Parsha of the week: Rabbi Avi Billet

Captives taken, Israel unites as one


In the beginning of Chapter 21, the Torah tells how an encounter with the Canaanites of the Negev concluded with the capture of a single captive – who Rashi identifies as a maidservant.

While I shy away from attempts at identifying why this might have happened, Targum Yonatan and others focus on the recent death of Aharon, and the subsequent disappearance of the clouds, as the opening that provided the chance for a military encounter to go sour.

The Torah continues by explaining that Israel made a vow to G-d saying, “If you give this nation into my hands, I will turn their city into a ‘cherem’ (and will forbid the taking of any booty).”

G-d, in turn, listened to the voice of Israel and allowed them to defeat the Canaanites.

Two questions come to mind. Why wouldn’t Moshe pray on behalf of the people, as he has so many times in the past? Why is the language of Israel praying written in the singular – isn’t the whole nation, millions of people, praying?

The Shakh explains why Moshe might not have prayed on behalf of the people. Following a line of thinking that appears in many places in the Midrash and Chazal, the Shakh suggests (based on the Yalkut Shimoni) that when the people saw Moshe descending from the mountain with Elazar, and without Aharon, they were suspicious that Moshe had killed his brother.

There were actually three groups – those who suspected Moshe of murder, those who suspected Elazar of murder, and those who believed Aharon had died a natural death. To squelch all the rumors, the people were given a vision of Aharon being accompanied by angels to the point that all understood that he had died naturally.

Two out of three groups were suspicious of murder, rendering Moshe uninterested in praying on their behalf. Let them pray for themselves if after 40 years they could even conceive of such a notion that Moshe or Elazar killed their brother/father.

The singular language is more compelling of a question to me, but in light of recent events, I think nothing could be more clear as to why the people are depicted as praying in the singular, in the aftermath of one person being taken captive.

All I have read is that the country of Israel, as fractured as it sometimes is in times of peace, and when people have time to fight about things that, all told, are not that important, is a different country today than it was before Naftali, Eyal and Gilad were kidnapped. We could surely benefit from the prayer of Moshe at this time. But in the absence of a Moshe Rabbeinu, we are coming together to pray as one.

In ancient times all it took was one maidservant being taken captive, and the entire nation of Israel became one. “Israel took a vow (‘vayidar’ – in the singular), ‘If you place the Canaanites in MY hand, I will leave the city desolate (with the cherem)’.”

The nation and the country of Israel understands this well. The nation as one has taken a vow to “bring our boys back.” As of this writing there was not much news or hopes to hang onto. But the nation of Israel seems united as one, to rid its land of the evil of Hamas, and to destroy the infrastructure that allows evil people to roam freely, to kidnap innocent children because they “are frustrated with the occupation.” And of course, to see the three boys returned to their homes in safety.

Most of us do things, and sometimes even regrettable things, when we are frustrated. But we don’t kill people, or kidnap children. Moshe would be very frustrated with even the suspicion of such.

That the world accepts the Palestinian narrative that terrorism, and kidnapping, and taking soldiers is a direct result of frustration just speaks volumes of how liberal thinking goes. “If it’s Jews, they can’t be right. They’ve brought it upon themselves. And the frustrated are justified.”

Maybe Israel – the nation and the country – can take a vow, using the Torah’s precedent, that if You, G-d, will help rid this pestilence from our land – whether through political means, relocation strategies, etc, then we, united as one, will not take anything from the cherem, and we will not celebrate the emptiness of once inhabited lands.

We, as one People, will celebrate that we live in peace, and that our youth need not fear when they hitchhike, because they know they are in a “medinah yehudit” (Jewish country) in which chesed is the guiding principle of Jews helping Jews, because, of course, the person behind the wheel is concerned only for your welfare.