The Torah in Parashat Matot tells of the battle Benei Yisrael waged against Midyan to avenge that nation’s role in the tragic incident of Ba’al Pe’or, sending their women to lure Benei Yisrael to immorality and idolatry. The Midrash, in a startling passage (Shir Hashirim Rabba 6), describes the special piety of the 12,000 soldiers chosen to wage this war. Commenting on the verse in Shir Hashrim (6:6), “Your teeth are like a herd of sheep,” the Midrash writes:
Just as a sheep is humble, so were Yisrael humble and innocent during the war with Midyan. Rav Huna said in the name of Rabbi Acha: Not one of them [placed] the tefillin shel rosh before the tefillin shel yad, for if one of them had [placed] the tefillin shel rosh before the tefillin shel yad, Moshe would not have praised them, and they would not returned from there safely.
The war against Midyan was unique, in that it was waged not in self-defense or for the purpose of conquering Eretz Yisrael, but rather to avenge Midyan’s successful attempt to lure Benei Yisrael to sin. This campaign would therefore have lost its validity if Benei Yisrael were spiritually deficient at the time. The fighters’ religious credentials had to be impeccable, because they were fighting a “holy war” against those who spiritually threatened them. Waging a war against this threat is legitimate only if the warriors adhere to the most rigorous standards of piety, such that they can place the blame squarely on Midyan for their previous failures. This is likely the meaning of the analogy to sheep drawn by the Midrash. Sheep are often used as a symbol of innocence and helplessness. The battle against Midyan was valid only if Benei Yisrael were truly like “sheep” – helpless victims of Midyan’s scheme. If they had not been otherwise innocent and pure, then they would not have had the right to avenge the successful plot of seduction.
It is easy and convenient to blame our shortcomings on other people and external factors, such as our upbringing and education, our society, our community and our life’s circumstances. Chazal here teach us that such blame is legitimate only if our record is otherwise flawless. If we can honestly attest to having done all we could to live righteously, that we are inherently innocent as sheep, but helplessly victimized by external, spiritually hostile influences, then we can absolve ourselves of responsibility for our failings and blame other people and our life’s circumstances. More often than not, however, blaming external factors is merely an excuse, a way to clear our consciences and excuse ourselves from guilt. The Midrash reminds us to first thoroughly examine ourselves to ensure we are doing the best we can in our situation before blaming other people and external factors for our shortcomings.