We read in our Parasha of the command: (25-17-18)’Harass the Midianites and smite them; for they harassed you through their conspiracy that they conspired against you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, daughter of a leader of Midian, their sister, who was slain on the day of the plague, in the matter of Peor’.
The parshanim ask: Why was Midian singled out, when, from the Torah’s narration of the events, Moab appear to be equally involved?
Answers the Alshich Hakadosh: “On a quick reading of the relevant psukim, it might appear that Moab instigated the events, as it states:’Israel settled in Shittim and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab. They invited the people to the feasts of their gods; the people ate and prostrated themselves to their gods. Israel became attached to Baal Peor, and the wrath of Hashem flared up against Israel’.
“However, in Parshat Mattot, Moshe Rabbeinu says to Bnei Israel, concerning the Midianite women:(31:15)’It was they who caused the Children of Israel, by the word of Balaam, to commit a betrayal against Hashem, regarding the matter of Peor; and the plague occurred in the assembly of Hashem’.
“We need both of these psukim, to answer our question. There were two groups within Bnei Israel: the first are called העם:’the people’, the masses; the second, the more righteous amongst them, merited to be called by the title of honor: ישראל:Israel.
“On a careful reading of the psukim at the end of Parashat Balak, describing the events at Shittim, we find both of these two groups mentioned: We first read that העם ‘the people’, began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab’, and then that: ‘Israel became attached to Baal Peor, and the wrath of Hashem flared up against Israel’.
“True, ‘the people’ were the first to transgress, and this was with the Moabites; however, it was only when those called ‘Israel’ became attached to Baal Peor, that Hashem’s wrath flared up.
“Herein lies the answer to our question: Hashem is מקפיד: more concerned, about even minor transgressions of the righteous, than He is of transgressions by the common people.
“Thus, though both groups transgressed in idolatry, there was a difference in their transgressions: ‘the people’, as we read, attended ‘the feasts’ of the Moabite women, and there ‘ate and prostrated themselves to their gods’, so that these women would then submit to them.
“The group described as ‘Israel’, however, did not participate in this, as their righteousness precluded them from such base actions; however, they did become ‘attached to Baal Peor’, as we read, being seduced to do so by the wily Midianite women, who did so by relating that all they had to do to gain their favor, was to relieve themselves on this idol; and they, thinking that surely this would not offend Hashem, but rather, would find favor in His eyes, that they treated this idol in such a disrespectful manner, and they became ‘attached to Baal Peor’.
“However, as the Midianite women well knew, this was in fact the manner of serving this idol; thus it aroused the wrath of Hashem- especially when the transgressors were not the common people, but the righteous ones, with whom He is more strict, as seen by their punishment- unlike the Moabites who escaped punishment.
“Because the Midianites targeted the righteous, the anger of Hashem- which the Midianites had aroused against their targets, ‘Israel’- was turned against them, and hence the commandment:(25:17-18)’Harass the Midianites and smite them, for they harassed you through their conspiracy against you in the matter of Peor’”.
Rav Shlomo Kluger gives a different reason why Midian, but not Moab, were singled out:”The Moabites sought to reduce the numbers of Bnei Israel, as they felt that they were too numerous for them to defeat.
“Therefore, when Bnei Israel were decimated by the plague, their objective was achieved, and they ceased to be concerned with Bnei Israel.
“Not so Midian, even after the plague, they remained steadfast in their hatred of Bnei Israel, which is why the Torah commanded to harass them, ‘for they are seeking to harm you’- still, in the present”.
The Kli Yakar answers our question, by noting that:’Harass the Midianites and smite them, כי צוררים הם לכם: they are still harassing you’, is in the present tense, indicating that, as is known to Hashem, before Whom all is revealed, the Midianites are still plotting to harm you, and even more than previously, as they now have the added desire to avenge your killing of their princess, Cozbi.
“Further, the word צררים: ‘enemies’, is descriptive of a state of mind, to teach that Midian have always been hostile to Israel, starting from their role in the sale of Yosef into slavery in Egypt, then to their alliance with Moab against you, and most recently, to ‘abandoning’ their women, to prostitute themselves, to cause Bnei Israel to transgress.
“Their punishment was solely for their past misdeed- and their punishment, for the harm they caused, was that they were never to become a part of Am Israel.
“The answer, to me, is in the word ‘ויחל׳: and the people began to commit harlotry’, at the outset of the Torah’s description of the events- only after this, are we told that ‘Israel became attached to Baal Peor’.
“This was not the case with the Midianite women; in stating that Israel ‘became attached to Baal Peor’, the Torah is alluding to they being the accessories to the Midianites, who initiated their seduction, and transgression.
“Rather, as the Torah states, we are to harass them because ‘they conspired against you in the matter of Peor’: they caused Bnei Israel to engage in idolatry.
“Only this will be an atonement for the past transgressions”.