oshe Rabbeinu could have waited around before going to war with Midian, prolonging his own life. But then, what would it be worth? 

When Hashem commands Moshe Rabbeinu to go to war, it was more than tactical instruction — it was his last act of service to the Jewish People. How was he to define the enemy, and what were the criteria that justify taking military action against them?

In parshas Mattos, Moshe receives a partial answer to these questions. Hashem speaks to him directly, saying, “Take vengeance for the children of Israel upon the Midianites, and afterward you will be gathered unto your people” (Bamidbar 31:2).

These are Moshe’s marching orders. The background story is told in parshas Balak: Balak, King of Moav, sends Bilam to curse the Jewish People, who are threatening his borders. When that plan is foiled, Bilam suggests another tactic: tempt them into immorality.

Balak likes the idea, and Plan B is launched. The king sends his own daughters at the head of the temptation committee, and he finds an eager ally in Midian. The women of Midian join the delegation, and the outcome is disastrous for Am Yisrael. The plague that follows kills 24,000 men.

Now, the time has come for vengeance. Surprisingly, we find that Hashem singles out the Midianites as the object of His retribution. Midian, who in their hatred for the Jewish People formed an unholy alliance with Moav to bring them down, is the sole focus of Hashem’s command, while Moav, the nation that initiated the attack on Bnei Yisrael’s morals, appears to get off scot-free.

Based on the Midrash, Rashi explains: “Upon the Midianites — and not upon the Moabites, for they entered into the matter because of fear. They were afraid that Bnei Yisrael would vanquish and plunder them. But the Midianites involved themselves in a fight that had nothing to do with them.”

From Rashi’s words we learn that we are not to attack an enemy just because he is hostile to us. The motives that underlie his hostility also have to be taken into account. Although Moav and Midian hated Israel with equal intensity, their hatred stemmed from totally different motives. And this is a crucial point.

Moav was afraid. Its leaders believed that unless they found a way of stopping this new nation that had emerged from Egypt, the latter would overrun their country, slaughtering, looting, and enslaving their people. This was a rational and legitimate fear, and that was a point in their favor on the day of reckoning. But the Midianites were under no threat; they simply hated Am Yisrael and relished the opportunity to contribute to their destruction. Their motive was pure anti-Semitism. And therefore, they received a verdict of “guilty” and a harsh sentence.


MOSHE’S DEATH was linked to the completion of this military campaign against Midian. He clearly heard his own verdict in the command to wreak vengeance: “And afterward, you will be gathered unto your people.” He was well aware, then, that this campaign would be his last. And that also meant that he could put off his death indefinitely by delaying the attack on Midian. As the Midrash says, “If Moshe had sought not to die, he would not have died. For HaKadosh Baruch Hu said to him, ‘If you don’t take vengeance on Israel’s enemies, you won’t die.’ He could have sat there for another 20 or 30 years. But Moshe said to himself, we have no permission to delay performing a mitzvah” (Yalkut Shimoni, Mattos).

Thus, the day of Moshe’s death was left in his own hands. It would come as soon or as late as he finished carrying out Hashem’s command. He had no explicit instructions about how to carry out that command. He could have employed all sorts of delay tactics, such as prolonging the preparations for war. Moshe was facing the ultimate test.

He made his decision. The good of the Klal took precedence. The war was for the benefit of Am Yisrael. Its purpose was to cleanse the people completely of the Midianite tumah that clung to them. And therefore he did not delay or prolong the preparatory stage, but acted with alacrity — thus sealing his own fate.

The people, however, refused to go to war. Suddenly, they all became draft dodgers, and the “military police” had to be sent to enforce conscription. The pasuk says, “Vayimasru me’alfei Yisrael elef l’mateh — From the thousands of Israel, one thousand was handed over from each tribe” (Bamidbar 31:5).

They did not go willingly, but “were handed over,” by force. Here is how the Midrash describes what went on:

“Rabi Elazar HaModai says, come and see how beloved the shepherd of Israel was to Israel. Until they heard that the war on Midian entailed Moshe’s death, what was said of them? ‘What shall I do with this people, soon they’ll be stoning me.’ But as soon as they heard that the war on Midian entailed Moshe’s death, they began to hide. Nevertheless, they were taken by force, as is said, ‘Vayimasru’” (Yalkut Shimoni, ibid).

When it came to the crunch, the people’s affection for their leader was revealed. In peacetime, they made his life a burden, and they were ready to stone him over trivial matters. But now they were even willing to disobey a Divine command, if that would give their leader an extra lease on life. It seems that they, too, withstood the test, the human test of gratitude toward the leader who had done so much for them.

Moshe did as he was commanded and set up an army to strike down the Midianites. Yet he did not place himself at the head of this army. In a departure from his practice in every other war, he didn’t lead the attack, but instead put Pinchas in command:

“Moshe sent them, a thousand from each tribe… with Pinchas, son of Elazar the Kohein, to the army.”

Why? The Midrash asks: “HaKadosh Baruch Hu had said to Moshe, ‘Nekom’ [in the singular imperative form, a direct order]: ‘You, yourself, take vengeance.’ And he sends someone else?”

And the Midrash answers:

“But because he had grown up in Midian, he said, ‘It is not justifiable that I should bring trouble on those who did good to me.’ As the mashal says, don’t throw a stone into a well from which you have drunk water” (ibid).

The war was just; it was required by the circumstances; it was even ethical. It had to be carried out during Moshe’s lifetime, so that history should not accuse him of being guided by personal considerations rather than justice, and so that it should not be said that he showed favor to a sinful nation that enticed the Jewish People into sin, in return for benefits he had once received from them.

At the same time, he himself would not go out to fight them. He, personally, owed them gratitude. They had saved him when he fled from Pharaoh’s sword. They had given him political asylum. And he could not turn around now and lead an army against them — that would be a gross offense against the hakaras hatov he must feel toward them. And so he sent the army to war against them, but he himself stayed behind.

Want to attain a balanced personal and ethical perspective in time of war? Just turn to Moshe Rabbeinu for inspiration.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 718)