In light of Midian’s centrality in the Ba’al Peor story and its aftermath in this week’s parsha, it pays to remember the unusual place this nation has in the formative experiences of the Jewish people. The odyssey begins a generation earlier with Moshe’s sojourn in Midian, when he is taken in by Yitro and offered the latter’s daughter in marriage. Marriage to a foreign noblewoman in a foreign land is not unique to Moshe; it parallels Yosef’s experience in Egypt. But neither is it common. In fact, given that the idea of keeping marriage “within the family” is stressed by both Avraham and Yitzchak, marriage with a foreigner is usually far from the ideal.
It is important to stress that Moshe’s marriage was not a generic one. The choice of a specifically Midianite bride should draw our attention even more once we see that God singles out this nation for Israelite enmity (Bemidbar 25:16–18). If Moshe marries into such a nation, it can hardly be accidental.
In trying to better understand Moshe’s connection with Midian, we will need to draw a wider circle and examine Midian’s alliance with the equally reprehensible Moav. It is really much more than an alliance that Midian and Moav share: just as a Midianite woman was the source of both blessing (Tzipporah) and curse (Cozbi) for the Jewish people, the story of Ruth would show the same to be true of Moav (whose women brought on the debacle with Ba’al Peor) as well. Such a link to the Jews is uncommon among most nations. Accordingly, the fact that it was specifically Midianite and Moabite women who were involved with Jewish men shows that an existential bond existed between these nations and Israel. There was an attraction which likely went beyond the physical. The Jews sensed the potential for greatness that both Midianite and Moabite women carried. And that potential was actualized in Tzipporah and Ruth.
We have discussed the positive side of Midian and Moav. But what about the bitter enmity they show the children of Israel? Understanding the former might actually give us insight into the latter. For one, the relationship of the Jewish nation to Midian and Moav shows that these two nations are capable of more greatness than other nations. Yitro and Tzipporah are not just gentiles, they are Midianite gentiles, and Ruth is specifically a Moabitess. The awareness of such potential could frighten and ultimately threaten these two nations. That Ruth can come from Moav, for example, means that – at least theoretically – others like her could come out of that nation as well. Once that is possible, then to fall short is a failure which Moav would prefer not to confront.
Instead of dealing with the potential, these nations may well have preferred to make it irrelevant. Given that the source of the discomfort is ultimately the Jews and what they represent, one way to eliminate that discomfort is to eliminate the Jews. Such has been echoed only too often by those who fault the Jewish nation for holding up mankind to an “unreasonable” standard.
Lest we think this is only a Midianite or a Moabite issue, we need to realize that we all feel threatened by our potential. It is daunting to know how much better we really can be. And who has more potential than the descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov? Hence we must sure to accept our potential even if we are not always prepared to meet it. At the very least, let it serve us a positive reminder of who we actually are. For our potential is our self.