(Under)lying to yourself

“Harass the Midianites, and smite them; For they afflict you with their schemes which they have schemed against you in the cause of Peor, [consigning their daughters to harlotry to turn you to Peor worship], and in the cause of Kazbi, the daughter of a prince of Midian, their sister, who was smitten in the day of the plague in the cause of Pe’or. (Bamidbar 25:17-18)

As I was learning this last week’s parsha, a question occurred to me about the incident with Pinchas and Kazbi. Kazbi was a princess from the Kingdom of Midian and not of Moav. Bilaam had previously given advice to use the daughters of Moav to seduce the Jews to sin. So where did the princess of Midian come from?

I found a Chizkuni which seems to address this issue. The Torah gives us a commandment to eradicate Midian and not eradicate Moav. It seems quite odd, since Moav was the main player in causing klal Yisrael to sin. The Chizkuni explains that Moav’s motivation was based on the fact that they were afraid that the Jews would attack them, and in addition they had already lost land that was surrendered to Sichon and was now given over to the Jews. From their point of view they had a debt to settle with the Jews. Therefore, Hashem did not say that Moav should be eradicated. This is not the case with Midian, as they had no excuse to start up with the Jews except for their strong hatred of the Jews. This is highlighted in the Medrash on the words of the Passuk (25:18) “for they harass you”. From here we learn that if someone comes to kill you, you should precede him and kill him. It seems that Chazal are saying that the word “tzoririm” (which is in present and not past tense) is telling us that they are always a threat and always trying to kill us. Therefore, we have a right to destroy them.

With this, we understand that if there was a plot to bring down the Jews, automatically Midian would be involved. This is why Kazbi the Midianite was involved in this episode.

Many times, when judging who is at fault in an incident, people will ask “who was the instigator?”, assuming that the instigator must be the guilty party. Sometimes that may not be the case. Let us use, for example, a situation in which small children are fighting. The parent asks, “Who started the fight?” and there is a disagreement between the children. One says, “He hit me first!” and the other counters, “He called me a bad name first!”. To this, the first one counters, “That is only after he pestered me!” Now the parent is in a quandary: How do I decide who is at fault? It seems to me that we can learn from this Chizkuni that when judging an incident, we also have to account for the motivation. In fact, sometimes it is justified to attack or retaliate, if the motivation is altruistic.

I heard from a Rebbe of mine that when someone hits you, maybe he did something wrong and should be punished, and the correct response is to physically hit back. However, if you hit him back with more energy than if it would have been someone else, that little extra energy, which came from your personal bias, ruins what could have been a fair and just punishment. Before we respond to an incident, it is worthwhile to see if the person was provoked. Perhaps, even more importantly, we need to make sure that our response will not bear any personal vengeance.