Kahane on the Parsha
Rabbi Binyamin Kahane- Parshat Matot
WARS OF VENGEANCE HAVE DIFFERENT RULES
When Pinchas and the Jewish army return from battling Midian (in revenge for the Midianite women causing Israel to sin), Moses angrily questions Pinchas, "Have you kept all the women alive?!" Concerning this verse, the Ramban quotes the Sifri: "Pinchas answered Moses, 'As you commanded us, so we did!'"
The Ramban, however, notes: Nowhere in the Torah do we find Moses instructing Pinchas and his troops whom to kill and whom to keep alive. If so, the Ramban asks, what did Pinchas mean by his reply, "As you commanded us, so we did"? And if Pinch as did what Moses asked him to do, why was Moses upset?
The Ramban answers that a misunderstanding occurred. Pinchas assumed that the war against Midian was to be conducted like any other obligatory war (milchemet mitzvah) or permissible war (milchemet reshut), in which only males are generally killed. That is why Pinchas said, "As you commanded us, so we did." He meant, "We only killed the men as you commanded us in the Torah."
Why, then, did Moses get upset? Because the women "caused the Children of Israel, through the counsel of Bila'am, to revolt against the L-rd in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the L-rd" (Numbers 31:16).
This verse contains a vital lesson regarding warfare. In essence, it informs us that in addition to obligatory and permissible wars, there is another category of wars: wars of vengeance. For regular wars, the laws regarding whom to kill and whom to spare are clear and pre-set (see Rambam, Hilchot Melachim 6). For wars of vengeance, however, the laws are contingent upon the harm done to Israel.
Therefore, the rules of engagement vary from war to war, depending on the specific circumstances that led up to it. In the case of the war against Midian, which was fought because of the Midianite women's immoral behavior, the Jewish army should have made the women their very first victims. But the army did not understand this, and that is why Moses grew angry.
The notion that wars of vengeance should be fought in a different manner appears in the Book of Judges as well. When 3,000 men of Yehuda come to arrest Samson and turn him over to the Philistines, they ask him why he terrorized the Philistines. Samson answers: "As they did to me, so I did to them" (Judges 15:11). In other words, measure for measure. This is similar to what Shmuel HaNavi said to Agag, the Amalekite king, as he took him out to be executed: "Just as your sword made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women" (1 Samuel 15:33). It is incumbent upon the haters of Israel to know: Punishment will be exacted from them in precise proportion to the measure they oppressed Israel!
King David, warrior and conqueror, also followed this principle. Our Rabbis tell us that David's war against Moab was retribution for the murder of his parents and brothers by the Moabite king. And when he defeated the Moabites, David treated them in a most unconventional fashion: "He measured his captives with a rope, laying them down on the ground and measuring two rope lengths to be put to death, and one rope length to be kept alive" (II Samuel 8:2). The Radak explains: "It was an act of revenge and humiliation." Once again, we see that treatment of the enemy during war is tailored to fit the circumstances at hand.
Darka Shel Torah, 1998
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