In Parshas Matot-Massei, one of the many events we read about is the war with Midian. This war follows the events in Parshas Balak and Parshas Pinchas, in which the prophet Balaam instructs King Balak to lead the Israelites astray using the Midianite women, after which the zealot Pinchas kills a Israelite official and his Midianite companion and is awarded the priesthood for his actions. We learn through these incidents, and through the wisdom of various commentaries, about the evil nature of the Midianites.
The Hebrew word “Midian” means “strife”. As the name suggests, the Midianites were the cause of much strife. They caused this through spreading divisiveness. Division among a people is the cause of terrible infighting and bloodshed. As Baalam knew, the best way to attack the Israelites was not through the outside, as G-d would protect them, but rather from the inside. The Israelites’ own evil inclination would be their downfall, for if they went astray with the Midianite women, their children would not be Jewish. Intermarriage and interrelations are as deadly for the Jewish race as genocide; despite the fact that it is completely willing. By causing strife, the Midianites managed to divide the nation and remove their greatest source of strength (after G-d’s protection)- unity.
Haman, the antagonist of the Purim story, used the argument of divisiveness in an attempt to get the king to agree to his extermination of the Jews. He argued that their customs were unlike those of the Shushanites, and that they undermined the unity of the nation. This kind of division, emphasised and played upon by anti-Semites through the ages, is of a very different type. It’s what keeps the Jews alive, through plagues, purges and the Holocaust.
One might ask; how is Jewish refusal to assimilate any different from the Midianite’s attempts to cause strife? Surely, divisiveness is the same, no matter who causes it? The key difference lies in the motives. When Jews retain their culture, through the observance of various minhagim and halachos, and, indeed, their refusal to intermarry, their motives are to keep the Jewish race alive without actually harming or disrupting the lifestyles of the gentiles. By choosing Hebrew names, keeping Kosher and having Jewish children, observant Jews are not attacking or harming anyone else. They are not spilling blood, and nor are they attempting to bring others to live this way; Judaism is not a missionary religion. By not assimilating, Jews are following G-d’s law, without negatively impacting others.
The Midianites, meanwhile, were not preserving a Holy way of life, but rather, they were violently attacking the Israelites. As Moshe Rabbenu states, “They persecute us only on account of the Torah and the precepts which You have given us!”. Had the Israelites been one of the many idol-worshipping nations, they would’ve been spared the Midianite’s violence. However, the people of Midian hated Israel and wanted to dishonour G-d. As such, Moshe Rabbenu declared the war against Midian to be a war of vengeance for G-d. The Midianites’ hatred was, like that of other anti-Semites, groundless, yet, like other hatred, it was disguised as hate “for a reason”. In truth, all strife is caused by groundless hatred, and, as the name Midian implies, this was the case with the Midianites.
In Mitzrayim, the Israelites almost reached such a low spiritual depth that they would be unsalvageable. After the miraculous Exodus and the gift of the Mitzvot granted to them by G-d, the Israelites became spiritually lofty once more. However, had they all assimilated in Egypt, this would never have happened. It was through their determination to keep hold of some parts of their Jewish identity that they were saved, and this lesson about the importance of Jewish culture and unity is repeated in the story of the Midianites. It is through pride in our heritage and the observance of mitzvot that the Jewish people have survived through the ages, and will continue to survive.