• Rav Shimon Klein
Dedicated by the Wise and Etshalom families 
in memory of Rabbi Aaron M. Wise, 
whose yahrzeit is 21 Tamuz. Yehi zikhro barukh.
May HaKadosh Barukh Hu have mercy upon His people and upon His land.


And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying, “Execute the vengeance of the children of Israel on the Midyanim; afterwards you shall be gathered to your people.” And Moshe spoke to the people, saying, “Arm from yourselves men for the army and let them go against Midyan and avenge the Lord on Midyan. Of every tribe a thousand, throughout all the tribes of Israel, shall you send to the war.” So there were delivered out of the thousands of Israel, a thousand of every tribe, twelve thousand armed for war. And Moshe sent them to the war, a thousand of every tribe, them and Pinchas the son of Elazar the priest, to the war, with the holy instruments, and the trumpets to blow in his hand. (Bamidbar 31:1-6)
            These are the verses that open the section describing the war between Israel and Midyan. "Execute the vengeance of the children of Israel on the Midyanim," says God to Moshe, and in the wake of these words, Israel sets out on a military campaign.
Why is vengeance a reason for war? Is it a psychological need? A spiritual need? Fifty-four verses depict in great detail the various stages of the war – the drafting of the soldiers, their numbers, the battle, the victory, the spoil of war, the way it was divided up, that which was dedicated to God, etc. What purpose do all these details serve?
            The heading of the section points backwards, as it were, to the mother story – that which took place between Israel and Moav and Midyan.

Boundaries that were shattered

            This is how Scripture describes what happened:
And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moav. And they called the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate, and bowed down to their gods. And Israel joined himself to Baal-Peor, and the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel. And the Lord said to Moshe, “Take all the chiefs of the people and hang them up before the Lord against the sun, that the burning anger of the Lord may be turned away from Israel.” And Moshe said to the judges of Israel, “Slay every one his men that have attached themselves to Baal-Peor.” And, behold, one of the children of Israel came and brought to his brothers the Midyanite woman in the sight of Moshe and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel who were weeping before the door of the Tent of Meeting. (25:1-6)
            This episode begins with harlotry with the daughters of Moav, continues with bowing down to their gods, and reaches its climax when one of the children of Israel brings a Midyanite woman into the camp and draws her near to his brothers for harlotry, in the sight of Moshe and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, who are weeping at the door of the Tent of Meeting. In the wake of this event, God commands Moshe: "Vex the Midyanites and smite them, for they vex you with their wiles, with which they have beguiled you in the matter of Peor and in the matter of Kozbi, the daughter of the prince of Midyan, their sister, who was slain in the day of the plague in the affair of Peor" (25:17-18). They intentionally used their wiles to cause you to sin, and now you shall smite them – measure for measure.
            And now, after some time has passed, God commands Moshe to go back to those who caused the people to sin in a most difficult and humiliating manner, to those who caused the great plague, in the course of which twenty-four thousand people were killed, and enter into judgment with them: "Execute the vengeance of the children of Israel on the Midyanim." This vengeance is meant to restore the people's inner honor, after it had been disgraced and profaned. The position of the people is similar to the position of a woman who had been ravaged by a man. Her capacity to rehabilitate herself depends in part on punishing her attacker, not pardon or forgiveness. Appeasement that erases her world will impede her recovery, and in certain situations it is liable to be destructive. The fractures will only deepen, accompanied by feelings of anger and animosity.[1]
            In order to understand the chain of actions that take place in the course of the war, we must go back and assess the magnitude and scope of the break. The first step is to understand the context in which it takes place – among the last events described in the book of Bamidbar. The central issue in this book is the spiritual organization of the camp. In it, "the head of the children of Israel" is raised, a place is designated for each tribe, families unite, the Levites are placed in their proper places, and a new social and spiritual structure sets out. The congregation, the family, and the house of fathers are now primary values, as is God the Dweller, who rests His Shekhina in the midst of the camp.[2] And now, these living circles have been breached. The boundaries which set them in their places have been shattered, and the living values resting among them have been profaned. In the coming lines we will point out a series of "boundaries" that were crossed in the course of this difficult episode.
1. The boundaries of separation and modesty – between men and women - were breached.
2. The boundaries between nations were crossed when the people committed harlotry with the daughters of Moav and the daughters of Midyan.
3. The boundaries around strange gods were crossed, with the closeness that was demonstrated towards them.
4. The essence of the service of Baal-Peor involves the absence of boundaries around the crudities of nature.
5. Bringing the Midyanite woman to Moshe and the entire congregation broke the boundaries with respect to their honor and stature.
6. The place to which the Midyanite woman was brought – before the door of the Tent of Meeting – defiled its sanctified character.
7. The identity of the Israelite man – "a prince of a father's house among the Shimonites" (ibid. 14) – profaned the standing of a distinguished family in Israel.
            A long series of "boundaries" were crossed, a series of values were profaned, and now the people are invited to repair the breaches and to restore the vacuum created in their inner world and values. This war is a kind of "corrective experience," in the course of which the boundaries and values are to be restored.

Moshe's involvement

And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying, “Execute the vengeance of the children of Israel on the Midyanim; afterwards you shall be gathered to your people.” (Bamidbar 32:1-2)
            "Execute the vengeance of the children of Israel," says God to Moshe, as a personal mission. Why is it important that Moshe be the avenger? The words "afterwards you shall be gathered to your people" imply a certain closing of a circle.  Only after completing the mission can he be gathered to his people. These words establish this war as an issue in Moshe's life. Moshe was the leader at the time of the earlier episode and Zimri did what he did in Moshe's presence, and these facts cast responsibility upon him. Perhaps they tell of a certain disconnection between the high and distinguished man of God, Moshe, and the people, who were in a different place. The story is that of Moshe – a profound expression of the experience of the members of that generation - and he is invited "to clear the table," to close an episode that no one else could deal with as he could. A faithful expression of this is found in the brevity of God's instructions about going out to war, which amounts to a single verse.[3] God tells Moshe to execute the vengeance of the children of Israel, but He doesn't tell him how to do that. The method, the stages, the many dimensions of the task, will be established by Moshe. His involvement is significant, as one who was part of the earlier episode, understood the depth of the break, and is now expected to shape the character of the war and to set down its objectives and the ways to achieve them.
And Moshe spoke to the people, saying, “Arm from yourselves men for the army and let them go against Midyan and avenge the Lord on Midyan.” (ibid. v. 3)
            Moshe turns to the people, the collective, "Arm (hechaltzu) from yourselves." The chalutz is one who volunteers, thus removing himself from the collective, as one who is filled with personal motivation, beyond what is found in the general population. This note relates to the mobilization itself, still without any details being spelled out. As opposed to God, who speaks of the "the vengeance of the children of Israel," Moshe speaks of "avenging the Lord." God relates to the essence, to the rehabilitation that the people need, whereas Moshe wishes to elevate the perspective, to focus the people on the divine dimension of the process, and accordingly he describes the vengeance as God's vengeance.[4]
Of every tribe a thousand, throughout all the tribes of Israel, shall you send to the war. (v. 4)
            In the second stage, Moshe mentions numbers – a thousand of each tribe. The logic behind this number is puzzling. The tribe of Reuven numbers 43,730 men over the age of twenty, the tribe of Shimon numbers 22,200, whereas the tribe of Yehuda numbers 76,500 men. But the number of soldiers that will be sent from each tribe is the same – a thousand of each tribe. What underlies this method? It seems to reflect empowerment of the tribe, or perhaps even attribution of a kind of sanctity to the tribe – owing to its very existence, rather than the number of its members. A small tribe is treated like a larger one. "Throughout all the tribes of Israel" – the tribes as a whole send men, and the picture is that of all the tribes of Israel of which the nation is comprised.[5] "Shall send you to the war" – this instruction relates to the people as a whole, as those who underlie the mission.
So there were delivered out of the thousands of Israel, a thousand of every tribe, twelve thousand armed for war. (ibid. v. 5)
            Now Scripture begins to describe what actually happened. The words "were delivered" point to soldiers who did not volunteer, but rather were delivered to the army against their will. Lack of involvement comes also from the side of the people, who were supposed to send them, but in practice this did not happen. The numbers mentioned by Moshe were indeed drafted, but their motivation came from a different direction – from "the thousands of Israel" – the families that pushed these soldiers toward their mission.
            What underlies this lack of cooperation? It seems that this reflects the fact that the people are not in a state of seeking revenge for what the Midyanim had done to them. The Midyanim did not kill the people of Israel. They enticed them with their daughters and drew them to the service of Peor – things which the people did not see as traumatic. Thus, it follows that those who did these things to them should not be the object of revenge. In contrast, God points to the profanation and to the great break, and therefore demands vengeance through which the people might come to an understanding of the boundaries that were breached and the values that were desecrated.[6]
            What brought the "thousands of Israel" to mobilize and deliver the soldiers? The passive description, "so there were delivered out of the thousands of Israel," without an active account of what they did, suggests that their mobilization was of the nature of "in a place where there is no man, be a man," rather than strong motivation to participate in war. Perhaps their commitment was an expression of the excessive weight given to the family at that time.[7] Or perhaps it expressed the break surrounding the harlotry, whose signs were evident in the circle of the family.
And Moshe sent them to the war, a thousand of every tribe, them and Pinchas the son of Elazar the priest, to the war, with the holy instruments, and the trumpets to blow in his hand. (v. 6)
            Once again, we see the gap between Moshe's perception of the people as ready to send their men off to war (v. 4) and the reality, in the course of which it is Moshe alone who sends them off. He is joined by Pinchas the son of Elazar the priest and by the holy instruments and by the trumpets in his hand, and in this way the war is characterized as a campaign in the world of the spirit, beyond the national arena.[8]
And they warred against Midyan, as the lord commanded Moshe, and they slew all the males. And they slew the kings of Midyan, beside the rest of them that were slain; namely, Evi, and Rekem, and Tzur, and Chur, and Reva, five kings of Midyan. (vv. 7-8)
            The soldiers fight against Midyan, the basis of their actions being "as the Lord commanded Moshe." This expression joins the absence of inner motivation that characterized the war.[9] Is there something wrong with the people's lack of interest and involvement in the war? It seems that in a war that is essentially an act of revenge, the addition of the words "as the Lord commanded Moshe" speak well of Israel. The people did not act on the basis of instinctual motives or a vendetta, but rather executed the vengeance of God on his enemies.

The Spoil of war

            Thus far, we have seen the account of Israel's victory in battle. In the next stages, the issue becomes the spoil of war. Forty-five verses describe what was done with the plunder. The detailed account emphasizes the fact that this was a significant event. From the perspective of the processes that the people underwent, taking the plunder and dividing it up embody the ability to bring into the camp things from the outside, even when we are dealing with a distant and harmful world. Their previous stumbling had been in an encounter with the world outside the boundary of Israel, and now the people learn how to confront and absorb parts of the outside world and build themselves up through them.
            In the first step, the spoil is brought into the public arena – Moshe, Elazar, and the congregation of the children of Israel:
And the children of Israel took all the women of Midyan captives, and their little ones, and took the spoil of all their cattle, and all their flocks, and all their goods. And they burnt all the cities in which they dwelt, and all their encampments, with fire. And they took all the spoil, and all the prey, both of men, and of beasts. And they brought the captives and the congregation of the children of Israel, to the camp at the plains of Moav, which are by the Jordan near Jericho.  (vv. 9-12)
            The spoil is not private property, but rather belongs to the people. Only after it is brought into the public arena can the discussion begin as to how it should be divided up.
And Moshe, and Elazar the priest, and all the princes of the congregation, went out to meet them outside the camp. (v. 13)
            Why is an account given of their going out to meet them, when it has already been described how they brought the spoil into the camp (v. 12)? The leaders' exit from the camp, as well as the statement made to the soldiers, "And abide outside the camp seven days" (v. 19), point to the fact that the spoil had not yet actually been brought into the camp. It now becomes clear that the "bringing in" mentioned earlier reflected the position of the people, who were totally uninhibited with respect to bringing the spoil into the camp. The description of Moshe as going out of the camp brings the reader back to reality, while reflecting the gap between the positions. The people are inclined to bring things into the camp, whereas Moshe stops the process and examines the matter. Bringing women, flocks, cattle, and goods into the camp is not self-evident. This allows for the entry of a different culture and a different character into their world. Moshe's objective is to control this entry and to channel it as a value-laden and educational process.

What yes and what not?

            Moshe's initial reaction to the spoil is anger. Moshe is astonished by the fact that the women were kept alive and taken into captivity: "Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Bilam, to revolt against the Lord in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord" (v. 16). The people killed the males as an expression of their understanding of the campaign from a nationalist perspective, but the women were spared and taken as captives. Moshe points his finger at the modesty that was breached, and based on that he orders that "every woman that has known man by lying" be put to death, while all the other women and children are kept alive.
He further commands that the soldiers abide outside the camp, and that whoever has killed any person must purify himself. Despite the flux of killing, Moshe reminds the people of the moral fact – how far from simple is the killing of a person, how deficient is death (vv. 14-20).
Elazar issues the soldiers another command – to pass all the vessels through fire or water, to wash the clothing, and also to wait seven days, "and afterwards you shall come into the camp" (vv. 21-24). It is not self-evident that all these things can be brought into the camp and become part of their world and their culture. For this, a process of preparation is necessary.

The spoil given to the people


And the Lord spoke to Moshe saying, “Take the sum of the prey that was taken, both of man and of beast, you and Elazar the priest, and the chief fathers of the congregation, and divide the prey into two parts; between those who took the war upon them, who went out to battle, and between all the congregation.” (vv. 25-27)
            Now, after a long chain of actions, the time has arrived to ask the question: How is the spoil to be divided? God "involves Himself" in this question. "Take the sum (lit. raise the head) of the prey that was taken," He says, instructing them to take the sum of those taken in captivity, man and beast, in a manner that bestows importance upon them. The trio that will do this is Moshe, Elazar, and the chief fathers of the congregation, whose presence will bestow blessing upon the matter. At a second stage, Moshe divides the spoil between those who went out to war and the rest of the congregation, and this too involves several moral statements: The soldiers are agents of the congregation, and thus the spoil belongs to the congregation as a whole. In addition, the congregation empowers the individuals of which it is comprised and enriches them. This structure illustrates the value of the congregation, of the joining together which made the outcome of the war possible, in the wake of which the entire nation was strengthened.
            Special value is assigned to the part belonging to the soldiers, and it finds expression in various ways. Half of the overall sum is awarded to those who went out to war (12,000), and the other half is given to the rest of the congregation. The half, on the one hand, testifies to the whole, the people; and on the other hand, the relatively large portion received by those who went out to war attests to their self-sacrifice.

The spoil given to God


And levy a tribute to the Lord of the men of war, who went out to battle, one soul of five hundred, both of the persons, and of the beef cattle, and of the asses, and of the sheep. From their half shall you take it, and give it to Elazar the priest, for an offering set apart to the Lord. And of the children of Israel's half, you shall take one portion of fifty, of the persons, of the beef cattle, of the asses, and of the flocks, of all manner of beasts, and give them to the Levites, who keep the charge of the Mishkan of the Lord. (vv. 28-30)
            The final link in this episode involves giving to God. This giving is not self-evident. At the simple level, there is a contradiction between the culture of Midyan, which in this context symbolizes lewdness and the values of Peor, and the God of Israel, who inscribes consecration and modesty on His nation's flag. And now, God orders the people to raise a portion of what had been given them as spoil for an offering set apart to God. This step is described in two stages: The first – in God's command, and the second – in the offering raised by the officers at their own initiative (vv. 48-54). These two serve as the climax in the process that the people undergo in the course of this chapter. Now, the property of Midyan, which symbolizes their world and their values, climbs higher and higher and becomes part of the consecrated domain of the people and also part of the offering given to the priests.[10]
(Translated by David Strauss)
[1] A people that have reached a more mature and developed state, beyond the existential state, can absorb a blow and dispense with revenge. Such a state is reached in other periods, when Israel's eyes are directed at appeasement and peace. (For example, David sends messengers to comfort Chanun the king of Ammon for the death of his father Nachash the Ammonite, despite the wickedness that he had displayed to Israel in the past – II Shmuel 10). This is not the people's state at this time. Throughout the book, the response to the sins of the people is direct – starting with the fire that burned in the camp (Bamidbar 11:3), though the burning anger and very great plague (11:33), and the many blows that the people must absorb over the course of the book, including the plague in this story, which, were it not for Pinchas' act, would have ended with the destruction of the entire camp (25:11). For more about the spiritual state of the people in the book of Bamidbar, see our study of Parashat Beha’alotekha.
[2] See at length our study of Parashat Bamidbar.
[3] God's speech will be renewed after the war, when He issues instructions regarding the division of the spoil (v. 25).
[4] The attribution of the revenge to God can also be understood on the simple level as reflecting the fact that the initiative is His, and not the people's. Later, the people's lack of emotional involvement in the war will become evident, and this will reinforce the definition of this revenge as "God's revenge."
[5] The Sages in the Midrash understand that this war included the tribe of Levi: "'Of every tribe a thousand, throughout all the tribes of Israel, shall you send to the war' – this comes to include the tribe of Levi; these are the words of R. Akiva" (Pesikta Zutrata [Lekach Tov], Bamidbar, Parashat Matot, p. 139).
[6] In the Midrash: "'So there were delivered out of the thousands of Israel' – Scripture teaches that they were fit and righteous people, who were ready to sacrifice their lives for the matter. R. Natan says: Others delivered them – So-and-so is fit to go out to war. R. Eliezer says: Come and see how much the shepherds of Israel are cherished by Israel. At first he says: 'What shall I do to this people? They are almost ready to stone me' (Shemot 17:4). But once they hear that Moshe's death depended on Midyan, they hid so that they should not go. Nevertheless, they were delivered against their will, as it is stated: 'So there were delivered out of the thousands of Israel'" (Pesikta Zutrata [Lekach Tov], Bamidbar, Parashat Matot, p. 139a). This midrash interprets the words "were delivered" in several ways. The common denominator between all the explanations is lack of personal involvement. The first explanation speaks of action from the perspective of one who is expected to give his life for the matter. The second explanation in the midrash speaks of their being delivered by other people, and of the fact that the selection was of fit people. The third explanation attributes to them the desire to push off Moshe's death, and in this sense the lack of motivation was overcome by an ulterior motive.
[7] See our study of Parashat Pinchas in the section: "The Arguments Presented by the Daughters of Tzelofchad."
[8] Introducing Pinchas and the holy instruments to the stage of the war means that the sacred dimension was present at the battle in the physical sense, and not only in the sense of spiritual inspiration.
[9] In contrast to the account below, in the stage of the taking of the spoil, where the people are mentioned by name and with their presence – "And the children of Israel took captives" – here they are not mentioned and their presence is attributed to a divine command, not to their own desires. The belated mention of the kings among the other casualties attests to the lack of respect and importance given to those kings. The issue is "all the males," and it is under this low common denominator that the kings and Bilam the son of Beor fall. It stands to reason that this lack of honor is an expression of the title of the war – revenge the essence of which was the break, as opposed to a national war which is likely to bestow honor upon the leaders and upon the conflict between them.
[10] There is an essential gap between the portion of those who went out to war, which symbolizes the dimension of the holy, and the portion of the congregation, which symbolizes the portion of the people, with all its complexity. Regarding the first – "And levy a tribute to the Lord of the men of war who went out to battle." Regarding the second – "And of the children of Israel's half you shall take" – we find giving, not levying, and not "a tribute to the Lord." Those who went out to war suffice with a small gift to God – one of five hundred of the persons and of the cattle (v. 28); the congregation as a whole must give ten times as much – one of fifty (v. 30). The part of the first ones is given to Elazar the priest – "And you shall give it to Elazar the priest, for an offering set apart to the Lord" (v. 29), a sort of connection between the heroes and the priests. In contrast, the part of the people is given to the Levites – "And you shall give them to the Levites, who keep the charge of the Mishkan of the Lord" (v. 30). The Levites are the agents of the people, and accordingly, they receive from its portion. Further examination of the verses will show the reader a long list of differences that give expression to the different focus of the two portions.