"Moses spoke to the people, saying, 'Separate [mobilize] from amongst you men…and they will be against Midian'." (Num. 31:3)

This expedition was based on the attackers' moral superiority over their adversaries, as evidenced by G‑d's instruction to "avenge". Moses had to mobilize the kind of soldiers whose fantasies had not run wild at the time of the debacle in Shittim. How was he to know which one of the Israelites had indulged in sinful thoughts at the time?

Moses therefore advised each man of military age to examine himself in this matter. This is the meaning of "separate from amongst you", i.e. examine your conscience if you are morally fit to take part in such a punitive expedition of the morally superior against the morally inferior. Only those who knew that they could qualify under this heading would be considered for the contingent of 1,000 per tribe.

The word saying refers to illicit sex….

The word "saying" [in Hebrew, "l'emor"] is a hint that these people should all "speak to their inner selves on this subject" Perhaps the very word "saying" was even an allusion to the sin of illicit sex, as we find in the Talmud "the word 'saying' refers to illicit sex" (Sanhedrin 56).

According to Midrash Tanchuma on our verse, these men were all righteous. Although we have explained elsewhere that one can only derive such a conclusion from the word "men" when this word is superfluous in the text, in our instance there is independent support for the theory that the "men" mentioned here had to be righteous men.

They had been confronted with a powerful temptation and had conquered it….

Seeing this was so, they had no reason to worry, although they would be far outnumbered by the Midianites. Moreover, they were not only righteous but they qualified for the appellation "chassidim" [meaning "pious"] because they had been confronted with a powerful temptation and had conquered it. (Zohar Chadash volume 3 page 195 states that this is the basis for someone being described as pious.) This then explains Moses' considerations as to whom to select and how many to select.

Sanctity is the mystical foundation of spiritual ascent….

The Kabbalists state that sanctity is the mystical foundation of spiritual ascent, whereas the kelipot are the mystical foundation of spiritual descent of a human being. Once a person commits a sin, part of the kelipot attach to him and become part of his nature causing him to become degraded. The words "against [in Hebrew, 'al' - literally 'above'] Midian" then mean that these pious soldiers should be able to be "above Midian", i.e. be spiritually superior. None of the forces of impurity which clings to the Midianites would cling to these soldiers.

[Selected with permission from the five-volume English edition of "Ohr HaChaim: the Torah Commentary of Rabbi Chaim Ben Attar" by Eliyahu Munk.]