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In Bamidbar 25:16-18, Hashem commands Moshe to take revenge on Midian for having caused the Jews to sin at Shittim, discussed at the beginning of the chapter. Yet v. 1 seems to indicate that the Jews sinned with Moav as well:

וישב ישראל בשטים ויחל העם לזנות אל בנות מואב

And Yisrael dwelled in Shittim, and the people debased themselves to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moav.

So, if Moav was involved with the incident at Shittim as well, why was the command to attack directed only at Midian?

The Kli Yakar (to v. 17) translates ויחל not as "they debased," as I did above, but "they began." Thus, the war was not with Moav, because the Jews started up with Moav and not the other way around. Midian, on the other hand, started up with the Jews, and therefore the Jews were able to retaliate.

He cites and explains a Sifrei (Ki Seitzei 117), also in line with translating it as "they began," insinuating that "they began" with Moav but concluded with Amon. The same way that Lot's elder daughter was more explicit in her illicit relations by naming her son Moav, "from father," while his younger daughter hid the act behind the name Ben-Ami, "son of my nation," so, too, Moav's involvement in Shittim was explicit but Amon's was hidden. We see this in Devarim 23:4-5, where the prohibition to marry Moavi and Amoni converts is explained as being because they did not give you bread and water and because they hired Bilam. Why didn't they give bread and water? In order to lure them to the shops set up in Shittim for food, which lead to the sin.

The question remains: Moav did start up with the Bnei Yisrael - they hired Bilam to curse the Jews, and the whole Shittim incident was Bilam's idea when cursing the Jews failed (Rashi to v.1). Further, based on the Sifrei he quotes, Moav withheld food from the Jews in order that they sin at Shittim. So how can he say that Bnei Yisrael started up with Moav, when in fact Moav started up with Bnei Yisrael?

  • See judaism.stackexchange.com/a/43356/501 for an answer - maybe the Q is a dup at some level. – Danny Schoemann Jul 17 '17 at 9:56
  • @DannySchoemann Absolutely not a dupe. I'm asking specifically on the Kli Yakar's opinion, not on the story in general. And even if I was, you could phrase this question as "given the result of that question, I have this problem." The definition of a dupe is that answering one answers the other. That's not the case here. All that answer does is quote the same Kli Yakar I'm quoting, but only the first part of it. – DonielF Jul 17 '17 at 18:36
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As far as I can tell, you are misunderstanding the Keli Yakar's answer. He is not saying that a nation "started up" with another nation as far as battle is concerned. He is using the diyuk of Vayachel to show that the daughters of Moav were not sent by Balak and Moav in order to seduce the Jewish men, but rather that the Jewish men went of their own accord to sin with the Moavi women. Therefore, it is unfair to punish Moav for a sin they did not commit.

According to Keli Yakar, Midian, on the other hand, sent out their daughters to specifically cause the Jewish men to sin. That was something worthy of punishment.

Therefore, despite the fact that all of these terrible things may have been done by Moav, at the end of the day, when it comes to punishing them for this sin, the only ones that deserve punishment are the Midianim.

  • Read the question again. Bilam, Shittim, and withholding food were all Moav’s ideas even before the Jews went out to sin. – DonielF Jul 3 '18 at 4:06
  • @DonielF But the Keli Yakar is not talking about those things. As רבות מחשבות pointed out he is talking about the sin of לִזְנ֖וֹת אֶל־בְּנ֥וֹת מוֹאָֽב. – Alex Jul 3 '18 at 4:16
  • @Alex ...which was Bilam’s idea... – DonielF Jul 3 '18 at 4:18
  • @DonielF Does the Keli Yakar say that it was Bilam's idea? He clearly states that the Jews initiated. And if it was Bilam's idea, why should that affect Moav? – Alex Jul 3 '18 at 4:24
  • @Alex He doesn’t, but Rashi (which I quote in the OP), who quotes the Gemara in Chelek, does. It was Bilam’s advice to Balak king of Moav, who then acted upon it. – DonielF Jul 3 '18 at 4:45

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