Matot-Masa'ei: Retaliation or Revenge

Halachically, there are three types of war: 1. "Israel's war against its enemy" (Rambam, Hilchot Melachim, 5:1) - i.e. a defensive war 2. "The war to conquer Eretz Israel" (Ramban, commentary to Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, 4) - i.e. a war of independence.  3. "The war against Amalek" (Rambam, ibid.) - a unique Mitzvah to completely eradicate every member of this wicked nation. The war against the Seven Nations of Cana'an, which the Rambam defines as a "Milchemet Mitzvah," does not necessarily aim to wipe out those nations, but to conquer the Land. It is a territorial conflict which may also be solved without bloodshed if the Seven Nations make peace or leave the country. In that case then would be no reason at all to make war (Rambam, ibid. 6:1.  Ramban ibid.).

The war against Midian, however, does not fit into any of the above categories. It is a a war of retaliation. An exception to the rule (see Rambam, Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, Klal 3 and Mitzvat Asei 1#87). The difference between a war of self defense and one of retaliation is that one defends himself when attacked, but retaliates or takes revenge only afterwards.

Self defense is the right of every nation as well as the right of every individual: "He who comes to kill you - Arise first and kill him." Likewise, one may respond to an insult with a similar insult and counter a physical attack (see Sefer Ha-Chinuch #338), as long as the reaction is immediate. The right to retaliation after the act is less clear, as it may be considered revenge, which is forbidden by the Torah.

That the concept of revenge as forbidden by the Torah is illustrated by the following example: A asks B for his hammer, and B refuses. The next day B asks A for a rake, and A replies, "Since you wouldn't lend me your hammer, I won't lend you my rake." (Vayikra 19:18.  Sifra, Kedoshim 2). This is the halachic definition of revenge. It is permitted, however, to make an agreement conditional on reciprocity: "I won't lend you my hammer unless you agree to lend me your rake." This is "measure for measure.” It is the way the "Am Ha-Aretz" behaves; it is not the behavior of a "Chasid" (righteous person - see Avot 5:14), who is willing to share all of his possessions with others, but neither is it considered negative behavior. This is the level upon which most people function. The concept of reciprocity is the basis for much social behavior.


Reciprocity is out of place, however, after the fact. It turns into revenge, which the Torah prohibits. It is not clear whether this prohibition refers only to monetary or property damage, or whether also it applies in cases of physical or emotional damage (see Yoma 22b.  Rambam, Hilchot De'ot 7:7-8.  Sefer Ha-Chinuch #247.  Sefer Yere'im.  Semag). The Chafetz Chaim rules that since this is a Torah prohibition, one must take the more stringent view (see introduction to Chafetz Chaim).

There is however one case in which revenge is certainly permitted: that of accidental murder through negligence. In this case, once it has been proven in court, the next of kin is allowed to avenge the death (unless the killer has fled to one of the "Arei Miklat" - the cities of refuge.  Bemidbar 32:9-34). The question remains whether such revenge is a Mitzvah or is merely permitted (Makkot 11b). In any case it clearly must be supervised by the courts. When carried out properly, it is a legitimate method of dealing with the problem and keeping society healthy.

These regulations regarding vengeance relate exclusively to the individual. When it comes to national considerations, the law is completely different. A nation may not set its own needs after those of other nations. We may not, for example, surrender sources of raw materials that we ourselves need to another country. It is immoral and masochistic to do such a thing. The Torah treats revenge on a national level as a healthy phenomenon (see for example, Shmuel 2 10). In response to the destruction caused by Babylon, it is written in Tehilim: "Happy is he who shall pay you in kind for what you have done to us. Happy is he who shall seize and dash your babies against the rock" (Tehillim 137: 8-9). This need not be taken literally, but it is certainly an indication of the appropriate response. Whoever does not understand why revenge on a national level is justified, does not fully understand the needs of a nation.

The Torah considers Midian a national enemy. They did not threaten us physically, but they did undermine the national morality. "It is worse to cause one to sin than to kill him" (Bemidbar Rabbah 21:4), as is written, "Oppose the Midianites, and crush them, for they oppose you, deceitfully, as they used cunning devices against you at Pe'or" (where they made their daughters prostitutes in order to cause the Israelites to sin; see Bemidbar 25:17-18 and Rashi there). The Torah's reaction to this is the command for national revenge: "Execute the vengeance of the Children of Israel upon Midian" (ibid. 31:2). We are commanded to avenge any physical or spiritual harm done to our Nation.

This positive type of vengeance is by no means an expression of anger, nor is it an impulsive, spur-of-the-moment response. This is clearly seen in the case of Midian. When the army returns from battle, Moshe, Elazar, and the heads of the tribes go out to greet them. Upon discovering that the females had not been killed, "Moshe was angered with the officers…and Moshe said to them, 'Have you allowed all the females to live?...Now, kill...every female'" (ibid. 31: 14-17). Suddenly, Elazar interrupts Moshe's speech to teach the people the laws concerning purification of the spoils of war (ibid., 21-24). Why did Moshe stop speaking? Our Sages teach, "Anyone who allows himself to become angry - if he is wise, he loses all his wisdom" (Pesachim 66b). These verses prove it. Immediately after we read that "Moshe was angered," we read that it was Elazar who taught the people the laws of purity. In other words, it was because of Moshe's anger that he forgot the laws, and Elazar was forced to fill in for him. This is true, in spite of the fact that Moshe's anger was wholly justified and "for the sake of Heaven", on account of what they had done to the Nation. Nevertheless, Moshe was punished.

One may however, behave AS IF he is angry, in order to make an impression and to educate, as long as he remains inwardly in control of himself (Shabbat 105b; Rambam, Hilchot De'ot 2:3.  Hilchot Nedarim 22:15.  Zohar 3,131, Idra 2.  Mesilat Yesharim Chapter 11. Musar Ha-Kodesh 244). Here, too, the Nation's retaliation against Midian was not an impulsive act of anger, but a calculated action to preserve and defend ourselves as a Nation by eradication of the wickedness personified by Midian – a wickedness that threatened our national well-being.