This week’s parsha deals with a wide variety of mitzvoth. The better known mitzvot such as shiluach haken (the sending away the mother bird) and the prohibition to lend with interest are juxtaposed to mitzvot dealing with forbidden unions between man and women and the laws of yibbum. In fact this parsha contains more mitzvot than any other and hence there is much room for detailed discussions and study.
We will focus on one mitzvah, the practical relevance of which is somewhat minimal today but its rationale is of timeless importance.
The Amonite and Moabite shall not enter the congregation of G-d, even the tenth generation shall not enter the congregation of G-d forever. On account of that they did not come towards you with the offer of bread and water on your departure from Egypt; and for hiring Bilam the son of Be’or from P’tor Aram Naharayim to curse you……………….You shall not enquire of their welfare or favors all your days forever. (Devarim 23:4-7)
We need not speculate as to why the Torah forbids us to accept members of these two nations into the Jewish people. It is stated quite clearly. Despite this explicit statement in the text we are still puzzled as to the nature of this prohibition. One problem which arises is with respect to the second reason mentioned for our excommunication of Amon and Moav. They hired Bilam to curse us. Who actually hired Bilam? The obvious answer is Balak who was the king of Moav. If we are to note any other nation in conjunction with that unsavory attempt to rid the world of Am Yisrael then we should surely blame Midyan. After all Bilam heralded from there, Balak’s original consultation was with the elders of Midyan, and, after the failed mission to curse Am Yisrael, Bilam suggested using the women of Moab and Midyan to seduce Am Yisrael, thus causing them to sin. We know this to be so from the pesukim in Bamidbar which mention both Moav and Midyan in that episode. So why is Amon supposedly blamed for this sin too?
Ramban explains that these two nations were banned for two different reasons: Amon for not offering bread and water; Moav for hiring Bilam. Ramban arrives at this conclusion after a lengthy discussion as to when exactly the episode during which the bread and water not offered, occurred. On examination of the pesukim in Bamidbar and in the second chapter of Devarim we see that both Moav and Edom did not allow Am Yisrael to traverse their land. Ramban therefore asks why we find a distinction between Maov and Edom. About Edom we are told that we are not to despise the Edomite for he is your brother. Yet if Edom was guilty of the same sin as Moav why should our attitude towards them be different? Ramban therefore concludes that Edom and Moav, after warning Am Yisrael not to trespass, did bring them food and water to where they were encamped. Amon, however, did not even perform this minimum token of humanity when Am Yisrael passed by their land.
As stated above, this leads Ramban to separate the reasons for excommunicating Amon and Moav. Amon is guilty of not providing sustenance to Am Yisrael and Moav is guilty of hiring Bilam to curse the nation. This explanation is useful in that it solves the problem of why Amon is blamed for the Bilam story when it apparently was never involved. However, the conclusion of Ramban is questioned by many other mefarshim, not least because there seems to be no mention of the humane gestures of Edom and Moav in the text.
Let us highlight one further problem which may solve another. The Torah begins this prohibition by stating “Al d’var asher lo kidmu etchem balechem uvamayim” using the word “kidmu” in the plural form. However, in describing the sin of hiring Bilam, the Torah employs the words “va’asher sochar aleche”, sochar is in the singular form. Although on occasions a plural form is used to refer to a nation, (despite the fact that grammatically nation is singular – this is often ignored because a nation is comprised of many people) the distinction found here between the two sentences is striking. This would suggest that both Amon AND Moav were guilty of not providing food and water and not as suggested by the Ramban. It also points to the fact that only one of these nations was responsible for hiring Bilam and we would conclude that it was Moav. Thus Moav was guilty on two counts and Amon on just one. The sentence, or rather the resulting prohibition, remains the same.
This leads us to the more taxing issue. Was the abstention from providing food and water such a grave sin? Does this deserve excommunication for all generations to come?
The simple answer to this question would be, yes. Any member of a nation that cannot extend common decency to passing tourists does not deserve to become part of Am Yisrael. The Torah does not speak of majestic requirements but simply of bread and water. This should not be a great deal to ask. If Amon and Moav were not able to perform this basic humane act, then they are intrinsically lacking the necessary characteristics to become members of Am Yisrael.
[This may explain the distinction made in halacha between the males and females of these two nations. As is well known in connection with Megillat Ruth, Chazal explained this prohibition as referring to “Moavi velo Moavit” thus allowing for Moabite women to convert to Judaism. We can assume that the men made the decisions as to who would traverse their land and consequently to whom they would provide sustenance. The women were probably not consulted on these matters and therefore cannot be held responsible for the behavior of the entire nation.]
However, this simple answer begs the question as to the “humane” actions of the Egyptian nation of whom we are told a few pesukim later that we are not to despise them as we were guests in their land. Was the lack of decency of Amon and Moav that much worse than the action of enslaving an entire nation for hundreds of years? Obviously the notion of Am Yisrael’s gratitude to the Egyptian nation for their hospitality is a complex one and beyond the scope of this shiur but the stark contrast to our subject merely drives us to delve further and find a different answer to our question.
Abarbanel states the following:
“Because Amon and Moav were the descendants of Lot who had received much kindness from Avraham who saved them from the sword and captivity and in his merit they escaped the destruction of Sdom, they were obligated to do kindness with Yisrael; they did the reverse and so their deserved a severe punishment.”
Abarbanel takes us back to Sefer Bereishit and explains that Amon and Moav should have felt eternally grateful to Avraham and consequently his descendants, Am Yisrael. He, Avraham, fought the oppressors of Sdom, the four kings, and thus saved their father Lot. Later, in Avraham’s merit Lot was rescued before Sdom was destroyed by Hashem. Not only did Amon and Moav not show any gratitude, they could not even demonstrate common decency towards Am Yisrael.
Ramban attributes the Torah’s harsh attitude to Amon and Moav to the same events in Bereishit. They had every reason to be generous towards Am Yisrael but they choose to do the opposite.
Interestingly, Abarbanel explains why Edom were not treated in the same way despite the fact that they too (according to Abarbanel but not the opinion of Ramban) did not allow Am Yisrael to traverse their land nor did they provide them with food and water. Edom, says the Abarbanel had good reason to be annoyed with Yisrael. After all, Ya’akov had taken both the birthright and the brachot from their founding father Esav. Abarbanel almost justifies Edom’s actions and states that for this reason we are told not to despise Edom for he is your brother. On the other hand Amon and Moav had no cause for grievance and every cause for gratitude.
[The ramifications of this statement of Abarbanel as to the understanding of the brachot and bechora episodes in Bereishit are fascinating but cannot be discussed here]
As in many instances in Am Yisrael’s history the roots and basis for our relationship with the nations of the world are set in Sefer Bereishit. “Ma’aseh avot siman lebanim” is shown to mean that the history of our forefathers is a blueprint for our future history. This notion requires further discussion but that can be left till we read Sefer Bereishit once again.
One further point: At the conclusion of the war between the four and the five kings which was won by Avraham on behalf of the king of Sdom and his allies, we find that Malki Tzedek, a neighboring king honors Avraham with bread and wine. He also blesses Avraham on his victory. The actions of Malki Tzedek would appear to be in contrast to the king of Sdom. Surely it should be he, the head of Sdom, who should be honoring Avraham; surely the requirement to provide food and wine for Avraham should rest on the shoulders of he who had been saved – the king of Sdom. But no, the king of Sdom was an example of the wicked society over which he presided. He did not demonstrate his gratitude; that was left to a good neighbor!
Amon and Moav would seem to be following in the footsteps of the king of Sdom. Given the fate of the latter, the prohibition on conversion to the Jewish faith and people would seem to be a light punishment indeed!
Shabbat Shalom and lets try to remember to say thank you!