Midrash Tanchuma presents two glimpses of how G-d runs the world and how they intersect with the war against Midyan. The first insight is presented as a theological argument between G-d and Moses. Actually it’s not much of an argument because G-d concedes pretty quickly.
The differing perspectives between Moses and G-d are reflected in these 2 consecutive verses:
“G-d spoke to Moses, saying,“Seek the vengeance of Children of Israel on the Midyanites..” (Numbers 31:2)
In this verse, G-d described the attack on Midyan as a chance for Jews to take vengeance on Midyan. After all, Midyan tried to destroy us – first with Bilaam’s curses and then by sending women to engage us in immorality and idol worship. The very next verse turns the tables:
“Moses spoke to the people, saying, “Let men be chosen from among you for a military campaign against Midyan to deliver G-d’s vengeance on Midyan.” (Numbers 31:3)
According to Midrash Tanchuma, Moses argued that it was really G-d who is taking vengeance. Because the only reason Midyan (and everyone else) hate us is because we accepted the Torah. So any attack on the Jewish People is really an attack on G-d:
“Master of the World, if we had been uncircumcised or practitioners of idol worship or had denied the validity of the Torah’s commandments, they (the Midyanites) would not have hated or pursued us. On the contrary, they (the Midyanites) have done so precisely because of the Torah and commandments which You have given. The vengeance, therefore, is Yours.”
Moses essentially told G-d ‘let’s tell it like it is’. To an outside observer it would appear as if we we’re taking revenge on Midyan. But truth be told, ever since we accepted the Torah we are in a relationship with G-d and the world knows it and hates us for it – as was the case with Midyan. Indeed, this hatred will be an ongoing test for the nations of the world throughout history.
Another theological revelation surfaces in an interchange Midrash Tanchuma records between a Roman Noblewoman and R. Jose ben Halafta:
“A certain Roman Noblewoman asked R. Jose ben Halafta, “In how many days did the Holy One, Blessed Be He, create His world? He said to her, “In six days, as stated (in Exod. 31:17), ‘for in six day the Lord made the heavens and the earth.’”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. Hence it is stated (in Psalms 75:7), ‘For God it is who gives judgment; He brings down one man, He lifts up another.”
For each individual to reach their potential to live an elevated and meaningful existence, there are going to be some ups and downs. How to we get just the right opportunities to learn and grow from our experiences, tailor made just for us? G-d needs to create just the right ladders.
In the war against Midyan, Moses is put to the test because he is told that organizing the war against Midyan will be his final assignment before he dies. Midrash Tanchuma says that he never-the-less rushed to fulfill his mission.
On an individual level, members of the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe were put to the test as well because of the great wealth they acquired from Midyan in the form of an abundance of sheep and cattle.
Midrash Tanchuma explains that wealth, wisdom and strength come in two distinct forms. That which is granted as a gift from G-d and that which people think they acquired on their own:
“The Holy One, Blessed Be He, 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 of the Heavens and come from the power of the Holy One, Blessed Be He. But human strength and wealth are nothing”
The proof text is from the well-known verse in Jeremiah 9:22 that we read on fast days.
“Thus said the Lord: 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.”
The members of the tribes of Gad, Reuven and half of Menashe did not attribute their wealth to G-d. They asked Moses if they can settle in the lush grazing fields where they were encamped, instead of joining the rest of the nation on the other side of the Jordan River.
“Then they stepped up to him (Moses) and said, “We will build here sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children.”
Putting their sheep before their children was a dead give-away. Midrash Tanchuma says that the consequences were that these tribes would be the first to go “down the ladder.”
“…they were very wealthy and had a lot of livestock. But they loved their money and resided outside the Land of Israel. For that reason they were the first of the tribes to go into exile”
Midrash Tanchuma offers a glimpse behind the curtain. On a national level, the Jewish People entered into a relationship with G-d that will naturally breed anti-Semitism. This is a test that will effect the rise and fall of the nations of the world.
On an individual level G-d has also designed tests to help us appreciate what we have and where it came from. This will undoubtedly ease our way up the ladder and insure that we don’t come crashing down.