"Take vengeance for the Israelite people on the Midianites: then you shall be gathered unto your kin" (Num. 31: 2). R. Judah remarked: If Moses had wanted to live many more years he could have lived, for the Blessed Holy One commanded him: 'Avenge' and afterwards 'then you shall be gathered unto your kin [i.e., you will die].' Scripture connects his death to the punishment of Midian in order to apprise you of the excellence of Moses.
Moses said [to himself]: In order that I may live, shall Israel's vengeance be delayed? Immediately, "Moses spoke to the people, saying, 'Let men be picked out from among you for a campaign, [and let them fall upon Midian to wreak the LORD's vengeance on Midian]" (Num. 31:3). The Blessed Holy One said "vengeance for the Israelite people" (v. 2); yet Moses said: "the LORD's vengeance on Midian!" (v. 3)
The Blessed Holy One said to Israel: 'It is you who have an account to settle with them, for they caused Me to harm you.' Moses replied: Sovereign of all worlds! If we had been uncircumcised, or worshippers of idols, or had denied the binding force of the commandments, the Midianites would not have hated us. They only persecute us because of the Torah and the commandments which You have given us! Therefore, the vengeance is Yours—"to wreak the LORD's vengeance upon Midian."
Forgive and forget? That aphorism contradicts the midrash above and indeed much of the Torah and rabbinic literature. While our tradition teaches us not to hold a grudge and to avoid taking revenge upon others, vengeance plays a crucial role in this week's Torah portion and throughout the Tanakh. One contemporary legal scholar can help us to understand why.
In Between Vengeance and Forgiveness, Martha Minow writes about the moral outrage involved in our desire for revenge. "Vengeance is the impulse to retaliate when wrongs are done. Through vengeance, we express our basic self-respect . . . Vengeance is also the wellspring of a notion of equivalence that animates justice." We seek retribution, therefore, because we have been physically and/or psychologically harmed. Feeling ourselves diminished, we sense that we can restore balance to our lives by punishing those responsible for our injuries.
God, according to this midrash, asserts that we "have an account to settle with" our former allies in Midian because their women seduced Israelite men, which led God to send a plague upon our nation. Moses responds that God must avenge the Israelites because Midian's assault resulted from their rejection of God and Torah. Rabbi Judah composed this midrash to explain that God and Moses each attribute the need for vengeance to the other as a demonstration of their mutual concern for honor and accountability in God's covenant with Israel. Our desire for retribution today must adhere to the same concern for integrity in order to command moral authority.