The parsha of Matot-Masay concludes the story of the Moab-Midian attack against the Israelites. In the parsha of Balak we read that the Moabite women enticed the Israelite men to engage in illicit sex and to worship the pagan god Ba’al. God punished the Israelites and unleashed a deadly plague. In the midst of this tragedy, an Israelite prince fornicated with a Midianite women before Moses and Aaron. Pinchas rose up, took a spear in hand, and killed the prince and the Midianite woman. God, in response to this zealousness for His sake, ended the plague and gave Pinchas an eternal covenant of peace. In parshat Matot, this story is concluded. Pinchas leads the people to battle against the Midianites to take vengeance for this attack against the people.
Although the Moabite women were apparently the primary actors in this drama, the Israelites attack only the Midianites. In parshat Masay we discover why the Moabites were excluded from this vengeance: God prohibits war against Moab because they descend from Lot and are kinsmen of the Israelites. God’s justice is not absolute but is tempered with mercy. Justice is acting in conformity with what is right and true, but there are values other than truth. Concern for one’s family, even very distant kin, compassion and peace are values not to be ignored. Truth must sometimes give way so that peace can be achieved.
This tension between truth and peace is evident in the Pinchas story as well. Pinchas defended the truth, stood up for God’s honor when no one else was acting, and executed the harsh justice that was demanded. He completed this pursuit of violent justice by leading the Israelites into battle against Midian. He acted exactly as was necessary in the circumstances. But when God blesses him, God says, “Behold I give him my covenant of peace. And it shall be for him and his seed after him a covenant of eternal priesthood” (Num. 25:12-13). Vengeance was necessary at the time, but one’s way of life must be defined by peace. As a priest, a representative of God, one must carry the eternal covenant of peace. Pinchas, who started his career with an act of violence, ends his career with an act of peace. We read in the Book of Joshua, that the Israelites believed that the tribes of Reuven and Gad were breaking away from the nation, and the Israelites were preparing to wage war against them. Pinchas led a diplomatic delegation to these two tribes, and war was averted. It was only then, according to the Talmud, that Pinchas was fully accepted by the Israelites. Truth and zealotry are good qualities, but too much of it too often can make someone difficult to live with. To be effective, to achieve our true goals, truth must sometimes make way for peace.
“Truth and peace you shall love” says Zecharia (Zech. 8:19). But truth is not peace and peace is not truth. Aaron is the paradigm of peace in the Talmud. How did he achieve peace? The Talmud tells us that when two people were feuding, he would go to each one individually and say, “Your friend wants to make up with you, but he is too embarrassed.” The two would then get together and make up. In other words, he achieved peace through lies! Peace involves giving in, making compromises, not always standing on principle. Some marriages break up because one or both of the partners is unwilling to sacrifice truth for peace. We must remember what is ultimately the more important value.
On the other hand, too much peace, too much diplomacy, can lead to a sacrifice of one’s beliefs and integrity. Aaron himself fell prey to this. When the people surrounded him and demanded that he make them a god he acquiesced rather than confront the people and stand up for God and truth. He would go through the rest of his life with the knowledge that he was the means for the sin of the golden calf. We have to strive to achieve the proper balance between these two values. We must attempt to do the impossible: pursue peace and stand for truth at the same time.