A thought on Parshat Chayei Sarah:
The villains of Bereishit are rarely “Monsters of the Week”, appearing for a single episode, threatening the Jewish protagonist and being vanquished by G-d and our intrepid heroes. Many of the foes introduced in the Torah’s early chapters – Aram, Canaan, Amalek, Edom and Moav, for example – participate in centuries-long biblical arcs of antagonism, and along the way they teach us lessons about our identity and mission. One such foe is the nation of Midian.
A History of Midian
At first, Midian seems like a footnote in our genealogy. After Yitzchak marries Rivkah, Avraham weds Keturah, and she births six sons. Midian, the fourth of these sons, does not stay in Canaan long; he is exiled to the east, along with his brothers and the anonymous children of unnamed concubines. As Bereishit 25:6 states, Avraham “gave them gifts, and he sent them away from his son, Yitzchak,” lest there be any confusion about who would be included in the Jewish national line.
Midian is far from done, though. They re-surface to play a role in drawing Yosef from the pit, and sending him down to Egypt. (Bereishit 37:28) Later, Moshe becomes a fugitive from Egyptian justice and flees to Midian. (Shemot 2:15) Further along, the Moabites recruit Midian for support in hiring Bilam to curse the Jews. (Bamidbar 22:4) Then, when Bilam fails to harm the Jews, Midianite women join with Moabite women to seduce the Jews and draw them into idolatry. A Midianite princess, Kozbi, publicly embraces Zimri, the prince of the tribe of Shimon. (Bamidbar 25)
The Midian Motif
When we examine these stories of Midian carefully, we recognize two consistent Midianite markers.
First, the Midianite national subconscious remembers being excised from the line of Avraham, and intentionally or unintentionally, they pay back their ancestor by separating his other descendants from the family:
Yosef is separated from his family via the agency of Midianites;
Yitro, a Midianite, welcomes Moshe to spend decades apart from the Jews enslaved in Egypt.
Kozbi separates Zimri from the Jewish people, drawing him to her before the entire nation.
Second, Midian tempts the isolated Jew sexually and religiously, attempting to strip our ethnic and religious identities:
When Yosef descends to Egypt via Midianite agency, the wife of Potifar attempts to lure him into a liaison – an act which Yosef labels “a sin against G-d.” (Bereishit 39:9) Neither immorality nor idolatry actually takes place, and that is a credit to Yosef’s righteousness.
When Moshe goes to Midian, he marries Tzipporah, the daughter of Yitro, “the priest of Midian”. The act has the appearance of impropriety; indeed, Zimri justifies his deed with Kozbi by asking Moshe, “Son of Amram! Is she prohibited or permitted? And if you will say she is prohibited, then who permitted the daughter of Yitro for you?” (Sanhedrin 82a; and see Sotah 43a) Certainly, Moshe’s marriage to Tzipporah and relationship was ultimately neither immoral nor idolatrous, but like Yosef’s refusal of Potifar’s wife, that is a credit to the righteousness of the participants. [It is also worth noting that Midrash Aggadah to Shemot 18:3 ascribes to Yitro a quasi-successful attempt to educate Moshe and his children in idolatry.]
Finally, in luring Zimri and other Jews, Midian succeeds in separating Jews from their family, leading them first into immorality, and then into the idolatry of Baal Peor. Midian has achieved her revenge.
The Moral of Midian
Perhaps Midian’s cross-generational retribution carries a message for the descendants of Avraham. I have not seen any traditional commentator criticize Avraham’s treatment of Keturah’s children, and I would never suggest otherwise. The apparent motivation of averting challenges to Yitzchak’s inheritance is sensible. Nonetheless, the most benign separatism remains exclusive, and our human social drive naturally resents exclusion.
For all of its emphasis upon darchei noam [paths of pleasantness] and community, Torah is exclusive, even within our family. Certain rituals are limited to particular groups, and laws like kashrut and tumah compel the observant to keep a measured distance from the non-observant. May we learn from the saga of Midian, and recognize the pain this inflicts. Even when such pain is necessary, we would do well to find methods of mitigation beyond “Avraham gave them gifts.”