The following article is reprinted with permission from the Orthodox Union.
In Moshe‘s final days he is commanded to attack the Midianites. This was the nation that had tempted the people of Israel to horrible sins of immorality and idolatry, such that Hashem struck them with a plague that took the lives of 24,000 Israelites.
And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying, "Carry out the vengeance of the Children of Israel against the Midianites; afterward you shall be gathered to your people."
And Moshe spoke to the people, saying, "Detach men for the army from you, and they shall be against Midian to bring Hashem’s vengeance against Midian. A thousand from each tribe, for all the tribes of Israel shall you send to the army."
Then, out of the thousands of Israel, 1,000 from each tribe were handed over, 12,000 men deployed for the army. And Moshe sent them forth, 1,000 from each tribe to the army, they and Pinhas the son of Elazar the priest to the army, and the holy vessels and the trumpets for blowing in his hand. And they warred against Midian as Hashem had commanded Moshe and they killed every male (B’midbar 31:1-7).
This war is both "the vengeance of the Children of Israel" and "Hashem’s vengeance." Clearly, Midian is to be punished for leading Israel to sin against Hashem, and for arousing Hashem’s anger against His beloved people of Israel.
This order to Moshe had been mentioned earlier:
And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying, "Oppose the Midianites and attack them, for they opposed you with their wiles with which they beguiled you in the matter of Pe’or and in the matter of Cozbi, daughter of a prince of Midian, their sister, who was slain on the day of the plague on account of Pe’or (B’midbar 25:16-17).
However, specific instructions for the war are now given:
And they warred against Midian as Hashem had commanded Moshe (31:7).
What were these directives of war? Rambam, in the Laws of Kings and Their Wars (6:7), says that Moshe was taught a law for all wars:
When they besiege a city to capture it they must not surround it from all four sides, but from three sides, and they must leave a place for a deserter or anyone who wishes to save his life, as it says: "And they warred against Midian as Hashem had commanded Moshe." Through the oral tradition the [Sages] learned that it was in this [matter] that He commanded him.
Rambam’s source for this law is the Sifre (the Halakhic (legal) Midrash on Bamidbar and Devarim) Matot 157 (see also Yalkut Shimoni).
It is interesting to note that Rambam does not count this law as a separate mitzvah (commandment) in his Book of the Commandments.
Ramban (Nahmanides), however, does list this as a mitzvah (Commentary on Rambam’s Book of the Commandments, Commandments Which the Master Forgot, Positive Commandment # 5):
We are commanded that when we besiege a city we are to leave one of the sides without siege, so that if they wish to escape there will be a way for them to flee, because from this will [we] learn to behave with compassion even towards our enemies in a time of war. There is another benefit, that we will open an opening for them so that they will flee rather than strengthen themselves against us.
Meshech Chochmah (R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk 1843-1926), in his comments on our verse, explains their argument: Ramban understands that the main motivation for this mitzvah is "because from this will [we] learn to behave with compassion even towards our enemies in a time of war."
This is to say that, just as we are commanded to offer peace to our enemies (as we find in Positive Commandment #190 and in the Laws of Kings and Their Wars 6:1-5), so are we commanded to spare them and leave them a way of escape. Thus, the Torah formulates another commandment in the spirit of compassion.
Rambam, on the other hand, regards this law as a military tactic: If the enemy is completely surrounded, they will be driven to fight to the last man rather than fall into captivity, and their very desperation might lead them to prevail, in the words of R. Meir Simcha, "As it is known throughout history, that oftentimes from great despair there comes great triumph." However, if the enemy sees a chance to escape, he will not risk his life, and Israel will have a better chance of a rapid (and, it should be added, less bloody) victory. Thus the Torah, while obligating this type of tactic, does not formulate it as a separate commandment.
Meshech Chochmah also cites the following verse from Kings II (15:16):
Then Menachem from Tirtzah attacked Tifsach and all that were in it and all its borders because he did not open, and he attacked; he split open all its pregnant women.
Although he does not explain the connection, he seems to be following not Rashi, but the commentary of Malbim (R. Meir Leib ben Yechiel Michael, 1809-1877), that wicked King Menachem disobeyed the law that requires Israel to leave open one side of a city under attack. Meshech Chochmah might also imply that it was this "total warfare" that led the inhabitants of Tifsach (a city on the Euphrates that had once been the frontier of King Shlomo‘s kingdom; see Kings I 5:4) to fight ceaselessly until only the barbarous mutilation of their pregnant women brought an end to the battle.
The war against Midian teaches that there is no forgiveness for those enemies of Israel who drive a wedge between them and their Father in Heaven. It also teaches Israel not to glory in war, but to prefer peace. And when Israel must fight, it must pursue a course of war that will lead to the fewest casualties on both sides.
War, however just, challenges us to affirm our commitment to the values of Torah.
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