How to Answer Difficult Questions

I met a friend recently and he told me he was reading through his Jewish Publication Society Bible presented to him by his Hebrew School at his Bar Mitzvah.

He had two specific questions at the tip of his tongue:

Wasn’t the conquering of Eretz Yisroel and the wiping out of the inhabitants genocide?

Wasn’t the death penaltly meted out to Nadav and Avihu for their improper service excessively harsh?

How would you suggest handling these questions?


24 comments on “How to Answer Difficult Questions

  1. To #23, yes I think the main answer should be what you just said. For if Hashem says to kill out a people, that’s the final word. We can never make such judgments, simply because we don’t know enough to be able to say that keeping them alive is keeping murderers alive, and that they are all guilty. But Hashem said so.
    Also as Tal Benscha(#22) said, the way these wars are fought is, the city is surrounded from three sides only. Whoever wants to leave can leave, as we enter. In that case, whoever stayed is there to fight. This is something we see today, where children too are fitted suicide belts, which takes away the whole argument of ‘inocent children.’
    The main part of the question is the emotional aspect, how can you kill out so many people? For that, we just have to keep in mind that this is a question on what ‘it says,’ while what we face today is what ‘is done.’

  2. To Gary #21: Actually, I thank you for your insightful question. I probably would just have passed by that posuk without inquiring further. I don’t often get the chance to talk in learning with my sons, so this gave me a great opportunity to study some Torah.

    Someone commented once on the great hypocrisy of the outer world. They accuse Jews of all kinds of bloodshed and immorality when they themselves do so much violence and killing. Just look at the recent incident of the Mavi Mamara and the Gaza flotilla. The world is upset over nine deaths and Israel has been taken to task for it, even though substantial evidence shows that those passengers were not peace activists but armed terrorists, and that the Israelis who boarded the ship only acted in self-defense. Meanwhile, news reports that terrorist bombers killed 74 people in Uganda who were watching the World Cup soccer finals have been ignored. Also ignored were the humanitarian efforts of Israel in Haiti following the earthquake, in Thailand following the tsunami and even years ago in Turkey following an earthquake (which has been completely forgotten by the Turks). And don’t forget that nearly a quarter-million Muslims in Darfur have been slaughtered by other Muslims, as well as mosques in Darfur being burnt down by Muslims, as well as Muslim women in Darfur being assaulted by Muslims. Think about what the world says about what Israel does in Gaza (“a humanitarian crisis”) as opposed to what the world says about what Sudan does in Darfur. The Darfurians would be happy to change places with those poor oppressed Gazans any day. In fact, a number of Darfurians actually did make it to Israel and were awarded political asylum status, being allowed to stay and live and work there. Those Darfurians far prefer those hideous Zionists to their Muslim brothers in the Sudan.

  3. 1. WRT the 7 Nations of Canaan, Rashi brings down a Chazal that they were offered the option to leave, and in fact one group, the Girgashim, took up the offer and transferred themselves elsewhere.

    2. Re Nadav and Avihu, their death is a classic example of HKBH medakdek be tsaddikim kechut ha searah — God judges the righteous very strictly, “like the thread of a hair.” Their sin took place at a particularly important juncture — the very day the Mishkan was established. They took it upon themselves to offer up their own sacrifice. That kind of free-lancing was precisely the kind of thing that led to the sin of the Golden Calf.

  4. Judy,

    Thanks to you and your son for the updates. I “knew” the answer was somewhere along these lines, since we are Rachamim B’Nei Rachamim and we don’t kill or exploit gratuitously.

    It is good to have a specific source of information, and you have been quite helpful by sharing your son’s insight.

  5. I asked my son who is a Kollel man about this issue in Parshas Mattos. He agreed with me that the Midianite girls taken were certainly not used for human sacrifices, nor were they used for prostitution (immorality with Midianite women being the cause of the problem in the first place). He also concluded that the girls eventually would have been married, either to non-Jews to produce more slaves or they would have gone through a conversion process to marry Jews. My son pointed out that the Gemara has a machlokes as to whether Kohanim can marry converted women because of this passage in the Torah about Midianite girls being given to the Kohanim. Of course, we do pasken nowadays that Kohanim can’t marry converts, so these Midianite girls would have eventually been sold (remember, they were slaves) to ordinary Jews when they were of marriageable age. My son added that there are halachos that slaves have to be married.

    Interestingly enough, my son remarked that the soldiers knew which girls were virgins because they all had to walk past the Kohen Gadol, who was wearing the Choshen and Tzitz and the Urim v’Thummim, and some Divine signal was given if the girl was not a Besulah (either her face turned green or certain gems on the Choshen lit up).

  6. It should be noted that slaves, both male and female, both Jewish and non-Jewish, were treated fairly in Jewish law. Slaves owned by Jews had certain legal protections that were never extended to Jews themselves when Jews were captured and sold as slaves to the Romans or other conquerors.

  7. To Gary #10: You raised a very interesting question on Parshas Mattos, Bamidbar 31:40. I looked it up in my English-language copy of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s Living Torah, published by Moznaim Press, and found no answer there. Ditto for my English-language copy of the Stone Tanakh, published by Artscroll.

    As the Midianites were known to be immoral, one would have to assume that the 32,000 virgin females were only little girls from infancy to age nine, maybe even younger. There must have been some system for immediately identifying the females, something like a tattoo or a nose ring, or otherwise the soldiers would not have known right away without ruach hakodesh which ones to kill.

    Anyway, the soldiers followed orders and come back to the camp with these 32,000 little Midianite girls. 16,000 less 32 are given to the soldiers. 16,000 less 320 are given to the rest of Bnei Yisroel. The 320 girls are given to the Leviim. The 32 girls meant as a “tribute to G-d” are given to the Kohen Gadol for the Cohanim.

    The laws of non-Jewish female slaves are discussed extensively through the Mishnayos and Gemara. Basically, these little Midianite girls would have been female slaves. They did the lowest forms of domestic work for both the Mishkan (the ones given to the Kohen Gadol) and for the rest of Klal Yisroel. Presumably when they reached childbearing age they were converted to Judaism and taken as concubines or secondary wives. Possibly they were not converted and thus later allowed to marry only non-Jewish male slaves (in order to produce more slaves) or members of the Erev Rav (and their children then would have been non-Jews not allowed to marry within the Jewish people).

    It is possible that extensive Oral Torah was given to Moshe regarding the treatment of those particular Midianite females. However, since that Oral Torah was only needed for that one instance in that generation, and not for all generations, it was not taught to posterity and has therefore been lost. We can only assume that they were treated in accordance with the halachos of non-Jewish female slaves.

    The halachos of taking a female non-Jewish slave as a wife or concubine would be different from taking an Efes Toar, attractive captive bride, or from taking a Jewish woman as a wife or concubine.

  8. R E Buchwald , in the NJOP Parsha archives, suggests an approach that Mark Frankel alluded to in his post.

  9. I would opt for the combined approaches of Mark Frankel and Gary, supplemented by the readings suggested by R Michael Balinsky for further reading on the ethical questions raised by this issue. I think that it behooves us to remember that Taamei HaMitzvos does not mean making our adherence to the mitzvos as dependent or hostage to our understanding, but rather understanding them in a way that we understand a mitzvah and the same enhances our fulfillment of the same, Merely stating that HaShem’s actions are always correct is both the beginning and the end of our inquiry, but has never precluded an entire school of Machshava that we call Taamei HaMitzvos that we see in works such as the Sefer Hachinuch.

  10. Further study is OK and even mandatory, but with the realization that we can’t solve all puzzles to our satsifaction.

  11. I think it is important to develop a deeper understanding of Hashem’s will and how it was carried out by the earliest generations of Jews.

    Doing so enables us to:

    Avoid being swayed by missionaries, heretics, anti-Semites and similar people;
    Informs us that our ancestors took these very drastic actions not of their own desire for vengeance, but as directed by Hashem in a very specific way, by which we do not presently receive direction from Him;
    Prevents us from acting pursuant to our base emotions, since we cannot falsely justify our actions as similar to those of our ancestors.

    At least one commentator, the Rambam, says that the Jews offered the Canaanites the opportunity to accept the seven Noahide commandments, and they refused. We didn’t ask them to convert to Judaism; we asked them to follow very basic laws in the Land of Israel, and to abandon abominable practices.

    Studying the commentaries shows how different we are from other religions. We didn’t even demand that the residents of OUR land convert to our religion. Compare this to other religions whose adherents have traveled the globe telling people that if you don’t accept OUR religion in YOUR land, we will kill you. And, they have done so to many Jews and to people indigenous to other lands.

    There is quite a bit to be said for Bob Miller’s answer in #2. There is also much to be said for further study of these matters.

  12. This wasn’t my insight. It’s what our true spiritual leaders have been trying to convey for thousands of years. These many years have frequently been punctuated by inexplicable events. Without the basic insight of emunah, which takes real work to internalize, we would have lost our way and evaporated as a people.

  13. I really don’t understand why Bob Miller’s answer isn’t acknowledged here as the only answer. To attempt to go beyond it is merely to get into theodicy, for why should this particularly incomprehensible mitzvah bother us more than any number of other ones that cannot jibe with our sensibilities? Because of the volume of seemingly innocent lives lost? This can never be the criterion, as Judy’s point about the loss of her friend makes clear — one tragic and inexplicable tragedy is all it takes to challenge our ability to be matzdik es ha-din [to acknowledge the axiomatic righteousness of Hashem’s judgment].

  14. Addendum to comment # 10:

    Therefore, we don’t have the justification of the type FALSELY claimed by Islamic terrorists to carry out actions of this type.

    We are justified in acting defensively or proactively to remove credible current threats to Jewish lives and property. Let’s also remember that these threats are spiritual as well as military.

  15. On a general level:

    Hashem’s instructions to “wipe out” specific populations or portions thereof were:
    a) in response to a necessity that He identified;
    b) transmitted to a prophet or person with holy spirit;
    c) carried out under the direction of that person by people who were also on a very high spiritual level;
    d) not carried out for the personal gain of the leaders/soldiers/etc. involved.

    On the other hand, there is no one today who has direct communication with Hashem, we do not have the spiritual level of our ancestors in the wilderness or the time of the conquest of the Land of Israel, time of the Judges, Kings, etc., nor do we have the altruism to carry out these actions selflessly. Additionally, I feel it is difficult if not impossible to identify any people living today as the specific descendants of one of the populations targeted in biblical times. Therefore, we don’t have the justification of the type claimed by Islamic terrorists to carry out actions of this type.

    In a specific case:

    While learning next week’s parashah, Mattot, Bamidbar/Numbers 31:40, I read that of 16,000 virgin Midianite females captured, 32 were offered as a tribute to Hashem. I looked in several Chumashim with commentary, and l’havdil, searched the internet, for Rabbinic comments on this verse/pasuk. I haven’t been able to find any. What I did find was a number of anti-Semitic websites that used this verse and others to accuse Jews of all types of immorality and inhumanity, including one with a lengthy blood libel “documentary” video.

    So far I don’t know what became of those females; they may have been killed along with other prisoners, may have been redeemed in the manner of other people, or may have been pressed into Sanctuary service; no matter what the answer, it was based on Hashem’s specific instruction at that time to his designees.

    Steve’s Jewish friend has legitimate questions that have Torah-based answers. We need to be aware, however, that the same biblical incidents have, and still are, twisted against us by anti-Semites.

    If anyone knows of any Rabbinic commentary/exposition on Bamidbar/Numbers 31:40, I would be grateful if you share it with us.

  16. to Judy re #8:
    Why be sorry to judge hQbH l’kaf z’chus?

    Speaking of which, perhaps “dan…l’kaf z’chus” is a component of a possible answer to both Qs from Steve’s friend.

    Speaking of Qs: such Qs are often far better than any possible answers, and kudos to Steve’s friend for enunciating such Qs. May he have the desire to consider the possible answers listed in this forum (as well as any others which occur to him) and to continue discussing them with Torah-grounded people.

  17. I admit that I had a sort of crisis of faith last year, in May of 2009. Mr. XYZ, a Ger Tzedek whom I knew only through working in the same professional field, regretfully I did not know his family or his wife on a social friendly basis, died of stomach cancer. I had known Mr. XYZ in his professional capacity for about 14 years, about the same length of time that he had been a Ger Tzedek. I admit that I personally found it hard to accept Mr. XYZ’s death from such a painful and horrible disease. He left behind a lovely wife and a wonderful son learning in Yeshiva. I knew that I had to accept that this was G-d’s Will. I told myself that possibly his neshama was the Gilgul of someone who pretended to be a non-Jew during the Holocaust, and that his neshama needed to come back as a Ger Tzedek for 12 years only, then go straight to the highest levels of Gan Eden. At least this was the only way I could comfort myself, sorry to admit that I needed to tell myself a “story” in order to accept G-d’s decree.

  18. Quite often, G-d does things that we don’t understand. Men and women have been perplexed by G-d’s actions for the last three millennia (see the Book of Job). Beloved good people are taken from us far too young. Evil is allowed to flourish and prosper. Why did The All Merciful G-d allow six million Jews to perish in the Holocaust, including over one million innocent children? This is a question that can’t be answered.

    After having said that, I will propose two “sort-of” answers to the unanswerable: 1) The inhabitants of ancient Canaan were so steeped in evil that they all had to be destroyed, but G-d had promised not to send another flood or calamity. 2) Sometimes being merciful to the cruel is being cruel to the merciful. Shaul HaMelech disobeyed G-d’s explicit command and allowed Agag the king of Amalek to live on a little longer; Agag was therefore able to conceive a child who was hidden and years later had a descendant named Haman who tried to kill all the Jews. 3) Nadav and Avihu died by Divine Kiss, a special form of death given only to the most holy and special individuals. They knew they would die for it, but they were so overwhelmed with the thought of getting closer to G-d that they accepted having to die. Sort of in a way like the famous photographer who couldn’t resist making a spellbinding video of an avalanche coming straight at him, even though he died when the tons of snow struck him.

  19. The effort to understand is noble and necessary, but in the end a Divine command needs to be obeyed regardless.

  20. In reference to Bob Miller’s comment: Actually it is more complex. Whether it is Amalek or the cases mentioned, there needs in the commentaries to be an ethical justification made to warrant the action. It is not justified by the statement God’s actions are correct. Indeed,even questions are raised that the command let’s say, to destroy Amalek, is in violation of other parts of the Torah- children shall not die for the sins of the father. Avi Sagi has adressed this issue in the Harvard Theological Review and Nati Helfgot in a book of articles on Samuel. Worth it to google them.

  21. If the individual is receptive to it, it sounds like a good opportunity to teach this person some views of rishonim and/or acharonim who have dealt with these questions (or whose understanding of the relevant parts of the Torah will indirectly shed light on his questions). This also has the advantage of showing him that there is a range of views about these things.

  22. The Rambam holds that there is a din to be likros shalom even in a milchemes mitzvah. The second question is tricky, not sure what to say, other than the fact that chazal say that Hashem judges tzaddikim very stringently.

  23. Often we can have some understanding of difficult matters like these, and that is certainly very helpful in explaining them to ourselves and others.

    But, regardless of that, there is this objective reality:

    1. HaShem’s direct orders as received through our true neviim (prophets) override all other considerations.

    2. All of HaShem’s actions are correct.

  24. I think the basic approach, as described in the Torah to the genocide question, is that the Canaanite inhabitants were so degenerate that there was no alternative than to wipe them out. That degeneracy extended to their women and children as well.

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