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  • Writer's pictureLeann Shamash

When It Is Five Minutes to Midnight

Parshat Matot/Masei is the conclusion of the Book of Numbers. In this double Parsha we learn about vows, about tribes that wish to stay on the other side of the Jordan and Moses hears about the lay of the land on the other side of the river as the Israelites were about to cross.

There was one thing in Parshat Matot that as I struggled with as a learner, which was God's final command to Moshe , which was to wage a war to avenge the Midianites to every last person. The story continues as Moses follows this command and the army slaughters the men but spares the women. Because they did not follow the orders of Moses, they must return and slaughter the women as well; at least the women who had known men. From this there is a discussion of how to purify oneself following combat and the laws governing distribution of booty.

The Midianites were the tribe of Moses' wife and beloved father-in-law, Jethro. It must have been a difficult command to execute. This poem is more of an exploration of the mindset of Moses as he knows he is reaching the end of his life and the role he had played as a faithful servant and a leader of the people for his lifetime.

When It Is Five Minutes Until Midnight

When it is five minutes until midnight,

and the light is so dim,

there is silence in the darkness;

silence that brings both solace and demons.

You sit alone

allowing yourself for this one moment

to think of your family,

a luxury you haven't allowed yourself for years.

You picture them

and in your mind they appear

and you recall simpler times.

Were there ever simpler times?

You sit alone and your mind wanders

From the beginning your life has been on the fast lane;

no room to get off,

always the drama building around you,

and, well, also from Above you.

You always knew that the days would be long

the complaints endless

the thanks few,

but you never were a person looking for accolades.

You knew the job would be hard

you didn’t know it would break you.

The highs were so high

and the lows couldn't be lower.

With bent shoulders you sit

You have carried their burdens for so long

that you no longer can measure the space

between you and your people,

your flock.

Your life's work,

a squabbling group, always erring,

but good in their hearts.

They need you so much,

And you need them.

How will you say goodbye?

What will their fates be without you?

And in the quiet of the night.

In the space of a moment,

the One Above,

the One who has chosen you,

You, to lead the people,

the God of War,

contacts you.

You hear The Whispers

electric currents ripple through your body

as you feel the words burn you.

It is a demand,

a final command for you.

As much as you do not want to hear,

as tired as you are,

you cannot escape a command,

even this one.

You never have.

And the order is so vengeful,

so impossible to comprehend,

so violent to carry out,

that for a moment,

you wish to run

to retrace your steps,

to go back to the life that was never destined as yours to have;

to ignore the fate that was decided for you at the moment of creation.

To forget the commands.

At five minutes to midnight

with the stars as your witnesses

with nothing but quiet surrounding you,

you already know what your answer will be.

You already know that you will not flee.

And despite your heart aching,

despite your confusion

your many questions,

your hesitations that shake you to your core.

You will not refuse.

You will relent.

You will, with trembling hands

and words that surprise you as they leave your mouth,

You will carry out this request,

Your final impossible challenge.

Knowing that the end is near,

there is no turning back now.

There is no room for no,

no matter the demand,

for at five minutes to midnight

you are still the chosen one,

you are a leader,

but you are nothing more than a servant

whose heart is breaking,

but whose words command armies.

Your spirit sags

Your mouth is like sandpaper

Your hands hang like iron anchors

but you still obey,

you are forever

the faithful servant

in the dark of the night

when it is dark

and five minutes until midnight.


YHWH 'spoke to Moses, saying,

“Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin.”

Moses spoke to the militia, saying, “Let troops be picked out from among you for a campaign, and let them fall upon Midian to wreak יהוה’s vengeance on Midian.

Numbers 31:1-3

from Sefaria


Commentary by the Chizkkuni

“wreak vengeance!” the plain text appears to charge Moses personally with having to wreak this vengeance. However, seeing that he had been raised in Midian and had been saved from Pharaoh’s vengeance during all his years there, it would not have been moral for him to do this himself, just as he did not strike the river Nile during the plagues, as that river, i.e. its banks, had helped to save his life when he was an infant. He sent delegates as we read in verse 6, where the Torah quotes Moses as dispatching the 12000 soldiers to conduct the punitive campaign. [all righteous men who had not been involved in the shameful episode at Shittim, Ed.]

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