The war against Midian teaches that when Israel does fight wars, they must fight with compassion and a minimum of casualties.
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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