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Punishing the Midianites

Hirsch At Your Table



Written by the rabbi


נקום נקמת בני ישראל מאת המדינים אחר תאסף אל עמיך. וידבר משה אל העם לאמר החלצו מאתכם אנשים לצבא ויהיו על מדין לתת נקמת ד' במדין. (Nm 31:2-3)
As a final act before his death, Moshe is commanded to wipe out the Midianites once and for all. This nation was relentless in its efforts to destabilize the Jewish people by whatever means available. Moshe tells the people to draft an army that will fight the Miduianites and avenge the many wrongs that they have perpetrated.

Singling out of the Midianites for war was a result of the type of danger that they posed to the Jewish people. The other nations of the area posed physical dangers. They tried to subdue the armies that the Jews sent to battle. The Midianites, however, threatened the moral and spiritual wellbeing of the nation. Through their sexual orgies and idolatrous behavior they undermined the Torah values that Moshe was trying to instill in the people.

This command to the people as a reaction to the Midianite activities was legal and justifiable. This can be seen in an analysis of the words used in these verses: נקום and נקמת. The generally accepted meaning of these words implies a type of vengeance, an emotional and violent reaction to a perceived wrong.

The words נקום, נקמת are from the root נ-ק-ם which means "to establish" and defend violated rights. Its gradational variant ק-ו-ם/to rise also connotes establishing and reasserting rights.


However, נקמה is a defense of violated rights and not necessarily a punishment or an emotional vendetta. There is reinforcement of this idea of legally righting a wrong, in the use of the words מאת המדינים/from the Midianites. Were this command to attack the Midianites in a vengeful manner, the phrase used would have been במדינים. The word מאת/from, implies that something had to be taken from the Midianites. The people of Israel had to take back its moral and spiritual system that had been stolen from them.

However, as far as God is concerned the נקמה was a punishment. The second verse indeed uses the phrase נקמת ד' במדינים. By God's standards, the Midianites had committed an international crime in trying to subvert another nation's rights. By doing so they had forfeited their right to live as a nation.

The importance of retrieving the moral code by punishing the Midianites is also highlighted by the phrase וידבר משה אל העם. Moshe addresses the people directly and not through the intermediary of the tribal leaders. This was an issue that had to reach every single person.

The word וידבר is from the root ד-ב-ר which means "to combine" words for coherent speech that appeals to the intellect. The word עם is from the root ע-מ-ם which means "to develop" together as social unit.


And Moshe's message to the people also reflected the vitality of the issue. Moshe tells the people החלצו מאתכם אנשים לצבא (choose people from among you who will enter military service.
The word החלצו is from the root ח-ל-ץ which means "to free up" and detach. In this verse it refers to those volunteers who will detach themselves from their family and community in order to join the army. The word צבא is from the root צ-ב-א which means "to mobilize and add to an existing body".


The call was for a citizen's army that would reclaim the nation's spiritual heritage. People must step forward from the general public and volunteer to serve in its army. Not all would be chosen since not all will be fit. But everyone must understand the importance of the campaign and be ready to join if called upon.


Copyright © 2014, Matityahu Clark. All Rights Reserved. This is an excerpt from the forthcoming Hirsch At Your Table, a collection of brief divrei torah based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary.


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