Parshas Matos - Massei
With the nation reeling from a plague that ravaged them due to Bilam and Balak’s scheme, Hashem orders an assault on the perpetrators, Moshe’s final act of leadership:
וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר נְקֹם נִקְמַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֵת הַמִּדְיָנִים אַחַר תֵּאָסֵף אֶל עַמֶּיךָ וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל הָעָם לֵאמֹר הֵחָלְצוּ מֵאִתְּכֶם אֲנָשִׁים לַצָּבָא וְיִהְיוּ עַל מִדְיָן לָתֵת נִקְמַת ה’ בְּמִדְיָן – God spoke to Moshe saying, “Take revenge for the children of Israel against Midian; afterwards you will be gathered to your people (=die).” So Moshe spoke to the people, saying, “Equip yourselves for the army, that they can stand against Midian, and carry out the revenge of God in Midian.” (31:1-3)
Hashem told Moshe to avenge the fallen Jews against the Midian. But when Moshe gave the orders, he told them to carry God’s vengeance against Midian.
Why did he change the wording?
The Chanukas Hatorah explains that Moshe modified the instruction because if he were to tell them to avenge themselves, they would forgive their pride in an effort to keep Moshe alive. The spies had already erred in trying to second guess who ought to lead; there would be no mistake this time. Moshe purposely told them to carry out God’s vengeance; they couldn’t say no to that!
When the Jewish armies return from their attack on Midian, Moshe went out to check if his orders had been carried out:
וַיִּקְצֹף מֹשֶׁה עַל פְּקוּדֵי הֶחָיִל שָׂרֵי הָאֲלָפִים וְשָׂרֵי הַמֵּאוֹת הַבָּאִים מִצְּבָא הַמִּלְחָמָה וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶם מֹשֶׁה הַחִיִּיתֶם כָּל נְקֵבָה – Moshe became angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had returned from battle. Moshe said to them, “Did you allow all their women to live?!” (31:14, 15)
Moshe is the actor once the Torah states that וַיִּקְצֹף מֹשֶׁה. Why then, does the Torah reiterate that וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶם מֹשֶׁה – that Moshe spoke?
Rav Zalman Sorotzkin explains that the Torah illustrates here that if angry, avoid speaking until the anger settles. The reiteration indicates that there was a pause between his anger and his speech. They were two very separate acts.
The Peleh Yoietz compares keeping quiet when angry to spraying water at the base of a fire. It extinguishes the source. R Elya Lopian would never punish a student at the time of an incident. The Alter of Kelm had an “angry suit” that he would change into each time he was angry, delaying reaction and allowing himself to calm down.
Controlling emotions are hard – but it is required. It is a life-long struggle, but we can never let up. Each breakthrough makes it easier next time around, not to mention the mountain of reward for managing to do it.
Actions must be thought through – not based on impulse.
Before entry into the land of Israel, the people are warned that it is not like anything they have experienced:
וְלֹא תַחֲנִיפוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם בָּהּ כִּי הַדָּם הוּא יַחֲנִיף אֶת הָאָרֶץ וְלָאָרֶץ לֹא יְכֻפַּר לַדָּם אֲשֶׁר שֻׁפַּךְ בָּהּ כִּי אִם בְּדַם שֹׁפְכוֹ – Do not deceive the land in which you live, for the blood corrupts the land. The blood which is shed in the land cannot be atoned for – except through the blood of the one who shed it. (35:34)
The word חניפה means flattery, deception, corruption, and obfuscation. The term may seem highly odd in the context of land – these are distinctly human characteristics. But the land of Israel is no ordinary land.
R’ Moshe Feinstein draws a major distinction between contemporary international politics, and Jewish law. People concerned with saving the world will go to war, leaving incredible collateral damage and destruction in its wake. This is יַחֲנִיף אֶת הָאָרֶץ – the world has taken precedence over man. If people die are dying wantonly, the sanctity of life is being seriously underrated.
The only ideal to uphold is how precious every human life is – the prohibition of murder extends to every soul on earth, no matter what the circumstance. If a life must be taken, it must be precise. We know all to well that countries are scarred for years after being a battleground. This is not the way of the Torah.
The Torah tells us that the land is always secondary to man – the land is worthless if the people on it aren’t good people. חניפה is the disconnect between reality and an ideal – we must always know that we have to be honest with ourselves, always trying to improve. This is what the pasuk means when it says וְלֹא תַחֲנִיפוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם בָּהּ.
We must focus attention on our own actions and behaviour.
The Torah teaches that a man who kills someone accidentally – manslaughter as opposed to murder – is relocated to an עיר מקלט – a city of refuge. He must remain there for the rest of his life or until the Kohen Gadol dies. A relative of the victim is appointed to pursue the murderer, and if he ever meets the killer outside the עיר מקלט, he is meant to avenge his relative and kill the man.
The Steipler Gaon explains that the עיר מקלט saves the man, but is still a punishment.
The עיר מקלט saves the killer from being hunted down by the person who sets out to avenge his family member; but even under circumstances where the avenger would not kill him, he must still flee anyway as part of the punishment. He needs to stay there until he dies, and is buried there. Being buried there and not where his family choose is also part of the punishment – independent of someone chasing him.
The Gemara in Sanhedrin records that if no relative is willing to avenge the deceased, then the Beis Din must appoint someone, a stranger. Clearly then, this law is not predicated on revenge either.
The cities of עיר מקלט were publicly owned – it is where people of Levi lived – the teachers of Bnei Yisrael. Being confined there specifically would mean he would learn from them, and correct his life and mistakes that caused his predicament. If he ever left, he would not be the same man who walked in – he would emerge enlightened.
The Beis Din needs to ensure an avenger is appointed because people, and society must always be held accountable for actions. No one can get away with crimes. The Torah is explicit that he cannot bribe his way out – the killer will stay until the end. There must always be fair justice.