Our parsha records how Moshe received his last mission on earth:
“Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: Take vengeance for the Children of Israel against the Midianites; afterward you will be gathered unto your people.”
Several questions arise from these two verses:
1. What did the Midianites do that nikamah (vengeance) against them is so essential?
2. Why is Moshe commanded about nikamah? After all, the Torah forbids nikamah and netirah (bearing a grudge)?
In the nextverse, Moshe communicates the commandment to the nation but changes the definition of the nikamah:
“Moshe spoke to the people, saying: Arm men from among yourselves for the legion that they may be against Midian to inflict Hashem’s vengeance against Midian.”
This verse leads to a third question:
3. Whose nikamah is it: Bnei Yisrael’s or Hashem’s?
The Torah itself answers the first question:
“Harass the Midianites and smite them; for they harassed you through their conspiracy that they conspired against you in the matter of Peor.” (Bamidbar 25)
The Midianites’ conspiracy to get Bnei Yisrael to worship Baal Peor is described at the end of Parshat Balak. They sent their most beautiful daughters to Machaneh Yisrael and organized a public pagan carnival. Many of Bnei Yisrael were drawn to this activity, and, as a punishment, Hashem wiped out 24,000 people in a plague.
However, even after this explanation, the question remains. The Midianites did not bomb or commit terror attacks against Bnei Yisrael. In fact, no male Midianites came at all. Instead, they sent their finest and loveliest daughters, who arranged the wildest party ever, there in the forsaken desert. What was so terrible about that? Why did the Midianites deserve such severe nikamah? Moreover, if they did deserve nikamah, it should be Hashem’s nikamah. After all, Hashem was angry that the participants fromBnei Yisrael joined in willingly and even enjoyed themselves.
Chazal’s responses to the second and third questions elucidate the first question, as well.
The Midrash places the second question in Bnei Yisrael’s mouth:
“Yisrael said before Hashem: Master of the Universe! You wrote in the Torah: ‘Do not take revenge and do not bear a grudge.’ (Vayikra 19:18)
And you ‘are vengeful Hashem and a Master of anger, Hashem is vengeful to His adversaries and bears a grudge for His enemies.” (Nachum 1:2)
The Holy One Blessed Be He said to them: I wrote ‘Do not take revenge and do not bear a grudge’ in the Torah – for Israel, but with respect to the nations – ‘Take vengeance for the Children of Israel.’ (Bamidbar 31:2)” (Breishit Rabbah 55)
The prohibition against nikamah and netirah is only internal to the nation. With respect to the goyim, there is no prohibition, and, at times, there is even a mitzvah of nikamah. Later on, we will briefly explain the reason for this distinction.
The Midrash provides an interesting answer to the third question:
“The Holy One Blessed Be He says ‘the vengeance of the Children of Israel’, while Moshe says ‘the vengeance of Hashem against Midian’?
The Holy One Blessed Be He said to them: Only your diko [see note] caused Me to hurt you.
Moshe said: Master of the Universe, if we were uncircumcised or idol worshippers or kofrei mitzvot, they would not hate us. And they only pursue us because of the Torah and the mitzvot that You gave us. For this is Your vengeance – ‘to inflict Hashem’s vengeance against Midian.’”[Note: “Diko” – I am uncertain about the meaning of this word, which is not Hebrew. Perhaps it is derived from the Latin “duco”, which means “misleading”.]
Hashem commands Moshe to inflict nikamah against Midian, and this nikamah is defined as Bnei Yisrael’s vengeance. Moshe is saying that, by definition, Bnei Yisrael are ovdei Hashem. If they were like the other nations, they would not suffer from anti-Semitism. The fact that they keep the Torah and the mitzvot and represent Hashem in the world is the reason why everyone fights against them specifically.
Usually, natural, social ethics are based on reciprocation. “What is hateful for you, do not do to your friend.” This principle explains why it is worthwhile for everyone to build a society where each person restrains himself, in order to avoid harming others. However, there is an opposing natural principle, namely Darwinism, or survival of the fittest. In the natural world, including the world of humans who are enslaved to nature, there are some situations where the strong are led to believe that it pays to harm others and that there will be no price to pay. History is replete with examples where natural ethics were ruthlessly tossed aside by tyrants and oppressors. These evil ones were convinced that they had the power to violate the equation of reciprocation in their own favor, by brutalizing others.
The Torah’s uniqueness is that ethical obligations are not based on a social contract. Rather, man is obligated to behave ethically, because of his obligation to Hashem, Who created man.
In this light, we can understand the prohibition against nikamah and netirah. Each individual from Bnei Yisrael represents a unique portion of avodat Hashem and carries a divine message to the world. If someone fails and harms his friend, he not only hurts that individual but deflects from avodat Hashem. The Torah expanded Am Yisrael’s system of social relationships from the principles of natural ethics to the principle of religious obedience. I am not forbidden from harming a friend because it does not pay. Rather, I am forbidden because Hashem forbade me. In other words, Hashem decreed that it is evil, and that is why it is forbidden.
Now, we can also comprehend the severity of the Midianites’ actions. In accordance with Bilaam’s advice, the Midianites gathered that some things are more harmful to Bnei Yisrael than weapons. First, they attempted to spiritually and verbally harm them with curses. When this plan failed, Bilaam suggested that they attack Am Yisrael’s unique attribute, namely, their holiness. Chazal explain that Peor was worshipped through sexual perversion, which reflected the complete antithesis to the Jewish requirement of holiness. Thus, the Midianites used their attractive, alien culture to successfully harm Am Yisrael’s spiritual stature and to lower them to the surrounding Canaanite culture.
In these types of cases, where Am Yisrael’s tzelem Elokim is harmed, the Torah teaches us that Hashem’s nikamah and Bnei Yisrael’s nikamah are one and the same.
In Christianity, vengeance is considered a bad word. The Torah says “an eye for an eye”, and Matthew comes along and says: “You have it said… love your friend, hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” This distorted approach warps the world’s compensation system and blurs the line between good and evil, between the righteous and the wicked, and between the guilty and their victims.
These words are being written as the enemies of Israelare once again conspiring against us, and parts of the Christian world are once again demanding that we lower our heads and turn the other cheek.
On Wednesday, at the end of Shacharit, I said the regular chapter of the shir shel yom, Tehillim 94:
“Lord of vengeance is Hashem, Lord of vengeance appeared.
Arise, Judge of the earth, repay in kind to the arrogant.
Until when will the wicked, Hashem, until when will the wicked rejoice.
They express, they speak insolence; all the workers of iniquity pride themselves.
Your nation, Hashem, they crush, and Your inheritance they afflict.
The will kill a widow and a stranger, and they will murder orphans.
And they will say: Hashem does not see, and the G-d of Yaakov does not understand.”
I thought that it would be easier to relate to the conflict, if the enemies would formulate it in this way. But in truth, they are just kidnappers and murders, who make these, and other, demands.
When I returned home, I discovered that our Yishuv’s website had been vandalized by hackers, who left the following message: “Al-Quds is for us and it’ll still for us till the end, Plastine is our Land.. do whatever you want,, your weapons do not scare us nor your military airplanes and bombs… Do not try anything, your fate is close to the End.. ~~~~~ ALLAH Curse has been on you. [Sic]”
Thus, Master of the Universe, Your enemies are our enemies who are flamboyantly fulfilling the words of Sefer Tehillim. We beseech You to help us, to allow Am Yisrael to understand our uniqueness, to distance themselves from Canaanite abominations, to sanctify our Source of Grace, and “to inflict Hashem’s vengeance against Midian”.