We find in Parshat Mattot, that when Pinchas and the Israeli army return from battling Midyan (after the Midyanite women caused Israel to sin), Moshe angrily questions Pinchas: “Have you saved all the women alive?!” Concerning this, the Ramban quotes the “Sifri”: “Pinchas answered Moshe: As you commanded us, so we did!”
The Ramban then asks the following: Nowhere in the Torah do we find that Moshe commands whom to kill and whom to leave alive. If so, what did Pinchas mean, “as you commanded us, so we did”? If Pinchas was given explicit instructions by Moshe whom to kill, surely he would have carried out the orders. What then happened here? That is, what is Moshe’s complaint, and what is Pinchas’s response?
Ramban’s answer to this question is that a misunderstanding occurred. Pinchas assumed that this war was the same as any other obligatory war (“Milchemet Mitzvah”) or permissible war (“Milchemet Rishut”), whose laws are outlined in Deuteronomy 20:10. In most of these wars, only males are to be killed (with the exception of obligatory wars against Amalek or against the nations who dwelled in the land previously, where all are to be killed including women and children). We can now understand what Pinchas meant when he said, “as you commanded, so we did.” He meant, as you commanded us in the Torah.
Circumstances Determine the Reaction
And so when Moshe saw that Israel left the females alive, he explains, “Behold, these (specifically the females) caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Bilaam, to revolt against the Lord in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord.” Moshe is teaching us a vital lesson here: There is another category of war – a war of vengeance. As opposed to the regular wars (both permissible and obligatory), where the laws are pre-set regarding who is to killed or spared (see Rambam, Laws of Kings, Chapter 6), the wars of vengeance are a direct response to what was done to Israel. It takes into consideration specific actions of the enemy in the past. Therefore, the way in which the enemy is treated varies from one war to another, depending on the specific circumstances. In the case of the war against Midyan, which was fought to avenge what the women of Midyan did, it would have been proper for the Jewish army to make the women of Midyan the very first victims. And so, we have learned a principle regarding a “war of vengeance” – that the type of vengeance which is exacted depends on what or who is being avenged.
“As They Did to Me, So I Do to Them”
This same concept appears in the form of Shimshon HaGibor (the mightySamson) who avenged the honor of Israel. In the book of Judges, we learn that when the men of Judah come to arrest Shimshon and hand him over to the Philistines, they inquired to know why he terrorizes the Philistines so. Shimshon answered: As they did to me, so I do to them. (Judges 15:11) In other words: Measure for measure. This is similar to what the prophet Shmuel says to Agag, the Amalekian King, as he takes him out to be executed: “Just as your sword made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women”. (Shmuel 1, 15:33) It is incumbent upon the haters of Israel to know: Punishment will be exacted from them precisely according to the measure they oppress Israel!!
Such is the case with King David, warrior and conqueror. Our sages tell usthat David’s war against the nation of Moav was retribution for the killing of David’s parents and brothers by the King of Moav after David had sent his family there when he fled Saul. His subsequent treatment of the Moavites was quite unconventional: “David measured his captives with a rope, laying them down on the ground and measuring two rope lengths to be put to death, and one rope length to be kept alive…” The commentator Radak explains: “It wasan act of revenge and humiliation.” Once again, we see that treatment of the enemy during a war is tailored according to the circumstances at hand.
Israel’s Revenge = G-d’s Revenge
It is imperative to understand the concept of revenge in depth, especially in this generation when alien westernized culture has seeped into the yeshiva halls, turning the awesome concept of revenge into a dirty word. Asopposed to personal revenge between one Jew against another, which is wrongand falls under the heading, “thou shall not take revenge”, here we aredealing with revenge by Israel against her enemies. This is not a personalmatter! It is a matter of sanctifying G-d’s Name! You may ask: What doesvengeance have to do with sanctifying G-d’s Name? This is what our sagesask, too. We find in our parsha, that when G-d appears to Moshe, He tellshim, “take vengeance for the children of Israel against Midyan.” However,when Moshe relays the orders to Israel, he says, “arm men to inflict G-d’svengeance against Midyan.” Nu, so which is it? G-d’s revenge, or Israel’srevenge? Rashi answers the riddle: “Those who fight against Israel, it is asif they fight against G-d Himself.” It’s that simple. Since the nation ofIsrael is G-d’s Chosen Nation and His representative in the world, when someone hurts or degrades them, the name of G-d is desecrated. Revenge is not a primitive or Fascist matter, it is a lofty matter of Kiddush Hashem!
Now we can understand why Moshe was so furious when the Midyanite women were kept alive. When the desecration of G-d’s Holy Name is at stake, there is notime to waste! Our sages teach: “Moshe craved to see vengeance taken against Midyan before his death.” When he saw that the vengeance he craved was not completed, he became furious. The sages continue: “If Moshe wanted to live afew more years, the power was in his hands. G-d had said to him, takevengeance, and then you will gathered amongst your people. The Torah stipulates Moshe’s death on his taking revenge against Midyan. This is to teach you Moshe’s greatness. He said, so that I shall live shall I delay the vengeance of Israel?!” (BaMidbar Raba 22:2)