The Holy War of Love

Parashat Matto — Numbers 30:2-32:42

At the turn of the 20th century, the fifth Rabbi of Chabad, Rabbi Sholom DovBer Schneersohn—the Rashab—developed a teaching based on a few small and seemingly insignificant verses from this week’s Torah portion. He eventually published this teaching in a booklet entitled, Heichaltzu. The focus of the entire teaching was on love toward one’s fellow and was eventually republished in English under the title, Ahavat Israel: A Path to True Unity. Oddly enough, the premise of the entire work is founded on the following passage:

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Avenge the people of Israel on the Midianites. Afterward you shall be gathered to your people.” So Moses spoke to the people, saying, “Arm men from among you for the war, that they may go against Midian to execute the LORD's vengeance on Midian. You shall send a thousand from each of the tribes of Israel to the war.” (Numbers 31:1–4)

Yes, you read it correctly. At first glance, it would seem this passage has nothing to do with love, but rather hate. The word, heichaltzu, the name of his book, is taken from verse three, and essentially means, “take up arms.” How, then, does it teach us about love, since it’s difficult to see anything about love in this passage? Let’s briefly try to understand Rashab’s conclusions.

First, it seems this task of waging war on Midian is Moses’ final mission in life because it says that when it has been completed it will be time for him to pass from this world and into the next. Therefore, it must be of paramount importance—the end goal for his life. Second, we need to understand why Moses was to wage war specifically against Midian, rather than any of the other Canaanite nations. According to Jewish tradition, the name Midian is connected to the Hebrew word madon, meaning strife or quarreling. The Rashab sees Midian as the embodiment of sinat chinam (baseless hatred) and division. Therefore, to wage war on Midian ideologically means to wage war on strife. There are several other components he addresses in this passage, but these two are the most critical with the overarching message that the endgame should be the annihilation of sinat chinam.

What is sinat chinam, or baseless hatred? It’s easy to think of it as being a hateful person without any reason. But no one hates someone without some sort of justification, even if it’s misguided. When we have ill feelings toward someone we feel justified in doing so: she did this, he did that, etc. We hold onto hurts and use them as excuses for the way we view and treat others. But we have a higher calling than this.

In Pirkei Avot, the great sage, Hillel, taught his students, “Become a disciple of Aaron—a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace, one who loves the creatures and draws them close to Torah” (Avot 1:12). The word used for “the creatures” is habriot, and the last Chabad Rebbe (Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of blessed memory) taught that this word was used for a specific reason. He said that this term represents the lowest common denominator of human existence. It implies there is not necessarily any redeeming quality within this type of person, at least in our own estimation. Therefore, we have to be told to love this type of person.

It is easy to love people who add value to our lives. Conversely, it is difficult to love people who make life more burdensome. And when we feel justified in our dislike of someone, hatred can easily develop. However, every person is made in the image of God. They have the breath of God within them. We are to love others no matter their perceived value, simply because God invested himself into their creation—therefore they have significance.

John—the disciple whom the Master loved—understood Yeshua’s teachings in a way that is not easy to apply. He taught his disciples that whoever claims to be walking in the light yet hates his brother is still dwelling in darkness (1 John 2:9–11), and that if we hate our brother we are even considered a murderer (1 John 3:11–18). Hate doesn’t always manifest itself in aggressive behavior. Often, hatred manifests itself through apathy. Apathy is the beginning of the end of a relationship.

Both Heichaltzu’s message and Yeshua’s message is that we should take these principles of loving others and do whatever it takes to enact them. We should “take up arms” and tenaciously battle against sinat chinam through ahavat chinam, baseless love. The difficult task of baseless love is to love someone through feelings of hurt, anger, and disappointment—times when we feel we can justifiably loathe the other person. However, we need to be able to say, “Even though I’m angry with you right now, I still love you and that love will not change.” We should still be kind to them, serve them, and speak positively of them to others. This is waging war on baseless hatred. This is waging war on division. Do you have relationships you struggle to maintain? What can you do to engage in the war on baseless hatred? How can you wage your own holy war of love?