Rabbi Michael Bernstein
A Matter of Vows
After the debacle of Zimri, in which the Midianite women ensnared the Jewish men, God tells Moses to harass and crush Midian. But before this war takes place, the Torah veers off on several tangents, including the appointment of Joshua as Moses’ successor and the laws regarding the nullification of a woman’s vows. Only then does the Torah return to the business at hand, the campaign against Midian (31:1-2), “And God spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Take vengeance for the children of Israel against the Midianites.’”
How are laws concerning a woman’s vows so germane that they warrant interrupting so conspicuously the natural flow of the story of the war with Midian?
Essentially, these laws restrict a woman’s ability to make unilateral vows. The husband or the father of an unmarried woman can, with certain qualifications, annul them. The deeper premise that underpins these laws is a profound concept about a woman’s relationship to the home of her birth and the home of her making. The home is not an entity external to her with which she is involved. Rather, it ideally becomes an essential part of a woman’s identity. Her sanctified role emerges in the greater framework of her home into which she integrates herself. The head of the home, be it her father or her husband, is thus intimately involved as a partner in all her affairs that may have bearing on the conduct of the home. Consequently, he has the right to object to any vows that interfere in those areas that relate to the home and annul them.
Had Zimri had this profound understanding of the special qualities and role of the Jewish woman, perhaps he would never have consorted with the Midianite princess. It is certain that Zimri offered some justification for his actions. Perhaps he claimed he was trying to form an alliance with Midian. He rationalized his physical lust to himself until he actually believed he would be drawing Midian into the Jewish orbit as a satellite of the enlarged tent of the Torah community, thereby fulfilling God’s final plan for all mankind. He may have compared himself to Moses who had embraced the eruv rav, the Egyptian rabble who joined the Jewish people in the Exodus. The Midianites had already been excluded from full integration with the Jewish nation, but Zimri may have hoped to include them in a diminished role. If so, the Midianite women would have become concubines.
In order to highlight the error of Zimri’s rationalization before the actual confrontation with Midian, the Torah presents the laws of vows, which reveal the deeper concept of Jewish womanhood. The ideal role and path of perfection for a Jewish woman lies in her selfless dedication to the home and, by extension, in her selfless submission to the will of the Creator. The Midianite women, products of an idolatrous and cruel culture, could not aspire to such a life, and therefore, they had no place in Jewish society, not as wives, not even as concubines.
In this light, we can better understand God’s command that the Jewish people not only attack but also harass the Midianites. Doing so would create an abiding antipathy and prevent them from ever again attempting to merge with and corrupt the Jewish people.
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Who Mentioned Menashe?
The Jewish people stood on the threshold of the Holy Land. They had captured all the lands of the Amorites in Trans-Jordan and were now poised to cross the river into Canaan. The tribes of Gad and Reuven now approached Moses and asked to take their portion in the rich pastureland of the Trans-Jordan (32:1 ff). Moses looked askance at their request, but agreed to it provided they met certain conditions. He then divided the newly conquered lands among (32:33) “Gad, Reuven and part of the tribe of Menashe.”
Who mentioned Menashe?
Only Gad and Reuven approached Moses; Menashe did not accompany them. Why then, as the Ramban asks, did Moses include Menashe among the recipients of land in the Trans-Jordan? Furthermore, why did Moses split the tribe of Menashe, given some of them land in the Trans-Jordan and the rest in Israel proper?
After the deportation of the Ten Lost Tribes and the demise of the northern kingdom centuries later, the tribes of Judah and Benjamin accounted for most of the remaining population of Israel, although elements of the other tribes had migrated south over the years. Providentially, the remnant of the Jewish people represented both matriarchs, Leah and Rachel, the respective forebears of Judah and Benjamin.
When Moses decided to apportion the lands of the Trans-Jordan to Gad and Reuven, he wanted to create the same balance in this extended area of the land of Israel. Since Gad and Reuven both descended from Leah, he wanted to balance their presence with a tribe descended from Rachel. He chose Menashe, but only part of it. Menashe, never having asked to settle in the Trans-Jordan, deserved to share in Israel proper along with the other tribes. Therefore, Moses delegated only part of the tribe to settle in the Trans-Jordan. Furthermore, by having one tribe straddle both sides of the Jordan, the group living in the Trans-Jordan, as a whole, would have a familial connection to the heartland. This would cement the link between the two parts of Israel.
The question remains, why choose Menashe? Moses could have chosen any of three tribes descended from Rachel¾Benjamin, Ephraim and Menashe. Why Menashe?
We can easily explain Benjamin’s exclusion. This tribe was destined to have the Temple in his territory, the place on earth reflecting God’s oneness. Moses may have considered it inappropriate to have any fissure in their territory; it had to remain fully contiguous. As for Ephraim, it would be Joshua the Ephraimite who would lead the conquest of Canaan, and it was important that the people have full confidence in his personal commitment to the conquest. Had Ephraim already partially settled in the Trans-Jordan, people might have lost a measure of confidence in Joshua’s commitment. Therefore, as a practical matter, Moses selected Menashe as the best candidate among the three tribes descended from Rachel.
On a deeper level, Menashe may perhaps have been most suited for the role of establishing a presence from Rachel in the Trans-Jordan. In Joseph’s naming of Menashe (Genesis 41:51), he acknowledged that all the hardship he had endured in his separation from home and family (galus) would yet find eternal value. The tribe that joined Gad and Reuven would be separated from the rest of the Jewish people who lived in Israel proper. They would face their own trials and threats outside the natural boundaries of Israel without the reassuring presence of all the other tribes nearby or proximity of the Temple. Therefore, Moses chose Menashe, whose name reflected the abiding trust in God that its patriarch Joseph had expressed when providence had separated him from his family.
 These events occurred after the Jews had enjoyed an idyllic existence in the desert, learning Torah and drawing ever closer to God for thirty-eight years. It is, therefore, inconceivable that Zimri and his followers did not have some justification for their acts. Perhaps the superficial similarity of their rationale to Moses’ inclusion of the eruv rav may explain why specifically Moses forgot certain relevant laws during this crisis.