Why is the war with Midian presented so disjointedly – that is, spread across two different parshahs, and interrupted with a series of laws and stories that seem entirely unrelated? What’s the relationship between the beginning of our parshah (laws of vows), its middle (war with Midian), and its end (request of Reuven and Gad to settle the transjordan)? Is there a subtle play on words going on with the name of the Midianite princess, “Kozbi bat Tzur?” How does the curious fact that Midian was ruled by five different kings shed light on a story from all the way back in Sefer Shemos? This and more, below: a very quick outline of a theory trying to make sense out of the bizarre war with Midian, along with several other, shorter insights on the parshah mixed into the footnotes. Shabbat shalom!
The campaign against Midian is highly confusing. Hashem initially orders it in parshas Pinchas (Num. 25:16-18), yet seems to get “sidetracked” almost from the moment He does so – because what follows those commands are a whole series of other laws and stories that appear, at first glance, entirely unrelated. In fact, it’s not until this week’s parshah, Mattot, that Hashem returns to the topic of the Midianite campaign – and only then is it executed (Num. 31:1ff).
Let’s take a closer look. Immediately following the initial commands to retaliate against Midian, the Torah abruptly interrupts with this bit of information: “And it was, after the plague…” (Num. 26:1). The reference here is to the plague which claimed tens of thousands from the ranks of b’nei Yisrael following their worship of Midianite idolatry (Num. 25:9). Strangely, though, the line ends there – mid-verse! On the next line, meanwhile, the Torah shifts gears yet again, by introducing new instructions to take a census of b’nei Yisrael. In a span of three verses, then, we move from war commands, to information about a plague, to new commands concerning a census – without any explicit explanation provided for how the three are connected.
So: how exactly are these connected?
Well: at the end of the census, the Torah makes a point of emphasizing that no members of the older generation were included in it – for, by this point, they had all died out (Num. 26:64). But when, exactly, did the last of them die out? Context suggests that they did so during the aforementioned plague – and that this, in fact, was what triggered the need for a census, in the first place. And, sure enough: Chizkuni states as much explicitly (Num. 26:1).
Now for the major piece of the puzzle. The Torah also reminds us – in that same summary note following the census – why we might care about when exactly the “older generation” died out. It’s not just an interesting piece of historical trivia. No – the reason it matters is that, following the sin of the spies, Hashem had sworn that He would not allow any member of this older generation to participate in yishuv ha’aretz (Num. 26:65). Instead, the nation would wander the desert for forty years till the last of them died in the desert.
Put it all together and you arrive at a remarkable conclusion: If indeed it was during the plague that the last members of said generation died out, then, following that plague, it was now possible – for the first time – for b’nei Yisrael to begin the process of yishuv ha’aretz.
And that, in fact, would explain the strange turn of events we observe in the execution of the Midianite campaign – that is, the drastic and dramatic shift from “go fight Midian” to “and then the plague ended” to “actually, let’s run a census,” to “and here are all these other laws, by the way.” It’s not that the Midianite campaign was suddenly forgotten; it’s that, with the cessation of the plague, the nature of the campaign was fundamentally transformed. For, the moment that the last of the previous generation had passed, this was no longer merely a retaliatory campaign against a foreign people on foreign soil. Suddenly, it carried the potential of being the very first battle waged in the campaign of yishuv ha’aretz.
And it’s against that backdrop that the “random” assortment of laws and stories that follows begins to make sense. Why the sudden need to take a census detailing the allotment of nachalot (Num. 26:1-65, esp. 52-56)? Because, now that the plague has claimed the last members of the previous generation, the upcoming campaign may begin the process of yishuv ha’aretz. Why are Tzlofchad’s daughters suddenly concerned with their territorial inheritance (Num. 27:1-11)? Again: because yishuv ha’aretz may begin as early as this campaign. Why Hashem’s sudden announcement that Moshe should make his final preparations (Num. 27:12-23) – and, specifically, Hashem’s announcement that Moshe is to die immediately following the Midianite campaign (Num. 31:2)?[1a] Yet again, the key lies in realizing that – now that all members of the old generation have died – the Midianite campaign can, potentially, mark the first step towards yishuv ha’aretz. And since Moshe is not allowed to participate in yishuv ha’aretz (Num. 20:12; c.f. 27:14), it must necessarily mark the end of his tenure as leader, as well.
Only two other sets of laws fill the gap between the two orders to wage war against Midian. The second of these concerns vows of abstinence which a wife may proclaim concerning her husband (Num. 30:2-17). These are clearly related to the casus belli of the Midianite campaign – that is, promiscuity with the Midianites (Num. 25:1-17) – and require no special explanation to account for their relevance at this particular literary juncture. But what about the other set of laws that interrupt the Midianite campaign – the order of festive sacrifices (Num. 28:1-28:39)?
Well: Given that the ultimate end of yishuv ha’aretz is, of course, establishing the beit hamikdash in which such offerings were to be sacrificed, there is, for starters, certainly that link; that is, now that yishuv ha’aretz is imminent, it is relevant and important to review the order of the communal sacrifices, both to ensure that they will be properly fulfilled when the time comes, and, more immediately, to offer the nation a tangible expression of the end motivating their current enterprise.
There’s a stronger connection, though. See, if you turn back forty years, to the sin of the spies, you’ll notice that the very first set of laws introduced thereafter – the very first set of laws given following the announcement that yishuv ha’aretz was to be delayed forty years – also concern sacrifices. And the Torah introduces them in a funny way: “When you come to the land of your dwelling place that I shall give you (Num. 15:2)…” From the very beginning, it seems, the prospect of one day offering sacrifices in the beit hamikdash was the rallying point for a nation struggling to preserve its hope in the eventuality of yishuv ha’aretz. That it is these sorts of laws that are reintroduced here, then, is most significant, if our theory is correct.
Of special interest is the emphasis, in our parshah, on the “libations.” After all, the “libations” are the specific sort of offering focused upon in the immediate aftermath to the sin of the spies. And that’s no coincidence: libations are offered from the product of grapes; it was through the grapes brought back from Canaan that the spies dissuaded the nation from the enterprise of yishuv ha’aretz (see Num. 13:21-33). So the symbolism of the libations is quite poignant: Hashem had offered b’nei Yisrael the grapes of the land; they rejected those grapes, and thus, must offer them back to Him – must return them to the land. And perhaps that is why the libations re-appear in this week’s parshah: now that yishuv ha’aretz is imminent once again, Hashem wishes to guarantee that the lesson of the grapes remains fresh in everyone’s mind – so that the same mistake is not repeated once again.
But we digress. Either way, the point here is this: once we realize that the Midianite campaign carried the potential of initiating yishuv ha’aretz, all of the apparently random details that “interrupt” it suddenly fit right in. They’re not an interruption, we discover; in fact, they’re an essential part of the story.
Indeed, several key details of the campaign itself align with the Torah’s general portrayal of war waged specifically within the boundaries of eretz Yisrael – including the characterization of the military threat (צ.ר.ר -Num. 25:17; compare with Num. 10:9); the use of trumpets (חצוצרות – Num. 25:6; compare with Num. 10:9); the detailed description of the combat, and lengthy list of kings vanquished in its course (Num. 31:8; compare, for instance, Josh. 12); and similar protocols of engagement (see Num. 31:9-18; compare Deut. 20:16-18). It may even have been the failure to uphold a version of these protocols which prevented the campaign from ultimately realizing its potential as the kick-start of yishuv ha’aretz.
In theory, though, yishuv ha’aretz indeed could have begun outside of eretz yisra’el itself. In fact, the proof lies in the very next story: the successful petition of Reuven and Gad to settle the lands of the Amorites (see Num. 32). Where might these tribes have gotten the idea that yishuv ha’aretz could take place east of the Jordan? It’s really a remarkable request, if you think about it. But maybe it’s not as remarkable as we think. For, if our theory is correct, then the way that Reuven and Gad extend the parameters of yishuv ha’aretz by inhabiting the lands of Sichon and Og is not actually all that radical. Indeed: it simply builds upon the precedent of what the Midianite campaign might have been.
 From another vantage point, of course, the laws of vows issued at the start of the parshah anticipate the pledge offered by Reuven and Gad, at the end of the parshah. Both are addressed to the ראשי המטות, i.e. tribal heads; both revolve around a שבועה, i.e. an oath; both involve attempts to discourage – הניא/תניאון – the fulfillment of prior commitments; both focus upon the gaining of absolution from God; both emphasize that “what leaves your mouth, you must do” (ככל היצא מפיו יעשה / היצא מפיכם תעשו). Most simply, then, the laws of vows which open our parshah establish the standard of keeping to one’s commitments – an issue which then resurfaces at its end. More poignantly, though, the laws at the start of the parshah offer an ironic contrast for the pledges taken at its end. In both cases, an oath is taken that stands to separate the family unit: the wife takes an oath of abstinence from her husband; the Reuvenites and Gadites take an oath that they will serve on the front lines of Israel’s wars, while their wives and children remain behind. But whereas the husband has the right to revoke such an oath, no such dispensation is provided to the wives and children…
 If indeed – as suggested in the previous footnote – the two bookends of our parshah are connected, then perhaps no Biblical story ties them together better than that of Yiftah (see Jud. 11, 12). Yiftach is a member of the transjordanian tribes who leads them in battle when a foreign power challenges their claim to that land. He succeeds in battle, yet his downfall comes about because of the vow he proclaims at its outset: “If You will indeed deliver the children of Ammon into my hand, whatever comes forth, that shall come forth from the doors of my house towards me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall be to the Lord, and I will offer him up for a burnt-offering” (Jud. 11:30-31). Yiftach assumes that it is an animal which will greet him upon his return; he is oblivious to the possibility that a child of his may greet him first, which is in fact what happens. Like the Reuvenites and Gadites in this week’s parshah, then, he makes the mistake of prioritizing property over family (see Num. 32:16, 24, with Rashi ad. loc.) – his first thoughts belong to his sheep, not to his children, and that is what leads him to utter the vow that he does. Thus, despite his name, Yiftach can find no “petach” – no “opening,” or “excuse” – to absolve him of his tragic vow.
 One wonders whether similar logic may explain why the mitzvah of challah follows the sin of the spies, as well: compare Num. 14:9 (“they are as our bread; their protection has departed them”) to Num. 15:19 (“when you eat from the bread of the land, you shall set aside a gift for the Lord”).
 In all likelihood, this language – צרר, צררים, etc. (Num. 25:17-18) also plays off the name צור – i.e. the Midianite leader who sent his daughter to tempt b’nei Yisrael through her promiscuity (Num. 25:15). (This would not be the only play on names involving that princess, it would seem. After all, her own name – כזבי (Num. 25:15) – probably plays off Bilaam’s statement: לא איש אל ויכזב – “God is not a man, that He should change His mind/relent” (Num. 23:19). After admitting that Hashem does not “relent” regarding Israel, Bilaam dispatches a woman named for precisely that aim; she must court b’nei Yisrael into sin so that Hashem will indeed “relent” from protecting them).
 Interestingly: Num. 10 contains both the laws of blowing “trumpets” during wars waged in Israel, and Moshe’s unsuccessful attempt to convince Chovav the Midianite to join b’nei Yisrael in their conquest of eretz Yisrael. The next time these two motifs come together – the trumpets, and the Midianites – is in our parshah, i.e. during the war against Midian. And if indeed this war was originally waged as a war of conquest, then we have on our hands a most ironic turn of events: Chovav the Midianite rejects Moshe’s invitation to join b’nei Yisrael in eretz Yisrael, insisting instead that he wants to go “to my land” – yet, in the end, b’nei Yisrael set out to incorporate that land into eretz Yisrael, anyways. (Also of note is the fact that – had Moshe really died upon the conclusion of this war, as Hashem had commanded – his last act as leader of b’nei Yisrael would, in effect, have been the waging of war against the country of his wife and in-laws – indeed, the country of his own youth, where he had found refuge and come of age. More on this in a later article…)
 Separately: It is interesting to note that Midian was ruled by five different kings. This may afford new light upon the advice offered to Moshe by Yitro – a Midianite, you will recall – to appoint additional judges so that he will be better equipped to administer the nation (see Exod. 18). Yitro, we discover in this week’s parshah, came from a society whose government officials shared power even at the highest level; he was thus a natural proponent of decentralized authority. (See also Jud. 7, where the Midianites are recorded yet again as being ruled by more than one king).