Avenge the Bnei Yisrael against the Midianites. Afterwards, you will be
gathered unto your people.
Why are we told that Moshe’s death hinged on the military campaign against
Midian? More importantly, why was Moshe told this in advance?
A midrash sees the battle against Midian as a kind of granting a last
wish to Moshe. It is a rare treat to witness – in this world – Hashem
evening the score against one of His enemies. Hashem wished to give Moshe
the pleasure of witnessing it.
We could explain differently. We might be looking at a principle that shows
As a consequence of Achan’s trespass, Yehoshua’s forces were initially
rebuffed at Ai. After dealing with this tragic defeat, Yehoshua came to
terms with HKBH, Who reassured him that victory was at hand in the next
attempt against Ai. Nonetheless, Hashem instructed Yehoshua to set an ambush
to the rear of the city.
With Hashem guaranteeing victory, why would an ambush be necessary? G-d has
no need for any of the tactics of conventional warfare. His Will that the
Bnei Yisrael prevail should have been the necessary and sufficient condition
for a resounding victory.
The point is that danger lurks in dangerous places – and any place in which
people commit a grave sin becomes a dangerous location. Because the nation
sinned at Ai, it would remain a place where individuals might succumb to
harm, even if the nation as a whole was assured victory. The ambush was
necessary to address that danger. The Bnei Yisrael were instructed to wage
their war with greater precautions and with the greater concern for the
ordinary rules of engagement. They needed to pay just a bit more attention
to what the world of teva demands, reacting in ways that would not be
necessary if they could rely on Hashem’s miraculous intervention alone.
The impending war against Midian was precipitated by the failure of the
Jewish people with Ba’al Pe’or. That aveirah would continue to be a thorn in
their side, inviting retribution by Hashem’s attribute of Judgment. This
made the war a much riskier affair than other wars. Even a Divine guarantee
of victory would not eliminate the risk of death to individual soldiers.
Something had to counter the elevated risk level. That element was the
personal merit of Moshe. This is the reason for linking the war with Moshe’s
death. Moshe was told that the war could not wait. It had to be conducted in
his lifetime, so that his davening and his merit would counter the riskiness
of the enterprise.
Moshe takes a cue from Hashem, and finds his own ways to additionally link
the upcoming battle with merits. He commands the putting together of an
armed force “against Midian to inflict Hashem’s vengeance against
Midian.” The repetition of the word “Midian” is striking, but easy to
account for. Moshe wished to underscore the purpose of raising the army. He
wanted every step on the road to war to focus on Hashem’s plan, i.e., to
make it more lishmah. By doing so, he hoped to increase the zechus of the
Moshe continues: “A thousand from a shevet; a thousand from a shevet.”
Every shevet has its own character, its own contribution – and its own
zechus. By drawing soldiers from every shevet, Moshe hoped to multiply the
merit in his army.
Finally, “Moshe sent them – a thousand from each shevet.” Sending them
forth in his name made them all his agents. By associating himself with
their mission, by turning each soldier into a surrogate for himself, he
wished to send his own merits into the battle with them.
Who’s On Forth?6
These are the journeys of the Bnei Yisrael who went forth from the land
of Egypt according to their legions, at the hand of Moshe and Aharon. Moshe
wrote their goings forth according to their journeys, at the instruction of
Hashem. These where their journeys according to their goings forth.
Journeys according to goings forth, and goings forth according to journeys.
What is going on?
We can account for all the repetitions, and the inversions within the
repetitions, through one simple observation. The forty years they spent in
the wilderness can be divided into three distinct periods. Each one is
alluded to in these psukim.
From the time the Bnei Yisrael left Egypt until they the sending of the
spies from Kadesh Barnea, the single goal of their travel was to approach
the land of Israel. Having gone forth/escaped from Egypt, their sole purpose
in travelling was to draw closer to their destination. The “going forth” was
behind them; what now animated them was the expectation of entering and
taking possession of our holy land.
The sin of the meraglim changed all that, of course. From then until almost
the very end of the forty years, they would wander without apparent purpose.
We too easily suppose that this somehow was a punishment that perfectly fit
the crime. But upon further thought, is hard to see it that way. The old
generation was to be punished; a new one needed to dissociate itself from
the sins of their fathers. The older generation of sinners could have been
removed from the scene in short order, allowing a younger generation to
march into the land, untainted by the sins of their predecessors. Why wait?
The reason this did not happen is not given in Chumash. Hashem did not want
to kick them when they were down by telling them the reason – which had to
do with even darker days on the distand horizon. Their lives had become dark
and somber through the Divine edict that turned them into walking corpses.
Still trying to deal with the enormity of their crime, they were not yet
ready to hear about tragedies in the future. But it was those future
tragedies that determined the course of the next decades.
One way or another, full awareness of Hashem needs to permeate every nook
and cranny of the world. G-d’s goals for mankind can only be met with that
precursor in place. Had the Bnei Yisrael not spurned the Land when they were
poised at its threshold, they would have lived lives on the cutting edge of
human spiritual output. Divine Providence would have accompanied them in an
open and manifest manner. They would have been dealt with immediately when
they strayed, just as they were in the Wilderness. Their example of the
immediacy of Hashem’s presence in their lives would have attracted the
attention of other nations, and eventually all of Mankind would have learned
from that example. In that way, they would have been the vehicles to bring
knowledge of Hashem to all inhabitants of the earth.
They missed that opportunity through the aveirah of the meraglim. The goal,
however, remained the same. Jews would still be the vehicle to bring
knowledge of Hashem to the world, although it would now be through a
circuitous and laborious process. Hashem would exile them to the far
corners of the earth, where they would survive against all odds. Slowly,
their core message about the absolute Oneness of G-d would take hold of
those with whom they had contact.
The forty years of wandering, seemingly aimlessly, prepared the Jewish
nation for its mission in history. In the post-meraglim world, that mission
had been transformed into a long galus of seemingly aimless wandering with
no end in sight. They did not understand the purpose of their lives, but
accepted their lot as the Will of G-d. They acquired in those years the
national composure and resolve to weather the long storm ahead of their
In this period, the destination, the journey to somewhere, was not
important. The purpose of those decades was in surviving the disruptions,
the goings forth. The Torah tells us that Moshe “Moshe wrote their goings …
at the instruction of Hashem.” This did not have to mentioned in regard to
the first period, whose journeys were certainly worthy of being recorded.
Here, the point is that Moshe wrote about them only at the instruction of
Hashem, for reasons no one understood at the time.
Finally, arriving in Edomite territory in the Tzin Wilderness, they set
their eyes once more upon their destination in Israel. Once again, as had
been the case at the beginning of the forty years, their focus was the
journey, which became more important than the going forth.
1. Based on Ha’mek Davar Bamidbar 31:2-6
2. Bamidbar Rabbah 22:5
3. Bamidbar 31:3
4. Bamidbar 31:4
5. Bamidbar 31:6
6. Based on Haamek Davar, Bamidbar 33:1-2; 14:21,34