Moses' anger at the revenge of the Israelites on the Midianites is puzzling, until we realize that this story comes to teach us that when a person truly identifies with the Torah he also understands things that have not been said explicitly.
In this week’s parasha, Am Yisrael is commanded to engage in a war of revenge against the Midianites: “Take vengeance for the children of Israel against the Midianites.” Under the direction of Pinchas, the son of Elazar, an infantry force of 12,000 men dealt a definitive blow to the Midianites. They killed the men, captured their kings, and took spoils of war. In light of their successful military campaign, one would have expected that they would be given a hero’s welcome upon their return.
Yet when they returned from battle, Moshe Rabbenu is incensed. Moshe said to the officers and commanders: “Did you let every female live?! Behold! They caused the children of Israel, by the word of Balaam, to commit a betrayal against Hashem regarding the matter of Peor, and there was a plague amongst the nation of Hashem!”
Moshe is infuriated and bewildered. How could the commanding officers display such poor judgment? How could they spare the Midianite women? These women were directly responsible for the atrocities committed at Peor that triggered a deadly plague that claimed the lives of 24,000 people!
At first glance Moshe’s anger is puzzling. The army’s commanders were not given specific instructions to kill the women. They were told to fight. They were instructed to send 1,000 soldiers from each tribe. They were sent off with the holy symbols, the klei hakodesh and the trumpets, the chatzatzrot. But they were not told to kill the women. Why is Moshe so upset that they have not done something that he never even told them to do?
The Shelah explains that there was something much deeper at stake. There are certain things that are implicitly understood; they do not need to be spelled out. A Jew needs to use the information that he is given to understand his responsibilities, even in areas of life where he does not receive a specific Divine command.
Am Yisrael was sent to war against Midian to avenge the sanctity of the nation. It should be obvious that the Midianite women who incited the nation to sin did not deserve to live, even in the absence of a specific command to kill them. If an individual really knew what he was fighting for, if he deeply identified with the motivation for war, it would not even be a question. And if he does not internalize what he is really fighting for, then the entire war is flawed.
As a corollary to this point, consider the tragic deaths of Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu, who according to Chazal, died as punishment for entering the Mishkan after drinking wine. One may wonder: Why is it fair that they were punished in this manner? Only after their deaths does the Torah forbid us from entering the sanctuary after drinking wine. How can they be punished for violating a command that they never received?
The Rosh explains that Nadav and Avihu should have known this on their own, even in the absence of a specific command. They were people of stature and they should have been able to detect the spirit of the Torah, even without a precise Divine imperative. Not everything needs to be spelled out as a command.
On occasion, students will approach me and ask, at times quite earnestly, “But Rav, where is it written?” In truth though, not everything needs to be written; not everything needs to be spelled out. The Torah is comprised of both “Torah She’bichtav” and “Torah She’baal Peh” - Written and Oral Law - and when a person deeply identifies with the Torah’s values and principles, he implicitly understands even those things that are not explicitly written.
Rabbi Yaakov Shapira is the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav in Jerusalem