“God spoke to Moses saying, ‘Take vengeance for the Children of Israel against the Midianites; afterward you will be gathered unto your people.’ Moses spoke to the people saying, ‘Arm men from among yourselves for the legion that they may be against Midian to inflict God’s vengeance against Midian.’” (Numbers 31:2-3)
The Midianites had initiated a pagan orgy that led directly to the deaths of twenty-four thousand Israelites. In these verses, God commanded Moses to take vengeance for this tragedy. In God’s command, he referred to the vengeance as “vengeance for the Children of Israel.” Yet, when Moses relayed the command to the people, he called it, “God’s vengeance.” Why did Moses change the language of the command?
The great 15th-century commentator Rabbi Don Isaac Abarbanel offers a fascinating insight.
“In one instance, this war is referred to as ‘vengeance for the Children of Israel’, and in another instance, it refers to it as ‘God’s vengeance’. This is because their daughters perpetrated two evils. One is that they caused the deaths of twenty-four thousand from Israel. The second is that they incited them and brought them to idolatry in the service of Pe’or. In reference to the deaths in the plague, the text called [the war] ‘vengeance for the Children of Israel’ for it is the vengeance for the people. In reference to the idolatry that they served it is referred to as ‘God’s vengeance’”
According to Abarbanel, the two vengeances represent two aspects of the damage inflicted by the Midianites. God told Moses that the primary reason for the vengeance is the deaths of twenty-four thousand of His precious people. Moses chose to emphasize the incitement to idolatry, the affront to God.
God, so to speak, is more concerned with the deaths of twenty-four thousand people than with His own honor. At the same time, the children of Israel are taking vengeance for the insult done to God.
This idea, that God is concerned with the honor due to Israel, while Israel is concerned with the honor due to God, brings to mind a comment by the 19th-century Lithuanian rabbinic leader, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, in his commentary to the Passover Haggadah, the liturgy for the Passover Seder. Rabbi Berlin points out that in the Torah, the seven-day festival that we call “Passover” is always referred to as chag hamatzot, “the feast of unleavened bread.” Rabbi Berlin suggests that God named the festival of the Exodus from Egypt after the matza, the unleavened bread, because of the role the unleavened bread played in the story of the Exodus. Exodus 12:39 relates that the children of Israel rushed out of Egypt and did not have time to bake leavened bread. Calling the festival “the feast of unleavened bread” is a reminder of the haste with which the children of Israel departed Egypt. We, on the other hand, call the festival “Passover,” recalling what God did for us as he passed over the homes of the children of Israel while smiting the Egyptian firstborns. The message, Rabbi Berlin explains, is that God honors Israel while Israel honors God.
Back to our passage here in this week’s Torah portion, Rabbi Chaim ben Attar (18th century) in his classic commentary Or Hachaim, suggests that Moses changed “the vengeance of the children of Israel” to “the vengeance of God” as a way of reminding the children of Israel that any success they have on the battlefield is from God and not the product of their own strength. In other words, according to Or Hachaim, Moses changed the description of the vengeance so that the children of Israel would not view the subsequent victory as their own, but God’s.
Rashi, (11th century), the greatest of all commentators, suggests yet another meaning behind Moses’s decision.
Whoever attacks Israel is as though he attacks the Holy One blessed be He.
Rashi’s comment, that those who attack Israel are attacking God, remains true to this day. In a time when God’s biblical promises of the return of the nation of Israel to our homeland after a lengthy exile are being fulfilled, the enemies of Israel must reject the truth of God and His covenantal promises. To oppose Israel’s right to be an independent nation in our homeland at this point in history, one must deny the truth of God’s word. The enemies of Israel are truly the enemies of God Himself.
In addition to the commentaries I have shared, I’d like to suggest another approach to the two vengeances. While it appears that Moses is changing the word of God, upon closer analysis, he is actually elaborating. It is true that twenty-four thousand Israelites died as a result of what the Midianites did. But what truly caused these deaths was the participation by the children of Israel in sinful pagan behavior. While God emphasized the tragedy that occurred, i.e., the deaths, Moses emphasized the cause of the tragedy.
Perhaps Moses’s intent was to rebuke the people at the same time as he was instructing them of God’s desire for revenge. While commanding them to take revenge for the deaths he reminded them that is was their own weakness, their own giving in to their desires that led to the deaths of twenty-four thousand of their brethren.
Idolatry is one of three prohibitions that one must die rather than commit. With this knowledge we may understand Moses’s message as follows. God is upset about the deaths of twenty-four thousand Jews. On the other hand, were we to embrace idolatry, we would forfeit the value of our lives. After all, death is preferable to the commission of an idolatrous act. Moses altered the language of God’s command for vengeance to send this message. The true value in our lives is found in our dedication to God.
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation and is cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast.