God commanded Moses to attack Midian after their devastating scheme against the Israelites. The Midianites had used their daughters to lure the Israelite men into worshipping the licentious idolatry of Peor, resulting in Divine anger and a terrible plague.
The war against Midian was a remarkable success: not a single soldier fell. After the battle, the generals and captains approached Moses:
“We wish to bring an offering to God. Every man who found a gold article — an anklet, bracelet, ring, earring, body ornament — to atone for our souls before God.” (Num. 31:50)
The officers had followed God’s command, waging war against Midian. Why did they feel a need for atonement?
The Sages explained that the soldiers committed no actual sins; but they were not free of improper thoughts. Rabbi Ishmael expressed this idea with a curious phrase, saying that “their eyes feasted on the immodest sights” (Shabbat 64a-b).
When the soul’s innate sense of purity is strong and healthy, it will not absorb degrading, inappropriate sights. Such visual stimuli are inconsistent with the soul’s overall makeup and will be promptly rejected.
If, on the other hand, the soul has failed to retain its pristine purity, it will lack an orderly defense against defiling images. Improper sights will have a negative impact on a person’s emotional and imaginative faculties. They generate confusion and turmoil within the soul.
Rabbi Ishmael described this phenomenon as a ‘feast’ of the eyes. When we feast and derive benefit from something, that points to a natural connection between us and that object. The soldiers were not immune to the sights of Midian. The images of the Midianite women and their ostentatious ornaments found a place in their souls, and “their eyes feasted on the immodest sights.”
True, the soldiers did not act upon these stimuli. But the very fact that they found them alluring was a sign that the soldiers needed atonement and spiritual cleansing. As the officers announced, they wished to “atone for our souls before God.”
The gold ornaments were an apt metaphor for the corrupting deception that confronted the soldiers in Midian. The Sages wrote that the ornaments were fashioned into lewd shapes. The golden pieces of jewelry lured the eye with their dazzling exterior of glittering beauty. Their influence was a function of the magnetism of their superficial attraction. On the inside, however, their true essence was, as before, crude and repulsive.
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. IV, pp. 114-116)