Parsha Mattot by David Hartley Mark

Scene: A storage-tent, full of bags of gold and silver, vessels of copper, iron tools and weapons, tin gimcracks, leaden vessels—“any vessel that can withstand fire” (Num. 31:21-23). These items of booty are waiting to be “passed through fire” and thereby ritually purified of their pagan connections, while other items—fine glass, coated pottery, enamelwork—lie, carefully stacked, in an opposite corner, to be “passed through water.” These will, afterwards, be declared hekdesh, “dedicated to God’s holy service in the Mishkan/Sanctuary,” or divided “equally between those who went forth to war, and the rest of the community” (Num. 31:27). Off to one side, sitting cross-legged on a prayer rug, is Pagiel (Pah-GHEE-el) ben Machli ha-Levi, secretary-recorder-accountant to Pinchas ben Eleazar ben Aaron Ha-Kohen, Avenger of God against the sinning Israelites in Baal-Pe’or, Wielder of the Lance Against Zimri and Kozbi, and Official War-Kohen-Priest against the Midianites, who tempted the Israelites to sin there, and who were, therefore, attacked and conquered by the Israelites at God’s Command (Num. 31). It was Pinchas who, we may assume, led the Levites who carried the Holy Ark into battle to boost the morale and give courage to the triumphant Israelites, as they defeated the Midianite troops, whom they afterwards decimated, by God’s command. As the dawn sun lights up the contents of the tent so that it shimmers and shines, Pagiel, who has been napping over his papyrus-sheet, suddenly jerks awake, dropping his stylus.

H’m? I am Poor Brother Pagiel, by your leave! You need not thrust your weapon in my face (waving his hand at the loot, still fuddled at being suddenly awakened by You, Reader, the Intruder)—there’s booty here—I mean, hekdesh, that which is sanctified to the Lord God above, Blessed Be His Name!, and will be apportioned out to Ourselves Below, as well—and counting, reckoning, and recording it’s my job—and all alone, mind you. Not much coin in the Accountant’s Fund, apparently—well—I better move along, and get to it—What? Battle? Where? Oh, the killing-fields: poor Midianites, they never stood a chance (he drops his voice) for when you’ve God Almighty on your side, the Thunderer Who moves both heaven and earth, there’s none can stand before you—Oh, pardon me, Friend—

(He grunts, rises, stretches)

–But I must be about my work. That Pinchas—Kohen Pinchas, All-Holy-Priestly-Prophetic-Pinchas, if you please—he’s not the patientest fellow to work for, I can tell you—but battle? Well, let me tell you—I was there, right in the thick of it, holding on to the Holy Ark, brought it right into the middle of the combat, me holding tight onto the left-hand carrying pole, rearward there, giving morale and buck-up-courage to Our Boys, just hacking, hacking at those Midianites—Ohoo, the blood that was spilt!

We caught them off their guard, there: don’t you see? They thought they’d hidden all their weapons away, but we knew where they were; some Midianite double-agent had told our spy, who told another spy, and Presto! There we were, and there were they; poor devils! Never stood a chance.

Share the land? You know, I’ve never really thought of that, we being all alone in this ungodly Wilderness, and all—nothing but enemies, all around, it seems—and besides, the Lord-God-He-Who-Is has promised it to us, and every inch! (Reaches down to a beautiful golden goblet, embossed with precious stones; holds it up and turns it, glinting in the morning light) As this gold cup I hold doth witness to me—I have set my eyes upon it; yes, I have, and told my Boss—my Pinchas—

“This one’s for me, M’Lord Kohen, what d’ye’say? Hey?”

“Just keep accounts, Pagiel,” so he said, “we’ll settle up when all the fighting’s done.”

“We’re not done fighting?” so I asked him back, and he looked at me, distant, eyes-far-off, as though he were receiving Prophecy—the sort that Moses gets—poor Moses! He’s so old now, losing track, and no control o’er the People….

And Pinchas tells me,

“I know, Pagiel, I will be the next, to lead this People. God has told me so, rewarding me for killing Zimri. God knows, it takes a warrior-priest to keep His flock in line. And once our purpose melds together with God’s—why, there’s no end to all the Good we can do!”

I moved away: there’s something strange to me—though I’m religious, make no doubt of that—when a man—be he priest, or something even more—tells me that God speaks clear only to him. I went, and sat, and ticked away accounts, ignoring him, his eyes closed, praying there, off to the East, to his own God, alone.

God knows that I’m no scholar, but I recall when Our Boys were rounding up the girls and little kids left over from the fight (Num. 31:17-18), all of them crying, in a panic over their loss—I couldn’t help but feel so sorry for them. Was it their fault, for listening to wicked leaders? Or were their leaders all that wicked, then? When all the tragic, bloody business is done, all I want’s a plot of land, a place to farm—perhaps a little house, a fence to lean upon—and a neighbor close enough to talk to, laugh with, no more foe—and why can’t he be Midianite? That’s all I’d like to know.

David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance

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