the beginning of this week’s parsha, or rather the first of the two parshiot we read this Shabbat, Moshe is told to prepare for a war against the Midyanim.
“Avenge the Israelite people on the Midyanites, then you shall be gathered to your kin (pass away). Moshe spoke to the people saying ‘Let men be picked out from among you for a campaign, and let them fall upon Midyan to wreak Hashem’s vengeance on Midyan’ ” (Bamidbar 31:2-3).
On reading these pesukim, certain points stand out. First of all, it would appear from the words of God that this mission, of fighting the Midyanites, was something which was crucial for Moshe to complete prior to his death. Moreover, it seems that once this war was over, Moshe would immediately die. What is the significance of the connection between these two events?
Secondly, we notice that although Hashem instructs Moshe to avenge “nikmat Bnei Yisrael”, Moshe, in presenting the issue to the people, refers to “nikmat Hashem”. On behalf of whom are the Israelites going to war; to avenge themselves or to avenge Hashem?
Bamidbar Rabbah (22:2) relates to the second issue and offers a surprising explanation of the change in language:
“The Almighty said ‘nikmat Bnei Yisrael’ and Moshe said ‘nikmat Hashem beMidyan’. The Almighty said to them: This is your fight against them, they caused Me to hurt you. Moshe responded: O’ Master of the Universe, if we were uncircumcised or idolaters or apostates like them, they would not hate us. They only chase us because of Torah and mitzvoth that You gave us. Therefore, the vengeance is Your’s ‘latet nikmat Hashem beMidyan’.”
What lies behind this conversation reported in the Midrash? It would appear that beyond the exegetical need to account for the change in wording, Chazal are conveying a message about our relationship with Hashem. We are Am Yisrael because of the Torah and mitzvoth that we observe. Our adherence to the tradition is what defines us as the Jewish nation. On the other hand, we are God’s people and as such, all that befalls us must be attributed to Him. Yes, everything that happens in the world is ultimately due to God, but with respect to Am Yisrael the Divine hand is that much more clear and apparent.
To paraphrase the Midrash, Hashem states that whatever befalls us is due to our actions; Hashem will not punish us by sending hostile nations against us for no reason. It is due to our sinful behavior that these troubles befall us and therefore it is we who should be concerned about taking vengeance against our oppressors. On the other hand, looking at it from a different perspective, it is because Hashem chose us that we find ourselves in these situations. If not for Hashem and the mission with which He has charged us, none of these nations would have attacked us. The corollary of this is that the vengeance is that of God Himself.
Another way to view this Midrash is as follows: Hashem, in His desire to protect Am Yisrael even after they have sinned, orders the war against Midyan. He does so because He feels offended on behalf of Am Yisrael; His nation has been humiliated and therefore He seeks vengeance on their behalf. From the perspective of Am Yisrael however, any affront on the nation is an attack on God. If the Jewish people have been attacked, this is seen as an insult to God. Feeling a need to recapture the respect Hashem deserves, Am Yisrael see the commandment to fight as stemming from their concern about God and therefore Moshe refers to “nikmat Hashem”. This last point is mentioned several times by my Rabbi and mentor, Rav Yehudah Amital, in his book Hama’alot Mimama’akim. Rav Amital claims that any war against Israel, whether physical or spiritual, is actually a war against “Elokei Yisrael”, an attack on Hashem. Thus we are to view any war fought by Am Yisrael not merely as a means of defending ourselves and avoiding destruction, but also as an opportunity to create Kiddush Hashem.
Rashi (Bamidbar 31:3) encapsulates the above ideas with one short comment based on a Midrasha Tanchuma: “One who stands against Israel is as if he stands against God”.
The two parts of the nekama are interrelated. Nikmat Hashem and Nikmat Bnei Yisrael are in fact one and the same thing.
Let us return to our first question; what is the connection between this war and the impending death of Moshe? We suggest that the answer could be connected to the Midrash quoted above.
It is somewhat presumptuous to attempt to summarize Moshe’s role as leader of Am Yisrael in a couple of sentences. However, we note that one aspect of his leadership centers around his concern for Am Yisrael. We recall that Moshe was reluctant to undertake the mission set out for him by God back at the burning bush. In contrast to this attitude, following his first audience with Paro after which the workload of the slaves is doubled, Moshe returns to Hashem with the following complaint:
“… O Lord, why did You bring harm upon this people, why did You send me. Ever since I came to Paro, to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people, and still You have not delivered Your people.” (Shemot 5:22-23)
This is not the hesitant Moshe we encountered at the burning bush. This is a Moshe who is ready to stand up for Am Yisrael. This is a leader who protects and believes in his people. From this point on, Moshe is the greatest advocate of Am Yisrael. After the heart wrenching stories of both Chet Ha’Egel and Chet Ha’Meraglim, as Hashem proposes to destroy Am Yisrael, Moshe comes to their defence. Time and again we see that Moshe argues their innocence even at the risk of his own demise. This is a crucial part of Moshe’s character; he believes in Am Yisrael and will put his life on the line for them.
The Midrash discussed above portrays Moshe once again in contention with God. As previously, in similar encounters between God and Moshe, the nature of his argument hinges around the innocence of Am Yisrael. The people, claims Moshe, cannot be blamed for what the Midyanites did. No, says Moshe. Everything that befalls the Jewish people stems from their role in fulfilling the word of Hashem. Therefore, says Moshe to God, the vengeance is on Your behalf , “nikmat Hashem”, because Am Yisrael’s destiny is intrinsically connected to God Himself.
This, then, is a fitting conclusion to Moshe’s role as leader. He prepares the nation for a battle in which they fight for God and God fights for them. This message encapsulates Moshe’s belief and the legacy that he created as the first leader of Am Yisrael.
We suggest one further reason as to why this mission had to be completed prior to Moshe’s death. As a result of Am Yisrael’s sin with the daughters of Moav and Midyan, twenty four thousand people lost their lives. This was a tragedy of enormous proportions. It was of particular concern to Moshe as he had guided Am Yisrael through the wilderness with the knowledge that once the old generation had passed on, the new generation would gain entry into Eretz Yisrael. This generation had just been dealt a harsh blow which probably affected the national morale. Are they really going to enter Eretz Yisrael or is this the beginning of a slew of mistakes at the end of which God will decree a further delay? The war against Midyan is not only a chance to fight back; it is part of the teshuva process for Am Yisrael. It begins in last week’s parsha and continues through the battles and subsequent division of the spoils of war in this week’s parsha. It is possible that so much attention is paid to the details of this war because this is all part of the rehabilitation process of Am Yisrael. We are wiping out Midyan; they have been reduced to lists and numbers. The only real thing that emerges from this battle is Am Yisrael’s resolve to enter Eretz Yisrael. If we look at the remaining chapters of Sefer Bamidbar, we find that they all deal with aspects connected to conquering and dividing the land of Israel.
In order for Moshe to consider his mission complete, so that he knows that Am Yisrael are indeed ready to enter Eretz Yisrael, Moshe oversees this final battle, paving the way for the successful march into the Promised Land.