In this week’s parashah we learn that Hashem told Moshe Rabbeinu, “Take vengeance for Bnei Yisrael from the Midyanites; afterward you will be brought in unto your people.”
Though Moshe Rabbeinu was clearly told that his death would follow carrying out this commandment, he acted with joy and did not delay. He immediately said to Bnei Yisrael, “Arm men from among yourselves… to inflict the vengeance of Hashem on Midyan.”
The Ribbono shel Olam had referred to this war as the “vengeance for the Bnei Yisrael from the Midyanites.” Yet Moshe Rabbeinu saw fit to change the wording to “the vengeance of Hashem on Midyan.”
The Rebbe Reb Yonasan Eibeschutz, zy”a, explains that Bnei Yisrael knew that the petirah of their beloved leader was linked to this war with Midyan; if Moshe Rabbeinu had presented it as a matter of vengeance for Bnei Yisrael, they would have chosen to forego their own honor and delay the war along with the petirah of Moshe Rabbeinu. Therefore, Moshe Rabbeinu referred to it as “the vengeance of Hashem,” and thus beyond their power to forego.
The Torah then relates that a thousand men were chosen from each shevet, and says “So they were delivered from the thousands of the Bnei Yisrael…”
Rashi explains the term “delivered” to mean that they were coerced against their will, “to inform you of the praiseworthiness of the shepherds of Yisrael, how precious they are to Yisrael. Before they heard that Moshe Rabbeinu was to die, what does it say? ‘A bit more and they will stone me.’ But once they heard that the death of Moshe would follow the vengeance on Midyan they did not want to go [but had to be] delivered against their will.”
The Chasam Sofer, zy”a, states that while this episode clearly reveals how precious their leaders are to Bnei Yisrael, he wonders how we see from this the “praiseworthiness of the shepherds of Yisrael.’
He also presents an apparent contradiction in Chazal: On one hand, we learn (Avos 3:13), “He who is pleasing to his fellow-men is pleasing also to the Omnipresent, and he who is not pleasing to men is also displeasing to the Omnipresent.” On the other hand, we find (Kesubos 105b) that when a talmid chacham is beloved by his townspeople, it is not because he is better than his peers, but rather because he does not rebuke them in spiritual matters. It would appear that rather than being an indicator of finding favor in Heaven, popularity is a sign of a leader who is failing in his obligations.
The Chasam Sofer explains that in fact there is no contradiction. When a Gadol rebukes wrongdoers, they respond with conflicting emotions. The part in them that stems from being the descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov is actually grateful to the Gadol for the rebuke. It is only the evil inclination that resides within them that resents the Torah leader, and causes him to be unpopular.
However, when a Torah leader is niftar the populace stops to think — and recognize — that his rebuke was only for their benefit. In reality it is the “unpopular” leader who rebukes his people who is in effect truly pleasing to them and by extension pleasing to Hashem. On the other hand, the “popular” leader is really one who fails in his duties and obligations to rebuke his people.
Before they heard that Moshe Rabbeinu was to die, the feelings of some of Bnei Yisrael toward Moshe Rabbeinu was such that he declared that ‘A bit more and they will stone me.’ Once they heard that he was about to be niftar, though, they recognized that all his actions stemmed solely from his love and caring from them, and then the spirit of gratitude hidden within them came to the forefront.