Yoni Mozeson
FInding God's hiding places

Ever since creation God has been making ladders – – Midrash on Matos

In our Parsha, the leaders of two tribes ask Moshe an unthinkable question. (Allow me to embellish a bit):  ‘I know that the only reason we were redeemed from Egypt was to get the Torah and live in the land of Israel. I realize that we’ve been delayed for forty years because of major lapses in our faith. However, we just defeated Midyan, and now we have lots of livestock. Would you mind terribly if we settled here, where there is good land for grazing, instead of living in the land of Israel?’

The real reason for the war with Midyan

How did the tribes of Reuven and Gad amass such great wealth? Wasn’t it a direct result of the  victorious war with Midyan which God had ordered? According to the Midrash it was actually the other way around:

הִפִּיל אֶת הַמִּדְיָנִים לִפְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, כְּדֵי שֶׁיִּתְעַשְּׁרוּ בְּנֵי גָד וּבְנֵי רְאוּבֵן

“He (God) brought down the Midyanites in [their confrontation with] Israel, so that the Children of Gad and the Children of Reuben would become wealthy” (Midrash Tanchuma Matos 6:1).

God created the difficult test of wealth for the tribes of Reuven and Gad. A commentator to Midrash Tanchuma, Avraham Ezkor,  goes so far as to say that it was always God’s plan to have the tribes of  Reuven, Gad and half of the tribe of Menashe settle across the Jordan River. Yet it wasn’t supposed to unfold under these circumstances. So although they were ultimately fulfilling God’s will, their motivation to settle this area – fertile grazing grounds – rendered their efforts a rejection of God’s will. As a result, these tribes were the first to be exiled even though a deal was worked out with Moshe. The tribes of Reuven and Gad first fought alongside the other tribes before they returned home. 

The nature of life’s fundamental gifts

Midrash Tanchuma explains that wealth, wisdom and strength come in two distinct forms -that which is granted as a gift from God and that which people think they acquired on their own: 

שָׁלֹשׁ מַתָּנוֹת בָּרָא הַקבָּה בָּעוֹלָם, חָכְמָה וּגְבוּרָה וָעֹשֶׁר. זָכָה אָדָם לְאֶחָד מֵהֶן, נוֹטֵל חֶמְדַּת כָּל הָעוֹלָם… … אֵימָתַי, בִּזְמַן שֶׁהֵן מַתְּנוֹת שָׁמַיִם וּבָאוֹת מִכֹּחַ הַגְּבוּרָה שֶׁל הַקבָּה
אֲבָל גְּבוּרָתוֹ וְעָשְׁרוֹ שֶׁל אָדָם אֵינָהּ כְּלוּם.

“God created three gifts in the world: wisdom, strength, and wealth. A person meriting one of them receives what is most desirable in the whole world…When (is this the case)? When they are gifts from the Heavens and come from the power of God. However, strength and wealth (that people think that they acquired on their own) are nothing” (Midrash Tanchuma Matos 5:1). Nor should one revel in his wealth, as the prophet Yirmiyahu said in the famous verse read on Tisha Ba’Av:

  כֹּ֣ה ׀ אָמַ֣ר האַל־יִתְהַלֵּ֤ל חָכָם֙ בְּחָכְמָת֔וֹ וְאַל־יִתְהַלֵּ֥ל הַגִּבּ֖וֹר בִּגְבֽוּרָת֑וֹ אַל־יִתְהַלֵּ֥ל עָשִׁ֖יר בְּעָשְׁרֽוֹ׃

“Thus said God: Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom; Let not the strong person glory in their strength; Let not the rich person glory in their riches” (Yirmiyahu, 9:22).

Wisdom, strength, and wealth are three among God’s infinite ways to test us. The Midrash expresses the idea of test through the analogy of ladders:

שָׁאֲלָה מַטְרוֹנִיתָא אַחַת אֶת רַבִּי שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר חֲלַפְתָּא, בְּכַמָּה יָמִים בָּרָא הַקבָּה אֶת עוֹלָמוֹ. אָמַר לָהּ: לְשִׁשָּׁה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: כִּי שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים עָשָׂה האֶת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת הָאָרֶץ (שמות לא, יז). אָמְרָה לוֹ: וּמֵאוֹתָהּ שָׁעָה עַד עַתָּה מַהוּ עוֹשֶׂה. אָמַר לָהּ: יוֹשֵׁב וְעוֹשֶׂה סֻלָּמוֹת, מַעֲלֶה לָזֶה וּמוֹרִיד לָזֶה).

“A certain Roman Noblewoman asked Rabbi Shmuel bar Halafta, ‘In how many days did God create His world?’ He said to her, ‘In six days, as stated, ‘for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth.’(Shemot, 31:17) ”She said to him, “And what has He been doing since that time?” He said to her, “He sits down and makes ladders for raising up one and putting down another”’ (Midrash Tanchuma Matos 5:1).

Just as individuals are tested, so is the nation of Israel and all the nations of the world.

Whose war is this? 

The Midrash shows us how the nations of the world are tested. It emerges through differing perspectives between Moshe and God on the war with Midyan. One verse says:

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר האֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃ נְקֹ֗ם נִקְמַת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל מֵאֵ֖ת הַמִּדְיָנִ֑ים ..

“God spoke to Moshe, saying,“Seek the vengeance of the Children of Israel on the Midyanites..” (bamidbar, 31:2).

In this verse, God  described the attack on Midyan as a chance for Jews to take vengeance on Midyan. After all, Midyan tried to destroy the Jewish People – first with Bilam’s curses and then by sending women to engage them in immorality and idol worship. However, the very next verse turns the tables:

וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־הָעָ֣ם לֵאמֹ֔ר הֵחָלְצ֧וּ מֵאִתְּכֶ֛ם אֲנָשִׁ֖ים לַצָּבָ֑א וְיִהְיוּ֙ עַל־מִדְיָ֔ן לָתֵ֥ת נִקְמַת הבְּמִדְיָֽן׃

“Moshe spoke to the people, saying, “Let men be chosen from among you for a military
campaign against Midyan to deliver God’s vengeance on Midyan
” (Bamidbar, 31:3).

According to the Midrash, Moshe argued that it was really God who was taking revenge. Because the only reason Midyan (and everyone else) hates the Jews is because we accepted the Torah. So any attack on the Jewish People is really an attack on God (Midrash Rabbah, 22:2).*

Midrash Tanchuma offers a glimpse behind the curtain.  The Jewish People entered into a relationship with God that will naturally breed anti-Semitism. This hatred will serve as the strap to keep the Jewish People in line whenever they fail their tests. The Torah is replete with Israel’s triumphs and failures. At the same time, this is a test that will affect the rise and fall of the nations of the world. As so often happened in Jewish history, the world leaders went too far in punishing the Jews – like our cruel bondage in Egypt and the terrible destruction directed by Titus. This pattern, unfortunately, continues throughout Jewish history. Spain and Portugal were world powers. After the crusades and the expulsion of the Jews these countries lost their power.

As we observe the world stage today it’s interesting to assess which countries are ascending and which are descending. This is  not just based on how they relate to their Jewish population and Israel. Countries can also be judged by their efforts to achieve justice and meet the needs of their citizens.  Even more importantly, It is a critical, spiritual, exercise for every person to ask themselves – am I going up or down the ladder.

*אָמַר משֶׁה רִבּוֹן הָעוֹלָמִים, אִם הָיִינוּ עֲרֵלִים, אוֹ עוֹבְדֵי עֲבוֹדַת כּוֹכָבִים, אוֹ כּוֹפְרֵי מִצְווֹת, לֹא הָיוּ שׂוֹנְאִין אוֹתָנוּ 

וְאֵינָן רוֹדְפִין אַחֲרֵינוּ אֶלָּא בִּשְׁבִיל תּוֹרָה וּמִצְווֹת שֶׁנָּתַתָּ לָנוּ, הִלְכָּךְ הַנְּקָמָה שֶׁלְּךָ לָתֵת נִקְמַת הבְּמִדְיָן.

“Moshe said to God; ‘if we were uncircumcised, idol worshipers or blasphemers against the commandments, they (the nations of the world) wouldn’t hate us, and chase us. The only reason (for their hatred) is the Torah and commandments you gave us. Therefore You are the one avenging Midyan’” (Midrash Rabbah, 22:2).)   

About the Author
(Almost 100 Midrash Video summaries can be found on my youtube playlist: After college and Semicha at Yeshiva University my first pulpit was Ogilvy where I wrote TV commercials for brands like American Express, Huggies and Duracell. My passion is Midrash Tanchuma. I am an Architect of Elegant Marketing Solutions at We are living in (where else) the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.