Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the children of Israel, saying: This is the thing which G‑d has commanded (Numbers 30:2)
This verse can also be interpreted as follows: Moses spoke to the children of Israel regarding the heads of the tribes, that they must follow their instructions as one follows the word of G‑d.
(El, “to,” can also mean “about”; li, which in this context translates as “of,” usually means “to”; thus el rashei hamatot livnei yisrael (“to the heads of the tribes of the children of Israel”) can also read, “[And Moses spoke] about the heads of the tribes to the children of Israel, [saying: This is the thing that G‑d has commanded] . . .”)
This was the procedure with all the laws that Moses taught: first he would teach them to Aaron and the heads of the tribes, and then he would instruct the people, as described in Exodus 34:31–32.
Why are the tribal heads particularly mentioned by the laws of vows? To teach us that an expert Torah scholar has the ability to annul vows like a tribunal of three laymen.
Vows are a means to asceticism.
(Ethics of the Fathers 3:13)
Asceticism leads to purity, purity leads to holiness, holiness leads to humility, humility leads to fear of sin, fear of sin leads to saintliness, saintliness leads to the [possession of] the holy spirit, and the holy spirit leads to eternal life.
(Talmud, Avodah Zarah 20b)
Better that you not vow, than that you should vow and not fulfill.
Why only upon the Midianites, but not the Moabites (who also sent their daughters to cause Israel to sin)? Because the Moabites got involved because they feared Israel (cf. Numbers 22:2–6); but the Midianites entered a fight that was not theirs.
Another explanation: G‑d said to spare the Moabites because of “two fine creatures which I shall extract from them”—Ruth the Moabite and Naamah the Ammonite (wife of King Solomon).
The double terminology indicates that before the nation of Midian can be defeated, its supernal “minister,” which embodies the spiritual essence of Midian, must be vanquished.
The Hebrew word midian means “strife.” Midian is the essence of divisiveness, which is the root of all evil.
Thus our sages speak of “groundless hatred” as the greatest of evils. In truth, all strife is groundless hatred: the so-called “grounds” that people and nations have for hating and destroying each other are but the various façades of the divisive “I” of Midian—the ego that belies the common source and goal of humanity, and views the very existence of others as an encroachment upon the self.
On the cosmic level, G‑d is the ultimate oneness, and everything G‑dly in our world bears the stamp of His unity. All evil derives from the distortion of this oneness by the veil of divisiveness in which G‑d shrouds His creation.
So before the people of Israel could conquer the “seven nations” that inhabited the land of Canaan—which represent the seven negative traits of the heart—they first had to destroy Midian, which is their source and cause. This is also why the destruction of Midian could be achieved only under the leadership of Moses, who embodied the traits of utter self-abnegation, (and thus) harmony and truth.
(Maamar Heichaltzu 5659)
G‑d had said to Moses, “Avenge the vengeance of the children of Israel upon the Midianites”; yet Moses said: “To take G‑d’s vengeance on Midian”!
G‑d said to Israel: It is you who have an account to settle with them, for they caused Me to harm you. But Moses said: Master of the worlds! If we had been uncircumcised, or idol worshippers, or had denied the mitzvot, the Midianites would not have hated us. They persecute us only on account of the Torah and the precepts which You have given us! Consequently the vengeance is Yours; and so I say: “To take G‑d’s vengeance on Midian.”
(The Chassidic Masters)
Moses wanted to demonstrate to them that it is not the number of troops or their arms that determines victory or defeat, but their worthiness. For Zimri had caused the death of 24,000 without a single sword or armament; while they, numbering only 12,000, would defeat the far more numerous Midianites, “and not a single one of them was lost” (Numbers 31:49), even though in ordinary wars there are casualties also on the victorious side.
G‑d charged Moses with the mission, yet he sends others! But since Moses had grown up in the land of Midian, he thought: It is not right that I should punish one who has done good to me. The proverb says: “A well from which you drank, cast not a stone into it.”
Why did he send Pinchas? He said: “The one who began the mitzvah shall finish it.” It was Pinchas who turned away G‑d’s wrath from Israel and smote the Midianite woman; let him finish the sacred task.
(Midrash Rabbah; Rashi)
When laying siege on a city to conquer it, we do not surround it from all four sides, but only from three sides, leaving a way to escape for anyone who wishes to flee for his life. As it is written: “They warred against Midian, as G‑d commanded Moses"; it has been handed down by tradition that this is what G‑d had commanded him.
(Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings and Their Wars 6:7)
What was Balaam doing in Midian? Rabbi Jonathan said: He went to receive his reward for the twenty-four thousand Israelites whose destruction he had caused [by his advice to entice them with the daughters of Moab and Midian]. . . . This is what people say: “When the camel went to demand horns, they cut off the ears he had.”
(Talmud, Sanhedrin 106a)
If Moses initially saw their request as the equivalent of the spies’ shunning of the Holy Land, why did he at the end agree to their proposal, and even expand on it, by adding half the tribe of Manasseh to the tribes of Reuben and Gad?
(The fact that they pledged to participate in other tribes’ conquest of the Land answered only the first part of Moses’ complaint to them—“Shall your brethren go to war, and you sit here?”—but not the other, seemingly more grave, accusation—namely, that they are repeating the sin of the spies in spurning the Land, which had caused that entire generation to die out in the desert!)
The explanation is to be found in the first words of the response given by the men of Reuben and Gad to Moses: “We will build sheepfolds here for our sheep, and cities for our young.”
Chassidic teaching explains the sin of the spies as resulting from a reluctance to assume the mission of “settling the Land.” Though they knew that the very purpose of creation is to “make for G‑d a dwelling in the lowly (i.e., physical) world,” they believed themselves incapable of carrying out this mission. “It is a land that consumes its settlers!” the spies cried upon their return from their survey of the Land. How could they be sure that once they involved themselves with the Land, they would not be overwhelmed by its corporeality? How could they know whether they would indeed exploit its lofty potential and not instead sink into the morass of material life?
When the people of Reuben and Gad came forward with their request, Moses thought that he was again meeting with a refusal by a group of “spiritualists” shunning the divinely ordained mission to develop the Land.
In truth, however, it was not the dread of the material that motivated these two tribes to remain east of the Jordan. On the contrary: they wanted to settle these lands, to build cities and ranches, to raise their sheep and cattle on its pastures. Their plea, “Do not take us across the Jordan,” did not express a reluctance to seek out the potential for holiness contained in the Land, but an attraction to even more remote—and thus even loftier—“sparks of G‑dliness.”
After all, the land west of the Jordan, though material, was the “Holy Land”—a land where even the most mundane pursuits are touched with a spiritual glow. Outside of the Holy Land, the physical world is more lowly, and thus contains sparks of divinity that derive from an even higher source. The tribes of Reuben and Gad were convinced that their mission in life was to pursue, extract and elevate the “sparks” inherent in this more spiritually distant corner of creation.
When they said to Moses, ”We will build sheepfolds here for our cattle, and cities for our children,” Moses understood that what they were seeking was not an escape from the Land, but the opportunity to “make a home for G‑d” in an even lowlier domain—in the territories that lie beyond the borders of the most sacred of lands as defined by Israel’s present mandate from G‑d.
(From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe)
The sages taught: Always appoint at least two people together as trustees over public funds. Even Moses, who enjoyed the full trust of G‑d—as it is written, “In all My house he is trusted”—figured the accounts of the Sanctuary together with others, as it says: “By the hand of Itamar the son of Aaron” (Exodus 38:21).
Thus the sages taught: the one who made the appropriation [of the monies donated to the Holy Temple] did not enter the chamber wearing either a hemmed cloak or shoes or sandals or tefillin or an amulet (i.e., nothing in which money can be hidden), lest if he became poor people might say that he became poor because of an iniquity committed in the chamber, or if he became rich people might say that he became rich from the monies in the chamber. For it is a man’s duty to be free of blame before men as before G‑d, as it is said: “And you shall be guiltless towards G‑d and towards Israel.”
(Midrash Tanchuma; Mishnah, Shekalim 3:2)
They, on the other hand, had said, “We will build sheepfolds here for our sheep, and cities for our young” (v. 16), giving precedence to their cattle over their children. Said Moses to them: Not so! Make the primary thing primary, and the secondary thing secondary.
Rabbi Meir said: Every stipulation which is not like that of the children of Gad and the children of Reuben is not legally binding. For it is written: “And Moses said unto them: If the children of Gad and the children of Reuben will pass with you over the Jordan, [. . . you shall give them the land of Gilead for a possession],” and it is also written, “But if they will not pass over with you armed, then they shall have possessions among you in the Land of Canaan.” (Thus, both sides of the condition have to be spelled out: if the condition is fulfilled, then so-and-so will be the case, but if the stipulation is not fulfilled, then so-and so will be the case.)
(Talmud, Kiddushin 61a)
Because Manasseh caused the sons of Jacob to rend their clothes by hiding Joseph’s goblet in Benjamin’s sack (cf. Genesis 44:13), his tribe was rent in two, half receiving its portion in the lands east of the Jordan, and half on the west.
We learned: Yair the son of Manasseh and Machir the son of Manasseh were born in the days of Jacob, and did not die before Israel entered the Land. (But does it not say, “And there was not left a man of [the generation of the desert], save Caleb the son of Yefuneh and Joshua the son of Nun”? Said Rav Acha bar Yaakov: The decree was directed neither against those under twenty years of age, nor against those over sixty years of age.)
(Talmud, Bava Batra 121b)