Moav’s Great Escape

 And Hashem spoke to Moshe saying: Take the Children of Israel’s vengeance on the people of Midyan and after you will be gathered to your nation. (Sefer BeMidbar 31:1-2)

I. The fates of Moav and Midyan

In the above passage, Hashem tells Moshe to wage war against Midyan and that after completing this task he will die. This war avenged the scheme that Midyan planned and executed against Bnai Yisrael. It sent one of its princesses, along with women from Moav, into the camp of Bnai Yisrael.[1] The women proceeded to seduce men. Once successful in their seductions, they enticed their partners to join them in idol worship. Hashem struck Bnai Yisrael with a plague and twenty-four thousand perished.

Two enemies of Bnai Yisrael joined together in this enterprise – Moav and Midyan. Moav contributed a troop of women. Midyan committed one of its princesses. Hashem commanded Moshe to wage war against Midyan. He did not give a directive concerning Moav. Moav made a greater contribution to the plot. Why is Moshe commanded to punish Midyan and not Moav?

II. Moav and Midyan’s motivations

Rashi provides two answers to this question. The nation of Moav’s land was located along the southeast border of the Land of Cana’an. It was immediately south of the land that Bnai Yisrael had already conquered and in which it was camped. Moav knew that Bnai Yisrael was not permitted to conquer it. However, Moav assumed that Bnai Yisrael was not prohibited from harassing or making demands of it. The nation’s participation in the plot against Bnai Yisrael was motivated by fear. 

The Land of Midyan was in the northern portion of the Arabian Peninsula. Midyan was not threatened by Bnai Yisrael. Its aggression against Bnai Yisrael was not motivated by fear of conquest or domination. It was an expression of base hatred. Rashi’s first answer is that because of this distinction, Moshe was commanded to wage war against Midyan but not Moav.

III. The mission of nations

Rashi’s second answer is that Moav was spared because of its destiny. Ruth would emerge from Moav. She would adopt Judaism and she would be the ancestor of King David. [2] Let us consider this answer more thoroughly. 

The Talmud describes a conversation that will take place in the Messianic era. Hashem will invite all who have contributed to the study of the Torah to come forward and receive their reward. Immediately, various nations will claim their prize. The Roman empire will assert that it created marketplaces, bathhouses, and accumulated wealth to facilitate the Jewish people’s study of the Torah. Hashem will reject their claim saying, “You most foolish people of the world! All you did, you did for yourselves…” The Romans will be followed by other nations that dominated the civilized world. Each will make similar claims, and each will be rebuffed with the same response.[3]

Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik – GRIZ – poses two questions. First, the discussion described by the Talmud will take place in the Messianic era. At that time, all people and nations will accept Hashem and recognize that He is omniscient. How is it possible that each nation will lie to Him? Second, the specific lie is remarkable. The Romans will not claim that the Jews benefited from their activities. They are depicted claiming that their sole objective was to support the study of the Torah. Could they not have made their case without resorting to such an extraordinary lie? Could they not have claimed their reward by asserting that their efforts benefited the Jewish people, without adding the ridiculous assertion that their entire aim was for the furtherance of Torah study?

GRIZ explains that the answer to these questions emerges from a careful consideration of the details of Hashem’s response. He does not respond that the nations are lying. He responds that they are fools. Why did He not rebuke them for their lie? GRIZ explains that they were not lying! At that time, the plan of Hashem will be revealed. His hand in shaping the events of history and in the development of humanity will be clear. It will be revealed that the rise and fall of empires and their contributions to humanity fit into an overall design and pattern created and managed by Hashem. These empires did not intend to serve Hashem. Nonetheless, their activities contributed to His plan. They were unaware, at the time they acted, that the true objective of their activities was to promote Hashem’s aims. When they claim that this was their objective, they are not insisting that they were motivated by the desire to further Hashem’s objectives. They are alleging that, unknown to them, this was the true objective of their activities. They are not liars. They are fools. 

Why are they fools? GRIZ explains that they are correct in their assessment of their actions but foolish in their understanding of reward and punishment. Their activities served a greater purpose than they intended or imagined. But reward is apportioned based on righteousness. Their activities were not expressions of righteousness. In many instances, these activities were the product of base, violent, and lustful desires. There is no reward for such behavior.[4] 

GRIZ’s comments provide insight into Rashi’s second explanation for the treatment of Moav. Moav had a role that it would play in Hashem’s plan. It would produce Ruth. Because of this role, it was spared. 

IV. Moav’s excuse

Rashi’s two explanations for Hashem’s treatment of Moav present a problem. The first answer explains that Moav did not share Midyan’s guilt. Midyan was not threatened by Bnai Yisrael. Moav believed that its welfare was in jeopardy. This explanation is compelling. If Moav’s behavior was excusable, it is reasonable that it should not be destroyed. But Rashi provides a second explanation for Hashem sparing Moav. Ruth will descent from Moav. Why is this second explanation needed? If its punishment was deserved, then Moav’s role in the emergence of Ruth justifies Hashem sparing Moav. But if Moav did not deserve destruction – as Rashi asserts in his first explanation, then Ruth’s emergence is irrelevant. 

Imagine a lawyer representing his client before a judge. He proves to the judge that his client is innocent of the crime for which he is being tried. Does he then need to list all his client’s virtues? Once the lawyer has established his client’s innocence, he has rescued him from punishment. His virtues are irrelevant. 

V. Punishing evil

The answer is that Rashi’s two answers reflect different interpretations of the war against Midyan. According to the first explanation, the war’s objective was to punish wickedness and corruption. Midyan’s wickedness deserved this harsh punishment. But Moav was not as wicked. It did not deserve to be annihilated. According to the second answer, the war’s objective encompassed the destruction of both nations. But Moav was spared because of Ruth. What was the objective of the war according to Rashi’s second explanation?

And Moshe spoke to the nation saying: Arm from among you men for the army and they will be [set] against Midyan to deliver the vengeance of Hashem against Midyan. (Sefer BeMidbar 31:3)

VI. Avenging indignity

The above passage contradicts the passage cited at the opening of this analysis. In the prior passage, the war’s objective is to avenge the wrong done to Bnai Yisrael. In the above passage, the war will avenge the affront to Hashem. How can these two characterizations of the objective be reconciled? Rashi comments:

[The passage teaches] that one who opposes Bnai Yisrael is [deemed] as if he opposes the Sacred One, Blessed be He. (Rashi, Sefer BeMidbar 31:3)

Rashi explains that there is no contradiction between these two statements of the war’s objective. When Midyan and Moav plotted against the Jewish people, they acted against Hashem. Bnai Yisrael is His nation. When a king sends a minister to the court of another sovereign, the minister represents his king. Any disrespect toward the minister is a direct offense against the king. Bnai Yisrael has a similar relationship with Hashem. Among the nations of the world, the Jewish people are His representative. An attack on the Jewish nation is a provocation against Hashem. 

According to Rashi’s second explanation for Moav’s treatment, the objective of the war was to avenge the attack on Bnai Yisrael which was an affront to Hashem. It was intended to demonstrate and to teach the nations that Bnai Yisrael is His nation and that He will not tolerate an attack on it. To achieve this objective, Moav should have been destroyed with Midyan. The reasons Moav attacked Bnai Yisrael are not important. The justifications do not remove the offense. Instead, because the attack was an affront to Hashem, no reason or excuse can ameliorate Moav’s guilt. Moav was spared only because of Ruth. 

[1] According to Rashi, Sefer BeMidbar 31:16, in addition to a princess, other women from Midyan participated in the seductions. 

[2] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 31:2.

[3] Mesechet Avodah Zarah 2a.

[4] Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik, Chidushai MaRan RIZ HaLeyve on the Torah, Parshat Beresheit.