The War Against Midian in its Time is For All Generations
It is written, “Take vengeance for the Children of Israel against the Midianites; afterwards you will be gathered unto your people” (Numbers 31:2). This should be examined a little more closely. What is the connection between the death of Moses and the war with Midian, and why did the Holy One, blessed be He, make one dependent on the other? The commentators have equally looked into the formulation of G-d’s command to Moses: “Take vengeance for the Children of Israel,” and Moses’ transmission of this command to the people: “To inflict the L-RD’s vengeance against Midian” (v.3). See also what is written with respect to this in the book Lev Eliyahu.
To explain this, we may say that the Holy One, blessed be He, asked Moses to exercise the vengeance of the Children of Israel against the Midianites because they gave advice to the nations of the world on how to weaken Israel. How could this be achieved? By provoking immodest behavior in the Children of Israel. As the Sages have explained concerning the verse that states, “in the matter of Peor” (Numbers 25:18), they prostituted their daughters to lead the Children of Israel astray and to bring them to follow the worship of Peor (Sanhedrin 106a; Rashi ibid.). In this way, the Holy One, blessed be He, would be continually angry against His people, for He detests indecency.
One may ask why there were would be reason to get angry at the Midianites, since it was the Children of Israel who were commanded to distance themselves from wicked practices (Leviticus 18), as well as to establish fences and safeguards so as not to transgress such a serious prohibition (Vayikra Rabba 27:6). Consequently, what are the Midianites guilty of? Why not attribute the sin to the Children of Israel, since they did not pay enough attention to safeguarding themselves?
One must keep in mind that up to that time, the whole world knew, just as well as the Children of Israel, that no one should behave indecently because this is a trait that that the Holy One, blessed be He, detests (Sanhedrin 93a, 106a; Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 10:2). Moreover, everyone knew that this sin had provoked the destruction of the world at the time of the flood, as it is written, “The earth had become corrupt” (Genesis 6:11), which the Sages explained as resulting because of “forbidden relations” (Rashi ibid.; Sanhedrin 57a). However at present, the Midianites began to sin anew in this area because they knew that the Holy One, blessed be He, would not destroy the world a second time since He had promised, “Nor will I again continue to smite every living being as I have done,” and also, “Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood” (Genesis 8:21; 9:11). There would never again be a flood to destroy the earth. And especially after the giving of the Torah, they understood that the Holy One, blessed be He, would not again destroy it. From that moment on, the Midianites again began to commit that sin. Certainly, they knew very well that the Eternal would not let this pass without rebuke, and that He would punish them, however their hate for the Children of Israel was such that they were ready to incur death, given that they also sin and they also be punished with death, just as Samson said, “Let my soul die with the Philistines” (Judges 16:30). It was for this reason that the Holy One, blessed be He, ordered that the Children of Israel’s vengeance should be taken upon the Midianites.
However Moses, who always defended the Children of Israel, told them to exercise “the L-RD’s vengeance.” By this he arranged things such that every time the nations make Israel fall into immodesty, the Holy One, blessed be He, would remember in their favor that they had fought Midian to exercise His vengeance, and because of this merit, He would not punish them by the measure of strict justice, but rather with mercy. The Tetragrammaton (which we have translated with the word “L-RD”) alludes to mercy (Bereshith Rabba 12:15; Zohar I:180b; III:202b). And since G-d made Moses’ death dependant on the war with Midian, when Israel sins by behaving immodestly, G-d will remember in their favor the death of Moses, a man who had given everything for the Children of Israel. G-d will also remember that, far from trying to delay his own death, Moses encouraged them to exercise His vengeance.
It is in this way that one must explain the connection between the war with Midian and Moses’ death. The Holy One, blessed be He, told Moses that if he fought against Midian and the Children of Israel avenged themselves on the Midianites because of Peor (that is, because of the advice that the Midianites had given to the nations of the world on how to make the Children of Israel sin), when Israel happens to sin, He will not punish them by the measure of strict justice, but would recall in their favor Moses’ death and his devotion towards them. This is the meaning of the phrase, “afterwards you will be gathered unto your people,” the death of the righteous constituting an atonement for Israel (Moed Katan 28a; Vayikra Rabba 20:7; Zohar III:56b). Consequently, Moses immediately sent the Children of Israel to war and told them to execute “the L-RD’s vengeance on Midian,” since because of Peor this war was for all generations.
We may also explain in another way why Moses restated G-d’s command as “the L-RD’s vengeance on Midian.” The Holy One, blessed be He, told Moses that the Children of Israel should avenge themselves of the Midianites without cease, meaning that they were never to allow themselves to be led to sin in the area of forbidden relations. Moses used the expression, “the L-RD’s vengeance” because he feared that the Children of Israel, despite everything, would fall into sin because of the evil inclination that lies in wait for man at every instant. It does so in order to make a man transgress, particularly if he is a Talmid Chacham (Sukkah 52a). This is why, up to the present, we must still exercise “the L-RD’s vengeance”; we must continue to avenge ourselves on them, as the book Lev Eliyahu explains. In this Moses showed himself to be a good advocate, and through this war he managed to arrange things such that G-d’s vengeance is upon the peoples that make the Children of Israel transgress in every generation. It is against them that the Holy One, blessed be He, will vent His wrath, rather than on us, similar to what is stated in the expression, “The Holy One, blessed be He, has poured out His wrath on the wood and the stone” (Lamentations Rabba 4:15).
This is the lesson that we should learn from the war of Israel against Midian. At every instant, there is reason to wage real war against those who sin and make others sin. This is in order that they not continue to act in this way, that others not continue to learn from their behavior, that G-d’s punishment not fall upon the community of Israel, and that the latter not be punished for its silence.
It must also be reasoned, a fortiori, that if G-d ordered that the peoples which made Israel sin be punished, how much more will the punishment of a Jew be greater if he causes another Jew to sin! This is because he knows the gravity of sin, he received the Torah at Sinai, and yet despite everything still caused another Jew to sin. Now it is written, “One who sins and causes the public to sin is not allowed to repent” (Sanhedrin 107b; Avoth d’Rabbi Nathan 40:3). One must obviously fight against this person and reprove him, as it is written, “You shall reprove your fellow and do not bear sin because of him” (Leviticus 19:17).