2003Moshe is given one last mitzvah before he dies: He is to wage war against
Sometimes Bad is Bad... And Sometimes it's Not So Simple
the Midianites, the people of his father in law.
"And God spoke to Moshe saying: Avenge the Israelite people on the
Midianites; then shall you be gathered to your kin." (Numbers 31:2)
When Moshe calls the people to war he declares this war as "...the
Lord's vengeance." (ibid:3)
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1. Why does Moshe characterize the war differently than does God?
2. Whose war is it anyway?
The medieval commentator Hizkuni comments on this question. He says that
Moshe was reminding God that all the enmity of the Canaanites was God's
doing. The war may have been on Israel's behalf, but it was God's scenario.
Why was Midian the victim of vengeance and not Moav? Wasn't Balak, the
Moabite priest, the one who hired Bilam, the Midianite priest, to curse
Rashi explains that Balak wished to curse Israel only because he was afraid
of Israel's might and reputation, but Midian got involved in a battle that
was not theirs. It was also Midian's defiance at the end of Parshat Balak
that causes Pinchas to act unilaterally. Moav may have been spared because
they were not acting as conquerors, but as those who wish to defend their
land. If, however, you are not buying this distinction, Rashi offers
another possibility: Moav was spared because of two women who will in the
future come to redeem Israel: Ruth the Moabite and Naomi the Ammonite. Ruth
is the maternal ancestor of King David and the messianic line of Israel.
There are many ways for a nation to have redeeming value. One may be by
virtue of its present which can be known, or by the mystery of the future,
of its yet-to-be-realized potential. Even among the bitterest foes, it may
be impossible to discern who is Midian and who is Moav, and which of those
may hold the key to our redemption.
Prepared by Rabbi Avi Weinstein, director, Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Parshat Matot at MyJewishLearning.com.