The first of this week’s two parshiot, Matot, tells the story of Moshe’s final duty, avenging Balaam’s wicked plot to entice the Jews into licentiousness. The story takes some unusual twists, particularly in verses 2 and 5 of chapter 31. Verse 2 says that G-d told Moshe, “Avenge [the treachery to] the Children of Israel [which] the Midianites [perpetrated], and then you shall [pass away].” Moshe duly repeated the command and ordered the Jews to take “G-d’s vengeance” against Midian. Verse 5 records, “From the multitude of Israel were delivered 1,000 for each tribe [12,000 in all to go to war].” The Jews killed Balaam in the process of defeating Midian.
Two aspects of the narrative give us pause. First, the text states explicitly that Moshe had to avenge Midian’s crime before he died. The job could not wait until Joshua succeeded Moshe as leader. Second, and more puzzling, Verse 5 reads in the passive voice. The troops from the 12 tribes “were delivered.” The text should have stated — in the active voice — that the leaders of Israel delivered 1,000 soldiers from each tribe, 12,000 in all.
Ezor Eliyahu (Lemberg 1889) quotes a Midrash and clarifies why Moshe, but not Joshua, had to retaliate against Midian. The Midrash Yalkut Reuveni writes that when G-d sought to punish the Midianites for incitement, but not the Children of Israel for going along, Satan countered: the Jews bore the blame.
To understand why, Satan referred to principle of Jewish law. “[As between] the commands of the teacher and the commands of the student, whose commands do we listen to?” The Children of Israel must put G-d’s command first and ignore the importuning of anyone seeking to convince him to violate a religious obligation. Indeed, Rashi in Leviticus (19:3) states, though the fifth commandment requires that we obey our parents, if they order us to violate one of G-d’s mitzvot, we must ignore their wishes. (Parenthetically, the Talmud in Kiddushin teaches similarly that the agent who sins, not the principal who sends him on the mission, bears liability.)
Therefore, Satan argued, when Balaam entrapped the Jews in his criminal plot, any blame for the sin lay with the Jews. They should have ignored the Midianites’ entreaties. Satan maintained that the Midianites should go free.
Ezor Eliyahu points out that the snake made the same argument after Eve and Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge. The snake lost because, according to the halacha (Jewish law), the Heavenly Court punishes the instigator as well. G-d punished the snake along with Adam and Eve.
Here, however, G-d sought to punish the Midianites only. During the Exodus, G-d had decided to drown the Egyptians but save the Jews. Satan said that because both the Jews and Egyptians worshipped idols, G-d could not punish one and spare the other. G-d denied any equivalence; He said that in a few weeks’ time, the Jews, once out of slavery, will accept the Torah’s monotheism. The Egyptians, a free people, never did. The Jews acted under duress, the Egyptians with deliberation.
That argument did not work in this instance. Ezor Eliyahu points out that Pinchas held back, but had not been able to completely assuage, G-d’s anger toward the Jews. A residue of sin remained. Therefore, Satan had a point. However, G-d wanted to punish only the Midianites. Moshe held the key.
Rashi states (Genesis 3:4) that Methuselah died one week before the great flood so that he could not forestall the destruction G-d was about to unleash. Here, too, as long as Moshe lived and remained their leader, the Jewish people basked in his righteousness. Even as sinners, the Children of Israel stood on a much higher moral plane than the Midianites. Though righteous himself, Joshua did not match Moshe’s stature. Our sages teach that Moshe’s piety shone on its own, Joshua’s as a reflection of Moshe’s glory.
With that, we can understand verse 5. Rashi states that the Torah deliberately used the passive “were delivered.” The Jews did not answer Moshe’s call to arms. They knew that Moshe would die after the war ended. The Children of Israel didn't want Moshe to die. Therefore, they refused to go to war. Moshe had to force them. In effect, the Jews showed their love of Moshe, despite their disputatious relationship with him in the wilderness.
Alternatively, we can read the story of Moshe and Midian through a contemporary lens. Moshe had to avenge the Midianites because their crime occurred during his time in office. Before he could turn over his leadership, Moshe had to resolve all outstanding problems. Leaders today must clear the decks for their successors.
The Jews’ refusal to go to war guides us to this day as well. In reality, the Children of Israel could not keep Moshe alive for long. G-d had sworn in the aftermath of the incident at Merivah (Numbers 20:13) that he would die in the wilderness. Moshe’s time had come. Therefore, had the Jews succeeded in their plan, they would have lost the protection of Moshe’s righteousness.
G-d could have punished the Children of Israel for listening to the Midianites. Or, Satan would have prevailed, leaving an avowed enemy of the Jews, free for future aggression. The Children of Israel would have suffered.
On the other hand, G-d decreed how and when to punish the Midianites. He would have implemented His decision without the participation of the Jews. The Jews’ refusal to go to war would have amounted to an empty gesture.
No matter the result, the Children of Israel acted correctly. All too often, good people succumb to pressure from a superior and cross a line. They convince themselves that refusing would hurt their careers or that that if they don’t go along, someone else will. The Torah praises the Jews here for rejecting both excuses categorically.
By Joshua Z. Rokach
Joshua Zev Rokach is gabbai of the Nusach Sefard minyan at Young Israel Shomrai Emunah (YISE) in Kemp Mill, Maryland, and former gabbai of the main minyan at YISE and at Kesher Israel in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. He has taught a weekly Talmud class at both synagogues, and has served as an officer and a member of the Board of Directors of both synagogues as well. A retired attorney, Joshua has lived in the Greater Washington area since 1976 and in Kemp Mill since 1986.