Why does God tell us not to take revenge, and then tell Moses to take revenge on the Midianites?
Table for Five: Matot-Masei
In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
The Lord spoke to Moses saying, “Take revenge for the children of Israel against the Midianites; afterwards you will be gathered to your people.”
Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, AJRCA Professor of Hebrew
The vengeance God asks of Moses in this verse is puzzling in a number of ways. Why are the Midianites singled out for vengeance when it was the Moabites who initiated the campaign against the Israelites? After all, it was the Moabites who hired Balaam at great cost to curse the Israelites and who most prominently sent their women to seduce the Israelites to licentiousness and idolatry (Num 25:1-2). Moreover, vengeance and enmity are emotional responses that are discouraged within Jewish tradition (Lev 19:18). These emotions run counter to Jewish notions of holy behavior and emotional sanctity. If this is the case, why are the Israelites here being exhorted to take vengeance against the Midianites?
In truth, the fact that there needs to be an explicit command to take vengeance upon the Midianites is a reflection of how exceptional it is. It is an acknowledgement that revenge is not usually a correct response to wrongdoing. Furthermore, the language of this verse suggests that this is not an ongoing attitude of vengeance, rather a one-time, divinely-directed, act that Moses will perform before his death.
Rashi, on this verse, explains that the Moabites were not singled out for punishment because they had only attacked the Israelites out of fear. They had witnessed the fall of the Amorites and were mortally afraid. Contrastingly, the Midianites had attacked the Israelites out of contempt.
Only God knows people’s true intentions. Our job is to be generous of heart and compassionate, even when we are wronged.
Rabbi Brett Kopin, Division 6-8 Rabbi, Milken Community School
In 2009, I attended a talk by Elie Wiesel, whom I recall saying with a look of sympathy: “Moses is the loneliest person in human history.” It resonated deeply with me then and continues to do so as my understanding of Jewish tradition deepens. One of Moses’ final commands by God is to go to war against the Midianites. What unfolds is a ruthless account of the war: the Midianites are utterly decimated, their villages burned to the ground, and the surviving women taken captive. How can we understand this brutality at the end of Moses’ life–a life marked by complexity and impossible tension, but also by moral insight, holiness, and justice?
We will continue to struggle with it. We might even praise the Torah for leaving no stone unturned in characterizing God and Moses’ darker complexities in our modern age. However, we might also imagine and empathize with what Moses may have felt at moments during the war. After all, could he possibly forget that the Midianites saved his life when he fled Egypt? He married into the family of Jethro, High Priest of Midian, the only other person Moses embraced as a mentor. Did Moses think about Jethro as his soldiers burned down the villages? Did he remember Jethro’s daughters when he instructed the soldiers to take all the captive innocent women as wives? The Torah does not say. But once again, I resonate deeply with Wiesel’s words: Moses is the loneliest person in human history.
Rabbi Rebecca Schatz, Associate Rabbi at Temple Beth Am, Los Angeles
Torah’s repetition of the words, “nehkom nikmat”, teases us to consider whether God is only asking us to execute a tit-for-tat, eye-for-an-eye kind of vengeance, or to also embed our enmity as a lasting grudge. A grudge stifles relationships, personal growth, and social progress. In Yoma (22b-23a), rabbis of the Gemara ask, “Aren’t we told in Vayikra not to take vengeance or bear a grudge? (Leviticus 19:18).” Rabbis argue those are limited to monetary matters, rather than insults or slighting Torah. In Judges (5:31), the rabbis seem capable of forgiving personal insults as well as material damages. A person may bear resentment in the heart, but not act on it or repeatedly remind the offender, though he still must ask forgiveness.
But these lessons appear to contradict one another. We mire ourselves in the negativity of grudge-bearing at the risk of not allowing improvement in ourselves or others. We should first see people as capable of change, assuming the best about ourselves and others. We are taught to hear all sides, and like Beit Hillel, to know dissenting views well enough to teach them before advancing a preferred perspective!
We are only hurting ourselves if we hold a grudge. God is holding the grudge here, and using Moshe to act on the pain. What if God could have let it go, would there have been a more peaceful and calm path leading our people into the land?
Rabbi/Cantor Eva Robbins, Co-Rabbi N’vay Shalom, Faculty, AJRCA
This statement is jarring to say the least. We remember well in Leviticus when God commands: “Don’t take vengeance and don’t bear a grudge…” so we wonder why the mixed message. What’s the differences between what God commands us vs what God desires here? Is there a quality of distinction between the command to carry out our affairs with equanimity, experiencing loss or insult from another without needing to be vindictive and burning bridges, and God punishing the Midianites for undermining our people’s faith and seduced into worshiping idols?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, z”l, teaches, “There are things we must leave to God or we will find ourselves…as before the flood, in a world filled with violence.” He points out that “the revenge God wants is really justice.” It seems this is finally punishment for the heresy that caused sexual debauchery and idolatry by the Israelite men. We must see the difference between legitimate justice and personal retribution, bitter acts of hostility causing unnecessary suffering.
We live in a world with rampant revenge politics. It is one of the more extreme manifestations of division and truthfully a sad reality. It is a reflection of personal narcissistic needs and desires unfulfilled. When the needs for the greater good hold supreme and care for the community come first, revenge and retribution are held in check and holding a grudge, the poison that eats away inside, becomes mollified and silenced. There is a difference between payback and justice. Our tradition teaches how important this is.
Rabbi Michael Barclay, Spiritual Leader of Temple Ner Simcha in Westlake Village
We teach children that if you love your dog, it requires that you feed, water, and play with it, or it’s not really love. I often remind couples that in Judaism, “love” is not just a feeling, it is action; and it is incumbent on each partner to show their love by being both proactive and protective of their partner. When we love someone, we need to proactively show it by doing things that bring them joy. And we must protect our partners. If, God forbid, someone is attacking your wife or children, you will defend them as an expression of love.
This is this verse’s teaching: the realization that as a nation we must love both God and Israel and always protect them both. Only then can we gather as a people together.
The Hebrew word for vengeance is repeated twice in this verse. Once for God, and once for Israel: both of whom had been previously attacked by the Midianites in a way that had resulted in the death of 24,000 Hebrews (Num. 25:1-9). God is telling not only Moses, but all future Jewish generations, that if we want to gather as a community, we must defend that which we love. We must protect both the Presence of God in this world, and the nation of Israel.
We defend God through living an authentic Jewish life with Torah as our guide. We protect Israel by always and unconditionally supporting her with our energy and actions. May we always act in a truly loving way with both God and Israel; and be blessed to gather together as a result.
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