Moses spoke to the people, saying, “Arm men from among yourselves for the legion that they may be against Midian to inflict Hashem's vengeance against Midian." (Num. 31:3)
Great is revenge for it resurrects G-d, proves His existence, and humbles the arrogant sinner so that the righteous and the world joyfully declares (Ps. 58:12), “Verily there is a reward for the righteous. Verily there is a G-d Who judges on earth.” In this regard our sages said (Tanchuma, Matot 4), “Moses yearned to see G-d's revenge on the Midianites before his death, and he would ask G-d to let him see it with his own eyes. Of Moses it says (Ps. 58:11), 'The righteous man shall rejoice when he sees vengeance.'” It says here, “Moses yearned.” He did not merely wish or hope, but he yearned. The righteous yearn to see revenge against the evil, for it proves that “there is a G-d Who judges on earth.” By contrast, whoever relents from revenge against Israel's enemies is actually giving up on avenging G-d, for whoever attacks the people of Israel is actually attacking the G-d of Israel by showing that he does not fear Divine retribution. Our sages said (Sifri, Matot 157): “The L-rd spoke to Moses saying, 'Take revenge for the Children of Israel against the Midianites'... Moses spoke to the people saying, 'Detach men for armed service against Midian, so that the L-rd's revenge can be taken against the Midianites'” (Num. 31:1-3): This is in praise of the righteous. They do not depart from the world until they take revenge on behalf of Israel, which is the revenge of Him Who brought the world into being."
G-d told Moses to take revenge “for the Children of Israel", and Moses called it “G-d's revenge,” to inform us that the two are the same. Our sages also said (Sifri, Beha'alot'cha, 84): “Arise, O L-rd, and scatter Your enemies! Let Your foes flee before You” (Num. 10:35): Can He Who created the world be said to have “enemies”? Rather, the verse informs us that if someone hates the Jewish People, it is as though he hates G-d. Elsewhere Sifri teaches (Matot 157): Moses told them, “You are not taking the revenge of flesh and blood, but of Him Who brought the world into being, as it says, 'The L-rd is a zealous and avenging G-d' (Nachum 1:2)”. To forgo such revenge is wrong, indeed, abominable! The issue here is not personal revenge, which is not only permissible to forgo, but forbidden to carry out (Lev. 19:18): “Do not take revenge nor bear a grudge against the children of your people”. Our sages said (Torat Kohanim, Kedoshim, 4), “You may take revenge and bear a grudge against others [i.e., non-Jews],” and Yalkut Shimoni (Vayikra 19:613) states, “Do not take revenge nor bear a grudge against the children of your people, but you may do so against non-Jews.”
As Rav Binyamin Ze'ev Kahane points out in his commentary on the Parasha: [...] when Pinchas and the Israeli army return from battling Midian, Moses angrily questions Pinchas: “Have you saved all the women alive?!” Concerning this, the Ramban quotes the “Sifri”: “Pinchas answered Moses: As you commanded us, so we did!” Pinchas assumed that this war was the same as any other obligatory war (milchemet mitzvah) or permissible war (milchemet reshut), whose laws are outlined in Deuteronomy 20:10. In most of these wars, only males are to be killed (with the exception of obligatory wars against Amalek or against the nations who dwelled in the land previously, where all are to be killed, including women and children). We can now understand what Pinchas meant when he said, “as you commanded, so we did.” He meant, as you commanded us in the Torah. And so when Moses saw that Israel left the females alive, he explains, “Behold, these (specifically the females) caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Bileam, to revolt against the L-rd in the matter of Pe'or, and there was a plague among the congregation of the L-rd.” Moses is teaching us a vital lesson here: There is another category of war – a war of vengeance. As opposed to the regular wars, where the laws are pre-set regarding who is to be killed or spared (see Rambam, Hilchot Melachim, Ch. 6), the wars of vengeance are a direct response to what was done to Israel. It takes into consideration specific actions of the enemy in the past. Therefore, the way in which the enemy is treated varies from one war to another, depending on the specific circumstances. In the case of the war against Midian, which was fought to avenge what the women of Midian did, it would have been proper for the Jewish army to make the women of Midian the very first victims. And so, we have learned a principle regarding a war of vengeance – that the type of vengeance which is exacted, depends on what or who is being avenged.
[As Rabbi Meir Kahane continues in The Jewish Idea]: The Torah dons sackcloth over the distortion of the concept of revenge, which has become a a target for the arrows of all Jewish Hellenists and worshippers of the [Western] alien culture, as if revenge were negative and evil by nature. The very opposite is true! No trait is more justified than revenge in the right time and place. G-d, Himself, is called “Nokem”, Avenger: “The L-rd is a zealous and avenging G-d. The L-rd avenges and is full of wrath. He takes revenge on His adversaries and reserves wrath for His enemies” (Nachum 1:2). Our sages also said (Berachot 33a), “Shall we say that even revenge is great because it appears between two names of G-d? 'A G-d of vengeance is the L-rd' (Ps. 94:1). R. Elazar responded, 'Indeed. Where revenge is necessary, it is a great thing'” [see Rashi]. “It is a great thing!” It is a great mitzvah to take the revenge of the righteous and humble from the evildoer. Whoever forgoes or rejects such an opportunity is cruel, and he denies belief in G-d. The evildoers' presence in the world and their taking control of it constitute a challenge and threat to G-d's exclusive sovereignty. It is thus imperative to rid the world of them. Therefore, regarding Israel's war against its enemies, also enemies of G-d, our sages said (Tanchuma, Shoftim 15): “When you go forth to battle against your enemies” (Deut. 20:1): What do the words, “against your enemies” add? G-d said, “Go forth against them as enemies. Show them no mercy, just as they show you none.” Our sages said, “Go forth against them as enemies,” not as friends. These evildoers will never care about your welfare, so you should not care about theirs. This is the ethical, philosophically based law of G-d. Regarding one's enemy, there is no room for love and forgiveness. On the one hand, he will not show loving pity for Israel if he has the opportunity to dominate it. As our sages said (Yalkut Shimoni, Devarim 20:923, quoting Eileh HaDevarim Zuta): “When you go forth to battle against your enemies”: If you take pity on them, they will go forth to battle against you. It is like the shepherd who used to watch his sheep in the forest. He found a wolf cub and took pity on it, letting it suckle from the goats. His employer saw this and said to him, “Kill it! Take no pity on it or misfortune will strike the flock.” The shepherd did not heed him. When the wolf was grown, it would see a lamb or kid and kill it. His employer then said, “Did I not tell you to show no pity?” Moses said the same to Israel: “If you take pity on them, then 'Those that you let remain shall be as thorns in your eyes' (Num. 33:55).”
A curse upon those who falsify G-d's attributes! Hillel clearly gave us a great principle when he said, “That which is hateful to you do not do to your fellow man – this is the whole Torah.” Yet he concluded, “The rest is commentary. Go learn it!” (Shabbat 31a). The principle has a commentary and only an ignoramus, fool or charlatan would ignore it and intentionally conceal the end of Hillel's utterance. Does this great principle apply to the way we must approach a non-Jew who is an enemy of the Jewish People? Must a Jew put himself on equal terms with a cursed, wicked non-Jew who thirsts for his blood? Anyone with the least bit of Talmud under his belt, anyone who has studied even a small measure of Shas [Mishnah] and Poskim [halachic authorities], will understand how ridiculous this is. Love thine enemy? Is he our “neighbor”, our “re'a”? Read not “re'a” but “ra”, evil! He is an evildoer, an enemy. There is no obligation to be friendly to him. Quite the contrary, our sages declared (Bamidbar Rabbah 21:4): “'Harass the Midianites' (Num. 25:17): Why? 'For they harass you' (Ibid.). Our sages accordingly accordingly said, 'If someone comes to kill you, kill him first.'” We must kill him, not love him. At the same time, we must not relate lovingly and forgivingly to those who rise up against G-d, and the law is that any enemy who rises up against Israel is considered to have risen up against G-d. The rule is this: Whoever conquers his evil impulse and his false thinking, will go on to uproot evil and take revenge on evildoers because of G-d's command, clinging to G-d's traits and without any personal interest. Then he will be called merciful and saintly for having eradicated evil. To our sorrow, and once more due to the terrible exile in which we were blinded by the alien culture, G-d's attributes have been corrupted and distorted, deliberately so by those who cast off G-d's yoke and with depressing ignorance by a large portion of the holy camp. It has reached the point in which war and revenge against the nations and the sanctification of G-d's name through Jewish victory have entirely disappeared from our agenda. Yet, in the original Jewish idea, precisely as we received from Sinai laws of the Sabbath and of separating meat and milk, so were we given laws of war and revenge, which are practical laws during this pre-Messianic era in which we live.
Compiled by Tzipora Liron-Pinner from 'The Jewish Idea' of Rabbi Meir Kahane, HY"D, and from 'The writings of Rav Binyamin Ze'ev Kahane, HY"D'.
Legal disclaimer: This article relates to the weekly Parasha and is posted for purposes of study. This week's Parasha (Mattot) deals with the concept of national vengeance in the framework of a war (against the Midianites) and the article explores the opinion of Rabbi Meir Kahane and Rav Binyamin Ze'ev Kahane on the matter. The article is absolutely NOT meant to encourage any readers to resort to individual acts of "vengeance" or vigilantism or any activity that is against the law.