Moav and Midyan and Me

Even relatively casual Torah scholars will have seen at least some form of the following Talmudic account. But a second look could upset that comfortable familiarity just a bit…

וילכו זקני מואב וזקני מדין תנא מדין ומואב לא היה להם שלום מעולם משל לשני כלבים שהיו בעדר והיו צהובין זה לזה בא זאב על האחד אמר האחד אם איני עוזרו היום הורג אותו ולמחר בא עלי הלכו שניהם והרגו הזאב אמר רב פפא היינו דאמרי אינשי כרכושתא ושונרא עבדו הלולא מתרבא דביש גדא. (סנהדרין קה.)

“And the elders of Moav traveled with the elders of Midyan.” (Numbers 22:7) Why? Through their entire history, Midyan and Moav never got along with each other! To explain, we can compare this to two dogs in a flock who, even while in each other’s company still harbored mutual anger. Once one of the dogs was attacked by a wolf. The other said: “If I don’t help him today, then the wolf will kill him and, tomorrow, come for me.” Both dogs together therefore killed the wolf. Rabbi Papa said “this is what people say: when a rat and a wild cat make a party together, bad fortune increases.” (Sanhedrin 105a)

Just what does the Talmud stand to gain from this analogy? If the point is that a common external threat can make allies of sworn enemies, why not simply say it? And now that we’ve actually got the parable of the dogs, why add the popular expression involving rats and cats?

Next. “Flock” is strange: what business do dogs have associating with a flock? The word עדר is used in Torah literature exclusively to describe collections of sheep and goats, not dogs. Could they have been sheepdogs? I’m not sure that shepherds used dogs in Talmudic times, but even if they did, the association seems to play no role here as the dog’s words express concern only about himself.

And what about “anger” (צהובין)? Rashi, forced by the passage’s context, explains that an angry man’s face can take on a reddish color (which is a more literal meaning of “tzahuvim”). But if the rabbis mean nothing more than “anger,” then, by using that word, they’ve chosen to describe it in an oddly ambiguous way; see Nedarim 49b:

Rabbi Yehuda was sitting before Rabbi Tarfon. Rabbi Tarfon said to him: “Your face is reddish (צהובין) today.” (Rabbi Yehuda) answered: “Yesterday your servants went out to the field and brought us beets and we ate them without salt. If we had eaten them with salt, our faces would have been even redder.”

A certain matron, upon seeing him with a reddish face, said to Rabbi Yehuda: “You teach Torah while drunk?” He said to her: ‘I swear by your hand that I don’t even taste wine besides kiddush and havdala and the four cups on Passover, and, even after such minimal amounts, I need to bandage my head from the resulting pain from Passover until Tabernacles (in other words, under normal circumstances he certainly wouldn’t drink). Rather (the redness is because), a man’s wisdom lights up his face.”

A certain Sadducee said to Rabbi Yehuda: “Your face appears like that of a usurer or a pig farmer (both of whom could earn a good income through prohibited acts).” Rabbi Yehuda answered “For Jews, both those trades are forbidden. Rather, there are twenty-four washrooms between my house and the study hall and I enter each one regularly.”

So צהובין can have a number of possible causes: being well fed or drunk, engaging in profitable (and forbidden) activities or achieving great wisdom. No one will object if we add anger to the list. But, knowing how difficult it can be to firmly associate a reddish tone with any one mood in particular, why did the rabbis choose just this expression for our passage?

We’re not done with the problems.

Our next task is to examine the specific details of the analogy – how smoothly does each element correspond to its target.

Well what have we got? The two dogs would seem to refer to the elders of Midyan and Moav. The flock could be the general populations of those lands, or perhaps the other nations of the region as a whole. The anger dividing the dogs represents the normal relations between Moav and Midyan. And the wolf would be Israel – which at the time was perceived as something of an existential threat to many in the area. The killing of the wolf would be their hoped-for victory over Israel.

But do these “translations” work? Is it reasonable to conclude that the Rabbis would have likened Israel’s enemies to such gentle and loyal animals as sheep and Israel as a wolf? Don’t we more commonly find the exact opposite (see, for instance, Midrash Tanchuma Toldos 5)?

Of course you could say that these choices reflect the way Midyan and Moav would have seen things. They might well have perceived themselves as innocent sheep and Israel as an aggressive wolf. But then what’s in it for the Talmud’s Jewish readers? Why should we care about our neighbors’ political delusions?

I’m going to suggest something that will sound startling.

Perhaps the flock being “protected” by Midyan and Moav was neither their own citizens nor those of their neighbors, but Israel! Maybe these elders fancied themselves as wise men who had seen a bit of the world and were sure that these naïve Jews, by signing on to God’s Torah, were making a great mistake and that they desperately needed guidance. And the wolf? That would be God,1 whose “malicious lies”, in the eyes of Midyan and Moav, threatened to overrun civilized society if no one took a stand and stopped them. The goals of this alliance weren’t military, but social (something largely born out in fact by their choice of Bilaam).2

This subtle point would have been altogether missed had the Gemara not employed its parable.

Perhaps this will also clarify the use of צהובים. While it was undoubtedly true that Midyan and Moav endured a long-standing and bitter rivalry, they also shared common social values – no doubt built on hedonistic abandon. It’s likely that their lifestyle brought them profit on many levels, not to mention great enjoyment. Great enough to leave them, one might say, with reddish faces – but not, in this case, necessarily through anger. Is it at all unlikely that they would seek to defend their access to such excessive behavior, portraying their campaign as altruistic aid for those “poor hapless” Jews?

So the Talmud’s careful choice of words pithily communicates both ideas: anger and personal pleasure.

Now what about that popular expression (“when a rat and a wild cat make a party between themselves, bad mazal increases”)? I think that we might first need to know a but more about mazal. The Talmud (Horiyos 12a) writes:

Someone who wants to travel and also wants to know whether or not he will safely return home, should stand in a darkened house. If he sees a shadow of his shadow (I honestly have no clue what this might mean), he will know that he will return. In truth, this doesn’t really work. However there is a greater risk: perhaps he will be discouraged (by not seeing his shadow) and his mazal will be weakened.

Rashi explains that shadow-watching isn’t a fool-proof method of divination, and, in fact, some people who don’t see their shadows nevertheless do return safely. But if someone were to foolishly believe the results, he might feel so bad about his negative result and the tragedy he now consequently expects to befall him, that he could actually harm his own mazal.

What interests us right now is the idea that, regardless of what mazal actually is and what effect it can have on us (for more on that, see the chapter devoted to the subject of mazal later in the book), its strength depends to at least some degree on our own confidence – or lack thereof. In other words, our odds of success in a given endeavor might partially depend on our own determination and will.

So perhaps here’s the payoff from our popular expression: dogs do sometimes get along well together, so their cooperation isn’t particularly shocking or frightening in and of itself. However, there isn’t a significant historical record of productive partnerships between cats and rats (although a complete scholarly review of the relevant archives of Tom and Jerry cartoons might provide more insight). So if the alliance standing against you is more than just a marriage of convenience between two “dogs”, but an entirely unnatural agreement between pure enemies, then you really do have cause for fear.

Such fear might not only reduce your confidence (and, consequently, your ability to defend yourself), but the effectiveness of your mazal too. In our case, perhaps it’s not too unreasonable to suggest that Jews’ despair in the face of Midyan’s attack on their Torah loyalty – and their consequent weakened mazal – could have partly been to blame for their failure in submitting to the daughters of Midyan (see Numbers ).

1But is Torah literature any more likely to use “wolf” as a description of God than of Israel? In fact, in Sukkos 56b, God – or at least His altar – is indeed mis-characterized just this way: “The rabbis taught: it once happened with Miriam bas Bilga that she abandoned her religion and went to marry a Greek officer. When the Greeks (subsequently) entered the Temple, she kicked with her sandal against the the altar and said: ‘Lukus, Lukus [Rashi: “wolf, wolf”] for how long will you deplete Jewish money and not stand by them in their poverty?'”

2This idea can perhaps explain the Talmud’s choice of words “…and killed the wolf” – as though they actually succeeded in killing God ח”ו. If they really sought to convince Jews to cool off their love affair with God, they did, through Bilaam’s final advice, have some success (see Rashi to Bamidbar 25:1).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.