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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Masei

Parashat Masei

Conflicting Objectives?

Rabbi Yossef Carmel28 Tammuz 5764
2901
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The last battle that Bnei Yisrael embarked upon during Moshe’s life was unique. It was the first one that the Torah refers to as a battle of revenge. It is also noteworthy that Moshe seems to change the objective of the battle from that which Hashem stated. Hashem says: "Take the revenge of Bnei Yisrael against the Midianites" (Bamidbar 31:2). Yet Moshe instructs Bnei Yisrael to "take the revenge of Hashem against Midian" (ibid.:3). Rashi hints that the objectives are two sides of the same coin, pointing out that "whoever stands up against Yisrael is as if he stands up against Hashem." One can further point out that the damage that Midian caused came by enticing Bnei Yisrael to sin, which brought on a Divine punishment. So, their sin had two sides, causing a desecration of Hashem’ Name through sin and bringing death to 24,000. Yet, even if they share a coin, the two sides give a different flavor. Which side is correct?

Many mitzvot bring us great, palpable, spiritual elevation, in addition to the virtue of following a Divine imperative. But there are some mitzvot, which are all right and just, but they also contain elements that are spiritually difficult or even dangerous. They must be carried out diligently, but we should try to ensure that it is the Divine commandment and the positive elements that are highlighted, not the regrettable, albeit necessary, elements. At a joyous brit milah, we make a point of leaving out the words "shehasimcha bim’ono" to note that the child, who had the z’chut to enter the covenant of Avraham Avinu, is also in pain. R. Yehuda Hanasi was punished for not relating to the pain of an animal that was being taken to the mitzva of shechita (Bava Metzia 85a). And we even feel the regrettable element of the drowning of the evil Egyptians when we withhold the mitzva of full Hallel during most of Pesach.

Hashem told Moshe that Midian deserved punishment for what they had done to Bnei Yisrael and that Bnei Yisrael had His blessing (and command) to carry out the revenge. Yet Moshe felt that the gains of such a harsh action would be more complete and pure if Bnei Yisrael concentrated on the ills the Midianites had caused the Divine and focused less on their national right for revenge. He did not argue, Heaven forbid, with Hashem’s portrayal of the action but desired to channel it in a manner that would lessen the spiritually dangerous elements of war.

(It is possible that Moshe employed unusual rules of war to get his point across. According to Rashi’s version of the Sifrei, the Levi’im took part in the battle. This exception to the rule (see last week’s Hemdat Yamim) may have served as a sign that the battle had a specific nature of "revenge of Hashem," in which the Levi’im had a history of participation (see Shemot 32:26)).

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