God said the Jews had to kasher the Midyanite pots.  Without this, logic would have dictated that forbidden foods are only relevant in substance form and their flavors would not have posed a problem whatsoever.  After this implicit message is understood, the explicit message of kashering keilim is that there is a way to remove those forbidden flavors by using mediums of heat and the like to extract the flavors that are stuck in the pot.  Succinctly put, the novelty was both that there is a problem and that there is a way to fix the problem, but without the laws of kashering keilim, one would remain oblivious to the existence of a problem and to its possible solution.  

There is a tremendous mussar in the Torah equating forbidden flavor with substance, because it reflects on the severity of even residual or minimal effects of contamination.  Conceptually, “flavor” is the effects and influences of a matter felt long beyond the existence of the substance itself, and despite being invisible and ostensibly imperceptible, they are still Halachically existent and treated like substance itself.  There are many times when we assume ourselves to be “clean” from a given spiritual contamination because we don’t perceive its substance as a part of our soul, but in truth, we are soiled from its flavors that are still imparting their harmful effects and tainting our souls.  On the other hand, the dichotomy of kashering pots is uplifting and comforting in the sense that we have the ability to purge ourselves from the effects of contamination, and by using the medium of fire and applying the principle that “the way flavor comes in, it will come out,” (Pesachim 74) one can stoke the fiery passions of teshuva and rid the soul of these flavors.  These points were embodied in the battle the Jews initiated with Midyan, as given their past sins with Midyan, God was telling the Jews that it was not enough to simply “move on” from Midyan and continue forward, but it was rather crucial that they understand the detrimental effects of Midyan’s influences and abolish them completely with a war of vengeance.  Midyan taught us how strong flavor is, and also that we can purge ourselves of it, and it is therefore fitting that kashering pots is taught specifically in the aftermath of the war on Midyan.  

It is from this perspective that we should approach the timing of the Korban brought for the lustful thoughts of the Midyanite girls, because although lustful thoughts are generally treated less severely and do not mandate atonement, the Jews were so uplifted by the message of kashering pots that they brought a Korban nonetheless.  Once they learned of the Torah equating flavor with substance, they were horrified by their thoughts, because thoughts are quite like flavor in the sense that the girls may be long gone, but the residual effects lingered on by means of thought.  When they applied the dualism of kashering pots to this idea and realized they had the power to “kasher,” they were motivated to completely purge their souls of any effects from Midyan and they therefore came forward specifically after these laws had been taught with their special Korban.

Wed, June 7 2023 18 Sivan 5783