The Combatant's Tax
After the war against Midian, the Israelite soldiers were left with a large bounty. It should be noted that in the ancient world, soldiers were not paid for their efforts. Therefore, they were allowed to keep the booty that they captured from the battle. In this instance, the Israelite soldiers were forced to share the booty with the rest of the people: "You shall divide the plunder equally between the warriors who went out to battle and the entire congregation" (Bemidbar 31:27). This was because it was considered that the fighters were representing all Israel, in avenging the apostasy at Baal Peor, and so all the people merited a share of the spoils Nevertheless, the combatants received a much larger share,.
However, the fighters volunteered an extra tax since not one of them fell in battle: "We therefore wish to bring an offering for the Lord. Any man who found a gold article, be it an anklet, a bracelet, a ring, an earring, or a body ornament, to atone for our souls before the Lord" (ibid 50). The purpose of this tax is "to cover (or repent) for their souls".
What was the meaning of this tax?
The Sephorno explains that by paying this tax, the soldiers were finally exorcising the apostasy of Baal Peor from the people. If that is the case however, then why didn't the tax come from the spoils of the nation? Why was it only the soldiers who were forced to pay this tax?
Moreover, the Ramban explains that the reason why only 12,000 soldiers (1,000 from each tribe) were selected to fight Midian, a great and mighty people, was because there were too many sinners amongst the people for them to send the whole army. Therefore, only people who did not sin at Baal Peor were selected to fight. Therefore, again, why were these soldiers were forced to pay the tax?
We saw in Parshat Ki Tissa, that when the people were about to be counted, i.e. an army was being gathered for war, each person counted, was forced to pay a half shekel, as tax "to cover (or repent) for their souls" – again.
We have also seen from other examples that the term "לכפר על נפש" – "to cover (or repent) for souls" has been used in lieu of "blood money", i.e. payment used to compensate for the taking of another life.
The Torah forbids the taking of blood money save two situations:
1) When someone's ox has killed another. The owner of the ox must pay compensation, i.e. blood money, to the family of the victim (Shemot 21:30).
2) Soldiers who killed in war (ibid 30:12). (See http://parshablog.blogspot.com/2006_03_01_archive.html for a further discussion on the subject.)
Soldiers must kill as part of their duty. This is not considered to be murder.
Nevertheless, the act of killing must be recognized as a necessary evil, never should it become a natural instinct of the soldier. The soldier must recognize the gravity of his actions and pay blood money, "to repent for his soul".
By volunteering to pay this tax, the Israelite soldiers accepted that they had much to be grateful for in that no one died, but that they also had to atone for their souls, for the blood they spilt.
Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Mattot-Massei, entitled: "Moshe and the Transjordan" appears at http://parshablog.blogspot.com/2007_07_01_archive.html.
Another Sedra Short on Parshat Mattot-Massei, entitled: "Tribe and Tribalism" appears at http://parshablog.blogspot.com/2006_07_01_archive.html.