Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying, "Take revenge for the Children of Israel
against the Metagnathous; afterwards you will be gathered to your nation."
Moshe spoke to the people, saying, "Arm yourselves... a thousand from each
tribe shall be sent to the army." From the thousands of Israel, a thousand
men were delivered from each tribe - a total of 12,000 armed soldiers.
Rashi derives from a Scriptural nuance that the tribe of Levi was also
included among those who sent soldiers to participate in the war against
Midian. If so, asks R' Yitzchak Meir of Gur (the Chiddushei Ha-Rim), how
are we to understand that the total number of all armed soldiers was
apparently only 12,000 - if the Tribe of Levi was included, it should have
been 13,000! (see Maskil LeDavid)
Why does the Torah describe the soldiers as being "delivered" or "given
over" ("va-yimasru") - were there no volunteers? From Rashi (quoting Sifrei
157) it seems there indeed weren't:
This teaches us the praiseworthiness of the shepherds (i.e. leaders) of
Israel. Before they heard of Moshe's impending death, what does it say?
"Another moment, and they'll stone me! (Shemos/Exodus 17:4)" Yet when
they heard that Moshe's death was contingent on their taking revenge
against Median, they did not want to go to war, and they had to be
delivered against their will.
Rashi expresses this as "the praiseworthiness of the shepherds of Israel."
But Moshe took a passive role in their refusal - wouldn't it have been
more accurate to refer to the praiseworthiness of the Jews in refusing
to go? Also, why does Rashi illustrate his point by dredging up a long-
forgotten and unpleasant incident when there was no water to drink, and
Moshe was so scared of the Jew's reaction that he feared for his life?
Does this some how enhance his, or their, praise?
How difficult it is, says the Chasam Sofer, to be a Rabbi. If a Rabbi is
disliked by his congregants, he is liable to criticism; after all, don't
Chazal (our Sages) teach, (Avos/Ethics of the Fathers 3:10), "If the
spirit of one's fellows is pleased with him, the spirit of the Almighty is
pleased with him; but if the spirit of one's fellows is not pleased with
him, the spirit of the Almighty is not pleased with him either!" If, on
the other hand, he is loved and revered by his congregation, they invoke a
different Talmudic dictum (Kesubos 105b): "Abaye taught: A Rav who is
loved by his townsmen, it is not because he is a great Rav, but rather
because he withholds from rebuking them in important matters!" What's a
good Rabbi to do - loved or hated he can't go right!
In the course of a Rabbi's life and career, he explains, it is natural that
he will at times encounter animosity and resentment. After all, part of
being a Rav is telling people things they don't want to hear. Abaye
teaches us that if no one ever gets upset with him, something's wrong.
Perhaps he is refraining from taking a stand - for fear of conflict and
criticism - where he really should be.
When the time comes for a Rav to pass away, people start to see things
differently. It's strange the effect that the realization someone might not
be with us for much longer can have on our perceptions. We begin to
see things in a different light. Things that irked us in the past become
loveable quirks we fear we may miss more than we ever dreamed. We
yearn to hear that same rebuke that so annoyed us - just one more time.
The fact that there was a time when Moshe feared for his life is to his
own praise - it shows he was doing his job, and putting his flock in its
place when need be, let the chips fall where they may. And when the
time came for him to pass on, people started to think things over. They
realized that without Moshe, they would be nowhere. He led them out
of Egypt and taught them the Torah. More than once, he had defended
them before Hashem, although their actions seemed indefensible. He was
their faithful shepherd, and they were his flock. Both events - the threats
and the unwillingness to go to war - teach us the praiseworthiness of
Moshe as a leader.
Not wanting to go to war is proof of Moshe's qualities as a leader. But
were B'nei Yisrael right in refusing to participate in a war that had been
ordered by Hashem? Perhaps they were. "Even the wise man can only
act according to what his eyes see." They felt they could not cope with
the loss of Moshe, and were willing to do everything in their power to
prevent it, even if it meant going up against the Almighty. Moshe himself,
when told by Hashem that he would not be allowed into Eretz Yisrael,
did not take it sitting down. He waged a "war of words," words of
prayer and supplication, that Hashem annul His decree, and allow him
into the cherished land. B'nei Yisrael can not be faulted, and likely
deserve praise, for not wanting to accept the Heavenly decree.
But there is a level of insight and acceptance of G-d's will at which even
this becomes impossible.
It is told that before the holy rebbe R' Elimelech of Liezensk zt"l
passed away, he promised his disciples that when he was brought before the
Heavenly tribunal, he would refuse to take his place in Gan Eden until
they agreed to bring an end to the suffering of the Jewish Children. Days
after his passing, he appeared to a disciple in a dream in the white
tallis of those already in Gan Eden. "But Rebbe," he protested, "you
promised you wouldn't enter Gan Eden until you brought an end to our
"My child," he said, "what should I do. When I was alive there was good
and there was bad, and I could pray to annul an evil decree. Now that I'm
here, I see that everything is Hashem's will, and everything is for
our good, even when we don't understand how. It is impossible for me to
Regarding the Tribe of Levi, says the Chidushei Ha-Rim, the Torah writes
(Devarim/Deuteronomy 33:9), "He says of his own father and mother, 'I
do not see them,' and does not recognize his brother, nor his own
child - thus they kept Your word and guarded Your covenant." Rashi
explains (ibid.) that when Israel worshipped the Golden Calf, Moshe
called out, "Whoever is for Hashem, come to me." All the Levites
assembled. He commanded them to kill their own grandparents,
maternal brothers, and grandchildren, if they had worshipped the Calf,
and they did so. They didn't wage a battle with Hashem and attempt to
save their flesh and blood; they submitted themselves totally to Hashem's
will, unquestioningly and with complete faith and devotion.
Here too, as much as it surely pained the Tribe of Levi to hear of
Moshe's demise - he was after all one of them - they had no qualms and
no reservations about going to war, even with the knowledge of what
lay in its aftermath. If it was Hashem's will, then there were no questions
to ask and no protests to make. This was the will of the Almighty, and
that was all that mattered.
So in fact there were 13,000 soldiers, but only 12,000 of them were
"delivered" against their will; the other 1,000 came willingly.
At present, we don't have the benefit of prophecy, and are often left in
doubt and uncertainty about what indeed is Hashem's will. We can only
ask Him that He give us the knowledge to do what we can, and the
wisdom to accept His will.
Have a good Shabbos.
****** This week's publication is sponsored by R' Zalman HaCohen
in honour of the Yortzeit of the holy Yismach Moshe, R' Moshe Teitelbaum
of Siget zy"a. And in honour of the Yortzeit of the holy Rebbe of Bobov,
R' Shlomo Halberstam zy"a. And of Aaron HaCohen, oheiv shalom ve-rodeif
shalom. And that his wife, Esther bas Pesil, should merit a re-fuah
shelaimah. Thanks also to R' Pinky Goldstein and Mr. Isaac Reichman for
contributing. And by the Solnick family, in memory of their beloved
grandson, son, and brother, Ro'i z"l ben Chaim Simcha Mendel n"y,