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Taking Vengeance Too Far: Moshe Oversteps God’s Mandate….Parashat Matot-Masei

Vengeance plays a large role in politics. In this week’s Torah portion Matot-Masei, Moshe takes vengeance on the Midianites. But not in God’s name. No person can take vengeance in God’s name — only God can.

Politicians could learn much from this! 

Vengeance is one of the driving forces of the populism characterizing the democratic politics in our time.

A very large number of people in democratic societies vote for those leaders who can infuriate and frustrate the elites that they loathe, even if they derive no real benefit from it. A populist leader aggravates an injury – real or perceived – felt by many people, then vilifies those elites (also real or perceived) for being the cause of their pain. The frustration of the vilified elite feeds the popularity of the populist leader. It is a joy, a narcotic ecstasy that soothes the pain.

In turn, many of the elites are ecstatic when they see a corrupt populist leader being brought to justice. Here also, the “justice done” has little value for fixing the injuries that enabled the rise of the populist in the first place. There is no real “Tikkun” in it.

In Vaykira, Leviticus Ch. 19 the Torah commands not to hold grudges and not to avenge, but in Tehillim, Psalm 58, revenge is celebrated: “The Righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance bathing the feet in the blood of the wicked.”

The Psalm indicates that the benefit of vengeance is ecstatic joy at seeing the downfall of those you perceive as wicked.

So the populist knows this truth: although there is no “Tikkun” in vengeance, there is a narcotic ecstasy in seeing the destruction of others who you hate.

That brings us to this week’s Torah Portion, Matot, in Numbers, Bamidbar Ch. 31, in which Moshe is commanded by God to take “Israel’s vengeance on the Midianites” as his last action before his death. The Torah is picking up the story that stops abruptly at the beginning of Ch. 26, of the sexual seduction of the Israelite men by the daughters of Moav and Midian leading to their worshipping a local deity – “ba’al peor” and to the desecration of the Mishkan by an Israelite and the daughter of a Midianite.

The story ends with the spearing of the couple by Pinchas, the son of Elazar the High Priest, assuaging God’s anger and ending a plague that had broken out in the Israelite Camp. Now, one thought the story ended there…but now it’s back – with a vengeance.

Recall that Miriam and Aaron have already died in the Desert, and Moshe has already been told that his fate too is to die without setting foot in the Holy Land. Yet to make his life’s mission complete, he is told he is to avenge the hurt caused by the Midianites.

He does that – and much more. He sends an army led by Pinchas – the youthful avenger – who kills the Midianite kings, including Bil’am, who had actually blessed Israel in Numbers, Bamidbar, Ch. 24. Why would Bil’am be singled out? While the Midrash vilifies Bil’am – it makes him the catalyst for the seduction and desecration described above, there is no indication of this in the plain text. Bil’am follows God, praises Israel and foretells its greatness.

Moreover, when Pinchas’ army returns after killing all the Midianite kings and their men and taking the women and children captive, Moshe is angry for leaving the grown women and male offspring alive. So, they kill them, then divide up the loot including the young girls. Now Moshe’s mission is finally complete – He can die in peace!

This shocking story disturbs the soul more than anything else I can think in Torah, but looking carefully at the text, I also notice there are other possibilities. God begins this sequence of events by telling Moshe that he is to take “Israel’s revenge”. Some commentators notice that it is not literally “on” the Midianites, but a correction of the harm “caused by” them.

Moshe on the other hand, tells the people that they are to take “God’s revenge”. It is Moshe who sends Pinchas to lead the army and kill Bil’am. It is his command to kill the women and male children. You see, Moshe oversteps his mandate, So forget about hitting the rock is the reason, he is no longer an effective leader for God’s people.

Often leaders invoke God’s will when inciting to horrific acts of revenge. The Torah here tells us otherwise. Not in God’s name!

Shavua Tov from Schechter


Illustration: Moses orders the death of the mature Midianite women and their male children after the victory of the Israelites over the Midianites, 1538, Lyon


Eitan Cooper is the former Executive Vice President of The Schechter Institutes. From January 1, 2024, he is a part-time consultant at Schechter. Since coming to Schechter in 2000, he has served in various capacities, including TALI Outreach Coordinator and Vice President for Development. Mr. Cooper holds a BA from the University of Chicago and an MA from the Hebrew University. He is a graduate of the Mandel School for Educational Leadership and a licensed Israeli tour guide.

Eitan and Anita Cooper made Aliya from the United States in 1983, and are proud parents and grandparents to their growing Israeli family.

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