Holy Pleasures

Translated and adapted by Moshe-Yaakov Wisnefsky, for "The Chumash of the Lubavitcher Rebbe"


G-d spoke to Moses, saying, "Take vengeance for the Children of Israel against the Midianites…." (Num. 31:1-2)

In the battles against Sichon and Og, Moses played an active role. Here, however, he merely prepared the people for war while Pinchas actually led them in battle.


This is because G-d commanded the Jewish people to take vengeance against Midian because they enticed them into the idolatry of Pe'or (Num. 25:17-18). No Midianite territory was captured or annexed to the land of Israel. As we mentioned previously, the idolatry of Pe'or is essentially hedonism: the indulgence in sensual pleasure as an end in itself rather than for the higher purpose of experiencing divinity or infusing divinity into reality.

This attitude toward life is the antithesis of the lifework of Moses. Hedonism implies that physical pleasures are either too "low" and vulgar to serve divine purposes or are somehow off-limits for the holy life. Moses, the channel through whom G-d gave the Torah, championed the truth that G-dliness can and must pervade all of reality; it must even dictate our approach to physical pleasures. In fact, if anything, Moses' lifework proclaimed that it is specifically in the lowest end of Creation that the potential for holiness is the greatest.

He used this argument to wrest the Torah from the angels and expose the error of the Spies. Unfortunately, the misconstruction of this appreciation for the lowest rungs of spirituality led to the error of Pe'or. In order to wipe out the source of this error, Moses' inspiration and example was necessary.

This theoretical groundwork, which destroys the philosophy of Pe'or's mental stranglehold, is sufficient to prevent a person from falling into the trap in the future. But to "avenge" the evil, i.e. to repair the damage already done and root out any trace of its effect that might surface sometime in the future, more is required than the detached arguments of a philosophical theoretician. The battle itself was therefore led by Pinchas, because Pinchas embodied the ethic and zeal of self-sacrifice. The inspired zeal that makes a person incensed enough to go beyond the letter of the law - and even risk his life - reveals a higher, purer level of motive and consciousness than normal.

Similarly, in our personal confrontation with the deception of Pe'or, we need to emulate both Moses and Pinchas. From Moses we learn to cultivate the proper, Jewish attitude toward materialism and its sensuality, and from Pinchas we learn to attack its effects on us with righteous indignation.

This is why Moses calls the war against Midian "G-d's vengeance", even though G-d had referred to it (in the previous verse) as "vengeance for the Children of Israel". The evil of strife and contention is in direct opposition to G-d's name Havayah, inasmuch as the name Havayah denotes the forces of G-d's creative energy. These forces are different and even opposite, but they function harmoniously. The egocentrism that spawns dissention and strife thus undermines the harmonious functioning of the forces G-d uses to continuously create the world.

This is an additional reason why this war had to be fought by Moses. The only way for there to be cooperation and peace between people in this world is when they submit to the higher authority of the Torah. Firstly, without this submission, who is to say whose authority is more legitimate? Secondly, the Torah itself fosters peace, as it is said, "Its ways are the ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace." Since Moses was both the channel through whom G-d gave the Torah and the personification of selflessness, he had to lead the war against Midian.

[Based on Reshimot 51]


[Adapted from Likutei Sichot, vol. 13, pp. 28-29, based on Shenei Luchot HaBerit on this passage.]
Copyright 2001 chabad of california / www.lachumash.org

Rabbi Moshe Yaakov Wisnefsky is a scholar, writer, editor and anthologist. Originally from Los Angeles, he moved to Israel in 1977, and currently lives in Jerusalem. While living in Tsfat, he was one of the three founders of ASCENT in 1983.


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