Parshat Chukat – Rav Yonatan Horovitz
We have been following the progress of Am Yisrael through the wilderness since their departure at Egypt. We have marveled at the miracles and cried at the tragedies. We have witnessed the splitting of the Yam Suf, the manna from heaven and many other astounding events. We have seen the punishments of Hashem, response to the sins committed along the way. These culminated with the episodes of last week’s parsha; Korach’s rebellion and the subsequent reactions from Hashem. To a certain extent, we are used to hearing of an existence based on a reality very different from ours. Am Yisrael in the midbar led a life based on miracles.
On reading through Parshat Chukat, we notice a change. We discern that the miraculous existence which had characterized Am Yisrael’s journey thus far is about to change. This change is apparent in the lack of water which causes Am Yisrael to cry to Moshe and God. Although complaints are to be found in the three previous parshiot, they are not due to a lack of a need so basic as water. The Netziv, both in his introduction to Bamidbar and in his commentary to this parsha points out that this event symbolizes the transition from a life based on miracles and one based on nature(teva).
This transition is noticeable in two other episodes in the parsha. Twice Moshe sends messengers to countries which Am Yisrael wish to traverse. This is an act based very much on simple politics and diplomacy. However, the two cases develop and end very differently. Let us take a closer look at these two events:
“From Kadesh, Moshe sent messengers to the king of Edom: ‘Thus says your brother, Israel: You know all the hardships that have befallen us; that our ancestors went down to Egypt a long time, and that the Egyptians dealt harshly with us and our ancestors. We cried to Hashem and He heard our plea, and He sent a messenger who freed us from Egypt. Now we are in Kadesh, the town on the border of your territory. Allow us, then to cross your country…'” (Bamidbar 20: 14-17)
Am Yisrael stress that that they will not trespass on fields or vineyards nor will they deplete the well water. They commit to using only the main highway (Derech Hamelech could refer to a particular thoroughfare which runs between the mountains in the area of the Jordan valley) until they have passed through the land.
Edom responds that they will not allow Am Yisrael to pass through their land and threaten to attack them if they do so. Am Yisrael attempt to persuade Edom to reverse their decision by suggesting that they will pay for any provisions they should need, thereby providing a boost to the Edom economy. This plea too, was rejected by Edom who subsequently prepared to wage war against Am Yisrael. The latter elected to take an alternative route.
The second group of emissaries is dispatched to Sichon:
“Israel now sent messengers to Sichon, king of the Emorites saying: ‘ Let me pass through your country. We will not turn off into the fields or vineyards, and we will not drink water from wells. We will follow the king’s highway until we have crossed your territory.’ But Sichon would not let Israel pass through his territory, Sichon gathered all his people and went out against Israel in battle.” (Bamidbar 21:21-23)
What follows is a fully fledged war between Am Yisrael and Sichon from which Am Yisrael emerge as victors.
The differences between the two instances are striking. In order to understand why this is so, we need only refer to a section in the second chapter of Devarim where Hashem delineates various parts of the Middle East which have already been bequeathed to certain nations. Included in these are Edom who was given Har Se’ir and the surrounding territory. The land in which Sichon ruled, on the other hand, was ready to be conquered by Am Yisrael, and in fact the Torah states there :
“But Sichon, king of Cheshbon would not let us pass through, because Hashem had stiffened his will and hardened his heart in order to deliver him into your power..” (Devarim 2:30)
Though this may simply be a Divine decision, we still wonder as to what is the difference between Edom and the Emorites. In addition, why did Moshe insist on recounting Am Yisrael’s history as part of his message to Edom, something he clearly did not include in his request from Sichon.
Let us look at Rashi’s comments on these pesukim. In answer to the same question we posed above, Rashi writes: ” He (Moshe) said to him (Edom), ‘ we are brothers, sons of Avraham, to whom it was stated: your descendants shall be strangers, and we both had that debt to pay. You are aware of all the trouble, therefore your father (Esav) separated from our father (Ya’akov) as is stated: He went to an alternate land because of his brother, Ya’akov, because of the debt that was theirs to pay and he placed it upon Ya’akov.'” (Rashi, Bamidbar 20:14)
Rashi is relating the comments of Moshe back to the original covenant Hashem made with Avraham. Esav, the father of Edom, opted out of this covenant by leaving Eretz Yisrael. According to Rashi, the Torah alludes to the fact that Esav realized that the debt placed upon the descendants of Avraham was too heavy to burden, the debt of galut and enslavement, and for this reason Esav fled to another land. Rashi continues in this vein in his commentary to passuk 17, as he explains that Moshe told Edom that he has no right to question Am Yisrael’s right to live in Eretz Yisrael as you, Edom, did not pay the debt. You did not live as slaves in a strange land for hundreds of years, you did not fulfill the conditions on which the covenant with Avraham is based and therefore you have no claim to Eretz Yisrael. Rashi adds that the request to pass through Edom was based on the above historical analysis, as Moshe says to the king of Edom: (in Rashi’s words) now help us a little and allow us to traverse your land.
How are we to understand these words of Rashi? At first glance, it seems that Am Yisrael are concerned that Edom will want to prevent them from getting to Eretz Yisrael; after all, as a mighty nation, maybe they had hoped to conquer it for themselves. In response to this, Moshe reminds Edom of their joint history and how Eretz Yisrael rightfully belongs to the descendants of Ya’akov and not those who stem from Esav.
A second possibility is that Edom may be concerned that the request to pass through their country was merely a trick; the Israelites really hoped to conquer and settle in Edom. In order to convince Edom that this is not the case, Moshe explains that they have followed the trail outlined to their common ancestor Avraham, a trail which leads to Eretz Yisrael and no alternative land. (This trail has been rerouted by many Jews over the generations, and to this day much of the Jewish nation has elected to settle in their own, modern version of Edom.)
Let us suggest a third understanding of Rashi. The opening words of this episode:
“Vayishlach Moshe malachim mikadesh el melech Edom, ko amar achicha Yisrael”, should invoke within us a similar event from Bereishit:
“Vayishlach Ya’akov malachim lefanav el Esav achiv…ko amar avdecha Ya’akov..”(Bereishit 32:4 N.B.there are two versions of where the chapter begins so there may be a discrepancy in the verse number)
As we can see, both instances involve the sending of emissaries from Yisrael to Edom; Ya’akov to Esav in the first case, Moshe to the king of Edom in the latter. The two messages employ the words “ko amar” and in both cases the representative of Israel updates Esav/Edom as to their life story since they had last met. However, there is one striking difference. In Bereishit, Ya’akov refers to himself as “avdecha” your servant, as he approaches Esav in trepidation, concerned as to the outcome of meeting his brother, who has sworn to kill him. In our parsha, Moshe refers to Yisrael as “achicha” your brother. What is the reason for the change in language?
The meeting between Ya’akov and Esav back in the book of Bereishit did not develop as Ya’akov had feared it would. Rather, the two brothers embraced, Esav accepted the gift presented to him by Ya’akov and even offered to accompany him upon his journey. True, Esav elected to return to Har Se’ir but there does not appear to be any animosity between the two brothers, certainly not the sort of hatred that is described directly after the event of the bracha. It is with this event in mind, that Moshe approaches Edom and asks to be granted the right to traverse his land. He invokes memories of the previous meeting between Ya’akov and Esav but says that now we can be brothers – after all we ended happily; you went one way and I the other but we parted as friends. So, as brothers, says Moshe, you should know what we have been through since our last meeting and, as a brother, we Am Yisrael are asking for a small favor, we wish to pass through your country. But Edom refused. Not only did they refuse, they threatened to wage war against Am Yisrael. This is not how brothers act. This is not the decent thing to do. This is more than just saying no; this is hatred.
The theory outlined above may help us clarify the nature of the relationship between Yisrael and Edom as found in the Nevi’im. ” After all, declares the Almighty, Esav is Ya’akov’s brother; yet I have accepted Ya’akov and rejected Esav” (Malachi 1: 2-3)
We can now understand why Esav is considered to by the prototype of the anti-Semite. We have something in common, we are family, yet that counted for nothing. Edom treated Yisrael as another nuisance, a people who spelled trouble and nothing else. Why? We may never know; but we must be aware of nations like Edom for they exist all across the world, in every generation.
Let us not conclude on a negative note. Am Yisrael dealt with the refusal of Edom to allow them to pass through, successfully conquered the Emorite land and marched triumphantly into Eretz Yisrael – and so we continue to do today!
Shabbat shalom – Rav Yonatan