Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Mattos, Bamidbar 31:1. Moshe Rabbeinu's Role in the War with Midian.

Reb Meir Simcha asks, why was the war with Midian tied to Moshe? Why couldn’t Hashem just give him the tzivui, and whoever will do it will do it? There is clearly a very important connection between Moshe Rabbeinu and the war with Midian. In fact, Klal Yisrael knew that Moshe would live as long as the war had not yet taken place, and would die after the war ended. Reb Meir Simcha answers that it was important to teach people that personal loyalty cannot stand in the way of doing the will of Hashem. Moshe, fleeing from a death penalty in Mitzrayim, found refuge for many years in Midian, and married the daughter of one of their leaders. Despite this chiyuv hakaras hatov, Moshe led the war against them because Midian had been mechallel Hashem and had attacked Klal Yisrael.

Interestingly, the Lekach Tov points out that Moshe did not personally participate in the war with Midian. Instead, he sent Pinchas to lead the army. He brings that the Tanchuma, and the Medrash here, say that the reason Moshe sent Pinchas was because Moshe owed Midian hakaras hatov, and ‘bira dishasis minei lo sishdi bei Kalah.’ He, who owed a debt of gratitude to Midian, couldn't be the one to wage war on a nation from which he had derived such benefit.

Each of these two pshatim is very nice. However, if you think about it for a second, you will realize that R Meir Simcha’s pshat and the alleged Tanchuma appear to be diametrically opposed and contradictory. Reb Meir Simcha says that the lesson is that in the face of Retzon Hashem and resolving a chillul Hashem, a personal obligation of hakaras hatov means nothing; the Tanchuma says that the lesson is that Moshe Rabbeinu's hakaras hatov interfered with his personally prosecuting the war, that despite Hashem's command to wage war against Midian, Moshe’s hakaras hatov forced him to hand off the actual execution of the war to Pinchas.

It would be easy to say the two approaches, the Tanchuma and the Meshech Chachma— don’t necessarily go together. Ein meishivim ahl hadrush! That may be a good answer if you have a stirah about whether Rivkah was three years old or twelve years old, but it is a very poor answer where contradictory moral lessons are being taught. Secondly, then you would have the Tanchuma’s kashe (why did he hand it off to Pinchas) on Reb Meir Simcha, and Reb Meir Simcha’s kashe (why did Hashem davka want Moshe to be in charge of the war) on the Tanchuma. So we have no choice but to try to resolve the apparent contradiction and to see how they work together.

Perhaps we can say that Hashem wanted davka Moshe to declare and support the war, but Moshe understood that Hashem didn’t mean that he should actively participate, because of his hakaras hatov. Despite declaring and supporting the war, hakaras hatov prevents you from personally taking part.

We find this exact idea expressed in the story of Mitzrayim as well. Moshe was not commanded to actually carry out the makkos of dam and shchin, because of bira de’shasis etc. The makkos that afflicted the water that saved him as an infant, and the sand that hid the killing of the Mitzri, were not done by Moshe. But Aharon did them, and it was Moshe that commanded and directed Aharon to do them. So there, too, we seem to see that hakaras hatov is not a stirah to assailing at arm’s length.

So it seems that the answer is the same as Reish Lakish’s rule (e.g., Nazir 57b) in asei docheh lo sa’aseh; where you have a contradictory mitzvah obligation and lahv prohibition, if you can work them out separately so they don’t conflict, then do so. If not, and the contradiction cannot be resolved, then the obligation takes precedence over the prohibition. Here, too: Of course, the person has a personal chiyuv hakaras hatov. The fact that Hashem has declared that the person has an onesh coming has nothing to do with that chiyuv; the chiyuv onesh does not mean that the person or the object are completely atrocious and ugly. So, Moshe understood, perhaps from his experience in Mitzrayim, that although he was obligated to preside over and direct the war, it would be better, mitzad his hakaras hatov, that he should avoid doing it beyadayim.

Someone pointed out to me that Moshe Rabbeinu had an obligation of hakoras hatov to the royal family in Mitzrayim, and despite that, he personally did many of the makkos. I would say that the benefits Moshe Rabbeinu got from the royal family in Mitzrayim stemmed from the fact that they took him in after he was abandoned as a result of their genocidal decree. It’s sort of like the joke about a patricide pleading for mercy as an orphan. Their care can’t be said to mitigate the murderous intent-- a murderer who shows mercy, and spares one of his possible victims, doesn't deserve a medal.

Having said all this, I have to admit that I find the distinction unsatisfying. It seems like a hair-splitting legalism that disregards the moral basis of hakaras hatov. I assume that hakaras hatov means that you should endeavor to appreciate the favor and to do good for your benefactor. It really doesn 't matter much to the other side whether you're destroying him personally or through an agent. (This idea, that you can express your ambivalence by continuing to love someone while arranging his destruction reminds me. A cleric was once asked how he reconciles the suffering of the innocent with his theology of a loving god, and he answered that "god, in his magisterial capacity, sometimes does things which, in his personal capacity, he abhors." I didn't capitalize god or he because this particular cleric's belief system, and his idea of what god is, is so different from ours that it doesn't deserve a capital letter. In any case, if, as they say, the suffering of the innocent is the "rock of atheism," then I don't think his response would make much of a dent.) I know that ba'alei mussar will answer that hakaras hatov is a middah tova, and the problem here is not the damage to the other side, but instead the damage to your own feeling of hakaras hatov; by appointing an agent, and thereby refraining from doing it yourself, you avoid doing violence to the middah tovah, to your internal emotion of hakaras hatov. This is also how they explain why Moshe was loath to afflict the water and sand of Mitzrayim, although they are utterly insensate. I don't particularly like the pshat there, and I don't particularly like it here, either. Anyway, as I said, I try to write about things that require some thought; in this case, there are wrinkles here that I need to iron out as well.

Chaim Brown, in the comments, says the following.
Why do you need to come up with a pat resolution? I don't see a problem with saying Moshe was charged with declaring war to protest a chilul Hashem, but at the same time was faced with the burden of dealing with his own obligation of hakaras hatov toward his enemy. I think that mix of emotions is more consistant with issues that we face in the real world, where things are seldom black and white, than if you boil it down to one side or the other.
I realized that R Chaim's comment connects this discussion with something I just posted, in 2018, about the conflict between psak and exigency.


  1. When I saw your posting on the topic of hakaras hatov with a note beneath it that said "0 comments" I was reminded that I have wanted to mention again how much I enjoy your weekly postings.

  2. Thank you! I very much appreciate your thoughtfulness and chizuk.

  3. You a gilgul of the Infamous Character in this weeks parsha see seder haolom

  4. Why do you need to come up with a pat resolution? I don't see a problem with saying Moshe was charged with declaring war to protest a chilul Hashem, but at the same time was faced with the burden of dealing with his own obligation of hakaras hatov toward his enemy. I think that mix of emotions is more consistant with issues that we face in the real world, where things are seldom black and white, than if you boil it down to one side or the other.

  5. OK, 6:44 AM guy, (aka Anonymous Drush Person), I don't have a Seder Olam. Can you give me a hint?

  6. Chaim B., what bothered me was that I wanted to understand what exactly was the point that Hashem wanted to make by having davka Moshe declare war and witness its execution: that there cannot be any personal gratitude or sense of loyalty to a mechalel es hashem? That emotion should be not only controlled, but that it should be erased entirely? Or the opposite, that despite the command, Moshe was entitled to feel a sense of sadness at the fate of Midian?

    But I would say that you are right. The point of the mixed message here is to teach us about dealing with mixed emotions. We are not obligated to purge ourselves of personal emotion like love and gratitude, even when they would appear to be inconsistent with our religious obligations. But we should learn to subjugate and control them when necessary, even as we accept them.

    July 24, 2008

  7. Anonymous Drush GuyJuly 24, 2008 at 6:42 PM

    (Not meant as an Insult but I think after this You will have to explain your choice of Name)
    The Ri Hakodosh says Normally a Gilgul goes through a cycle of three But everyone knows that Billam is a Gilgul of Lavan who came back as Naval Hacarmeli but because The goyim had one navi representative Hashem let there be a fourth Gilgul in Barzilai (Sefer Emek Hamelech).
    This means Barzilai Hagiladi was a Gilgul of of Billam and Lavan and Naval Hacarmeli: who would not send Dovid food.Barzilai let Dovid eat at his table when running away from his son Avshalom. Dovid wanted to do a favor back to Barzilai so he invited him to come back with him to the castle. He said no I am to old to my hearing failed me so I can not enjoy the music. I cant taste the food I am to old.This seems to be wise advise says the Gemurah in Shabbos on KOF NUN BEIS AMUD ALEPH Barzilai Hagiladi said "Ben Shemonim Shanah Anochi ha'Yom ha'Eda Bein Tov l'Ra" - this teaches that [very] old people's minds fade;

    1. "Im Yit'am Avdecha Es Asher Ochal v'Es Asher Eshteh" - this teaches that old people's lips crack;
    2. "Im Eshma Od b'Kol Sharim v'Sharos" - this teaches that their hearing deteriorates;
    3. (Rav): Barzilai lied! Rebbi had a 93 year old Shifchah who would taste the food!
    4. (Rava): Barzilai lusted for relations, this causes old age to come prematurely.
    and because he was into Znus old age came quicker and even thought Rava said he never had enjoyment from even his small finger referring to His Male organ that is exactly why His old 92 year old maid was in charge of taste testing he stayed away from Znus so old age did not ruin his household sense whole those who where into znus lose their senses at an old age. Noe if the Gemara say he Was Shtuf Bzima why would you call yourself that?

  8. Well, there are actually three reasons I chose that name. One, it's related to my family name. Two, Barzilai married a woman who was more choshuv than he was. As for number three, we won't discuss #3. But I will say that I never thought someone would remember the gemara in Shabbos.

  9. I did not remeber, to tell you the truth I heard in a Shiur on this weeks Parsha Mattos like the rest of the statment, but I have to thank you now I remeber some Navi.