Thursday, July 8, 2010

Why Was Moshe Commanded to Destroy the Midianite Nation

This week's Parsha, Mattos-(Masei), has a very unique kind of commandment. G-D says to Moshe (Bamidbar 31:2)

ב. נְקֹם נִקְמַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֵת הַמִּדְיָנִים אַחַר תֵּאָסֵף אֶל עַמֶּיךָ:

2. "Take revenge for the children of Israel against the Midianites; afterwards you will be gathered to your people."

There are some very discombobulating ideas being expressed here. First, why does G-D want to take "revenge" against the Midianites? Are the Jewish people at war with them or not? The language of revenge seems strange if we are referring to defending the Jewish people. If G-D was telling us to defend ourselves against the Midianites shouldn't He have said defend? Second, why is it that Moshe is the one that this whole war is contingent upon. Moshe has to fight this war and then he will pass away, but not before?! 

The answer lies within the verses that come later on. First, let us answer why G-D uses the language of revenge. Moshe says, when repeating G-D's command: 

ג. וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל הָעָם לֵאמֹר הֵחָלְצוּ מֵאִתְּכֶם אֲנָשִׁים לַצָּבָא וְיִהְיוּ עַל מִדְיָן לָתֵת נִקְמַת יְ־הֹוָ־ה בְּמִדְיָן:

3. So Moses spoke to the people, saying, "Arm from among you men for the army, that they can be against Midian, and carry out the revenge of the Lord against Midian.

G-D said this was the revenge for the Jewish people, but Moshe says this is the revenge for G-D. What is Moshe telling us that will answer our question of "why does G-D use the language of revenge?" The Midrash Tanchuma tells us (Matos 3) that Moshe told G-D, "If the Jewish people were uncircumcised, idol worshipers, or deniers of the commandments then the Midianites would not hate us (the Jewish people) and they would not run after us. It is specifically because we (the Jewish people) follow your Torah [that they hate us and try to kill us]. Therefore, it is not a "revenge" for us, but for You (G-D)."

The Midrash Tanchuma is telling us a very important point. This dialogue between Moshe and G-D most likely did not happen. However, the idea behind the dialogue is something that Moshe figured out and used to interpreted G-D's words. When G-D told Moshe to take revenge against the Midianites for the sake of the Jewish people, Moshe knew that it was not actually a defense of the physical nation of Jewish people. If G-D truly wanted the Jewish people to attack Midian in order to protect themselves, G-D would have said just that. Through G-D's words Moshe unlocked the true idea hidden behind the word revenge. It was G-D telling Moshe that the Midianites tried to kill the Jewish people, not because they (the Midianites) were afraid of them (the Jews), but because they hated them. Why did the Midianites hate them? Because the Jewish people follow the Torah from G-D. This is why G-D said that the Jewish people NEEDED to take REVENGE on the Midianites, because the language of revenge is a retribution for those who desecrate the divine name. Like it says by what will happen if the Jewish people desecrate G-D's commandments (Vayikra 26:25):

כה  וְהֵבֵאתִי עֲלֵיכֶם חֶרֶב, נֹקֶמֶת נְקַם-בְּרִית, וְנֶאֱסַפְתֶּם, אֶל-עָרֵיכֶם; וְשִׁלַּחְתִּי דֶבֶר בְּתוֹכְכֶם, וְנִתַּתֶּם בְּיַד-אוֹיֵב.

And I will bring a sword upon you, that shall execute the vengeance of the covenant; and ye shall be gathered together within your cities; and I will send the pestilence among you; and ye shall be delivered into the hand of the enemy.

Therefore, what was happening here in our Parsha, is that the Jews were commanded to eradicate the people who tried to erase and desecrate G-D's name. The Midianite's hatred for G-D manifested itself in the form of trying to kill the Jewish people, G-D's people that represent His will. Therefore, the only way to punish this act and make sure an attack like this would never happen again was to destroy the Midianites as a nation so they could never harm G-D's people again. 

This is why when the Jewish people came back from the war Moshe was so angry with them and commanded them to destroy the Midianites as a nation. As the verses say (Ibid 12-17):
ב  וַיָּבִאוּ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל-אֶלְעָזָר הַכֹּהֵן וְאֶל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֶת-הַשְּׁבִי וְאֶת-הַמַּלְקוֹחַ וְאֶת-הַשָּׁלָל--אֶל-הַמַּחֲנֶה:  אֶל-עַרְבֹת מוֹאָב, אֲשֶׁר עַל-יַרְדֵּן יְרֵחוֹ.  {ס} 12 And they brought the captives, and the prey, and the spoil, unto Moses, and unto Eleazar the priest, and unto the congregation of the children of Israel, unto the camp, unto the plains of Moab, which are by the Jordan at Jericho. {S}
יג  וַיֵּצְאוּ מֹשֶׁה וְאֶלְעָזָר הַכֹּהֵן, וְכָל-נְשִׂיאֵי הָעֵדָה--לִקְרָאתָם:  אֶל-מִחוּץ, לַמַּחֲנֶה. 13 And Moses, and Eleazar the priest, and all the princes of the congregation, went forth to meet them without the camp.
יד  וַיִּקְצֹף מֹשֶׁה, עַל פְּקוּדֵי הֶחָיִל, שָׂרֵי הָאֲלָפִים וְשָׂרֵי הַמֵּאוֹת, הַבָּאִים מִצְּבָא הַמִּלְחָמָה. 14 And Moses was wroth with the officers of the host, the captains of thousands and the captains of hundreds, who came from the service of the war.
טו  וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶם, מֹשֶׁה:  הַחִיִּיתֶם, כָּל-נְקֵבָה. 15 And Moses said unto them: 'Have ye saved all the women alive?
טז  הֵן הֵנָּה הָיוּ לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, בִּדְבַר בִּלְעָם, לִמְסָר-מַעַל בַּיהוָה, עַל-דְּבַר-פְּעוֹר; וַתְּהִי הַמַּגֵּפָה, בַּעֲדַת יְהוָה. 16 Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to revolt so as to break faith with the LORD in the matter of Peor, and so the plague was among the congregation of the LORD.
יז  וְעַתָּה, הִרְגוּ כָל-זָכָר בַּטָּף; וְכָל-אִשָּׁה, יֹדַעַת אִישׁ לְמִשְׁכַּב זָכָר--הֲרֹגוּ. 17 Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.
The warriors of Israel did not understand why they were going to war. They thought that they were fighting to protect themselves. The Midianites were an enemy that they needed to protect themselves from, therefore, they destroyed the army of Midian and took the spoils of war. Moshe was angry because they were supposed to fight a battle against those who desecrated G-D's name and not for the nation's protection. True, they would both lead to war with Midian, but the requirement to demolish the Midianites as a nation only existed when fighting against them BECAUSE they were trying to desecrate G-D's name by killing the Jewish people. Therefore, Moshe told them to kill the women (because they caused the death of many Jews) AND male children, because this would wipe the Midianites out from ever becoming a nation again. As the Seforno tells us (31:17):

פסוק יז
הִרְגוּ כָל זָכָר בַּטָּף. אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁאֵין רְאוּיִים לְמִשְׁכָּב, וְזֶה לִנְקָמָה שֶׁלּא יִשָּׁאֵר לְמִדְיָן נִין וָנֶכֶד.

Kill all the male children: Even though they could not have had relations [with anyone from Israel due to their age], still because this is revenge [for G-D, they were told to kill them] in order that there not remain any male children or male grandchildren to the Midianites [which would end their time as a nation]. 
This idea that the Seforno tells us comes from the verse in Yishaya (14:22)

כב  וְקַמְתִּי עֲלֵיהֶם, נְאֻם יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת; וְהִכְרַתִּי לְבָבֶל שֵׁם וּשְׁאָר, וְנִין וָנֶכֶד--נְאֻם-יְהוָה 

And I will rise up against them, saith the LORD of hosts, and cut off from Babylon name and remnant, and offshoot and offspring, saith the LORD.  

The Radak on this pasuk tells us:  
נין-הוא הבן
ונכד -הוא בן הבן  

נין-This refers to the son and ונכד, this refers to the grandson. And this happened to the Babylonians, their nation was completely wiped out.

So we see that the whole idea here is that G-D commanded Moshe to take revenge for His sake and wipe out the Midianite nation. 

However, the reason G-D needed Moshe to fulfill this command was that he was the only one who understood the true interpretation of G-D's words. Had anyone else been charged with this command, they would have misunderstood and they would have treated this battle like a regular war of self-defence. Therefore, Moshe needed to take charge of this battle and only then would the Jewish people enter the land and Moshe would pass away in peace.

The warriors in this story did not realize that they represented G-D's will in this world. They thought the Midianites feared them as a military power and that is why they tried to destroy the nation of Israel. However, G-D told Moshe that this was not the case. Those Midianites hated the Jews because of the Torah and the G-D that the Jews represented. Therefore, the Midianites would never be able to live peacefully with the Jews, because they despised their essence.    

I think we can learn a very valuable lesson from this idea. Every Jew, everywhere, that keeps the Torah and commandments represents G-D's will in this world. When people attack us or show hatred towards us, it is because of what we represent and not the physical danger we pose to them. G-D has endowed us with a great role in this world, to make his name great and represent truth and righteousness. There are people, represented here by the Midianites, that hate and despise these ideals and that is why they hate and despise us as a people.


Neil Harris said...

Yashar Koach. I just came across your blog while searching for an article on techailes.

E-Man said...

Hi Neal, thanks. I actually do have an article written on techailes that you can find on the sidebar. Also, I believe I link to Rav Twerski's article about why one should wear it. Have a good shabbos