Parashas Mattos-Masei

Parashas Mattos recounts the Jewish People’s war of vengeance against Midian for leading them to sin. In commanding Moshe to initiate the war, Hashem told him (Bamidbar 31:1): “Take vengeance for the Children of Israel against the Midianites.” But when relaying the command to the Jewish People, Moshe told them (ibid. 31:3): “Arm men from among yourselves … to take vengeance for Hashem upon Midian.” This difference in phrasing raises the question of whose honor is being avenged, the Jewish People’s or Hashem’s. The Sages and classical commentators address this question from various angles. Here, we discuss one teaching on the topic, and present the Maggid’s perspective.
The Midrash relates (Bamidbar Rabbah 22:2):
Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to Moshe: “Is the vengeance not for the Jewish People’s sake? Surely it is. For the Midianites made it necessary for Me to bring the Jewish People harm [punishment for the sin].” Said Moshe: “Master of the Universe! If we were uncircumcised, or idolaters, or had repudiated Your commandments, they would not have hated us. They pursued us only because of the Torah and mitzvos that You gave us. So the vengeance is for Your sake.”
The Maggid analyzes this Midrash through a two-act parable. The first act takes place in a wine shop. A person enters the shop and asks for a certain number of bottles of an expensive wine. The merchant gathers the bottles and puts them on the counter. A moment later, a drunk wobbles up to the counter and, in his stupor, knocks all the bottles onto the floor, causing them to shatter. The merchant begins beating the drunk, but without saying whether he is doing so on his own behalf or on the customer’s behalf. The customer himself is unsure, and he debates with himself over whether the merchant is planning to bear the loss or cast the liability on him. In the end, he asks the merchant’s son to ask his father why he is beating the drunk. The lad asks the question, and the merchant exclaims: “Don’t you realize the great loss this scoundrel has caused this man?” The merchant’s answer makes it clear that he is holding the customer liable.
Similarly, Hashem had previously told Moshe, in Parashas Pinchas, to smite the Midianites. But He did not clearly indicate on whose behalf the war was going to be waged. An affont to the Torah had been committed; its precious wine had been spilled. Hashem had already exacted a certain amount of retribution from the Jewish People, in the form of a plague, in connection with this outrage. Would He bear the rest of the loss on His own, and absolve the Jewish People of further punishment, or would He make them pay the entire price? [Perhaps the Maggid is distinguishing between the sin itself and the results of the sin. In addition to the fact that the Jewish People’s conduct was inherently evil, a serious chillul Hashem also resulted. The people had paid for having done evil, but the account on the chillul Hashem had not yet been settled.] Initially, Moshe was unsure. Then Hashem told him: “Take vengeance for the Children of Israel against the Midianites.” Moshe then knew that Hashem was casting the entire liability on the Jewish People. He then put forward a counterargument, as the Midrash relates. What was his reasoning?
The Maggid answers with the second act of the parable. The wine merchant and the customer do not reach agreement about who should bear the loss, so they go to court. The judge asks: “Who brought the drunk into the store?” It comes out that the drunk was one of the merchant’s workers. The judge then rules: “The loss is on the merchant.” In this vein, Moshe asserts that Hashem, so to speak, is the One who caused the crass Midianites to enter the scene. They hated us only because we kept Hashem’s Torah. Hence, Moshe argues, Hashem should bear the burden of the damage they caused.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

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