The time arrived for the retribution against the Midianites. G-d earlier commanded a response (Bamidbar/Numbers 25:17) for the Midianite culpability for the Jewish immorality and idolatry that resulted in the death of 24,000 of the Children of Israel. “G-d spoke to Moses saying, ‘Take vengeance for the Children of Israel against the Midianites; afterward you will be gathered unto your people [i.e. you will die].'” (31:1-2)
Medrash Raba (22:5) contrasts this episode to the end of the life of Yehoshua (Joshua). G-d promised him, “As I was with Moshe so will I be with you.” (Yehoshua 1:5) Yehoshua was to have lived for 120 years as Moshe did. But he died ten years prematurely, for when Moshe was told to annihilate the Midianites, he fulfilled the charge with alacrity, even though its completion meant his demise. But Yehoshua, as he went to war with the 31 kings of the Land of Canaan, understood G-d’s promise to mean that just as Moshe died after the completion of his mission, so too He would die with the completion of his own mission, so he drew out the process of conquering the Promised Land. G-d responded, “This is what you have done? I will shorten your life ten years.”
Yehoshua’s decision was not motivated by self preservation. Moshe himself warned the Jewish Nation, “For I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly and you will stray from the path that I have commanded you and evil will befall you at the end of days.” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 31:29) But Rashi notes on that verse that as long as Yehoshua – Moshe’s closest disciple – was alive, to the Jewish People it was as if Moshe was still alive and they did not stray: “And Israel served G-d all the days of Yehoshua.” (Yehoshua 24:31) Thus, Yehoshua strove to lengthen his life, not for mundane self gratification, but to lengthen the time that the Jewish People would remain faithful to G-d’s word. Why should he be punished for such a noble, generous act?
Chidushei HaLev (1) explains that Yehoshua was bound by the maxim that the zealous are swift to fulfill mitzvos (Divine commands). Notwithstanding the benefit to the Jewish nation to postpone the conclusion of the conquest of the Holy Land, Yehoshua was obligated to discharge his obligation as swiftly as possible. It was not his place to set aside G-d’s command for his own rationale, even if that rationale was for the spiritual survival of the Jewish People. G-d is in absolute control of the destiny of the Jewish People; He is fully able to assist them spiritually if He so desires, and if G-d does not so desire then no amount of human intervention can make a difference. As Shlomo HaMelech (King Solomon) teaches, “Many designs are in a man’s heart, but the counsel of G-d, only it will prevail.” (Mishlei/Proverbs 19:21) And so it was with Yehoshua. For all his efforts to positively manipulate the fortune of his people, he caused the reverse: his untimely death and early deprivation of his leadership for the Jewish Nation.
The G-d conscious Jew faces many great challenges as he strives to connect with the Divine and grow spiritually. The path to spiritual success – like the journey to achieve all worthwhile goals – is fraught with trials. In the physical realm, the failure of Plan A to achieve the goal mandates the utilization of Plan B, C, or D. But the spiritual realm works within a different paradigm. The Torah is G-d’s own Plan A and is guaranteed to succeed. For who better than the Master of the Universe Himself to create THE plan for forging a relationship with Him? Further, “success” does not come from the accomplishment of any particular act, but from the continued striving to succeed, even when tangible success is elusive. Our charge is not to shape our destiny; our charge is to respond appropriately to the challenges our destiny presents us.
Have a Good Shabbos!
(1) the ethical discourses of Rabbi Alter Henach Leibowitz, Rosh Yeshiva/Dean of Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim of Kew Gardens Hills, New York.
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