INSIGHT

5767 - #31

ENCOUNTERING THE OTHER

In advancing toward Israel, Bnai Yisrael faced the challenge of how to enter the land. To do so demanded of the nation to travel across another country and so, we see in Bamidbar 20:14-17, the request by Moshe, of the King of Edom, to travel through his land on the way to Israel. Of course, as the Chumash relates, this request was refused, to be followed by a second request of a slightly different nature only to be refused in an even more emphatic manner. What demands our focus, though, is the very nature of these requests. Bnai Yisrael is, effectively, a conquering nation at this time. It is set to go to war; it is prepared for battle. Its target is the land of Israel but in reaching its target it must first encounter the nations that surround this target. In the annals of history, would this not simply make the surrounding nations new targets of conquest? Would they not just be “gobbled up” in the advance of the conquering army? What a strange request, from this conquering army, for permission to simply travel through Edom’s land?   

             Of course, we have knowledge of the fact that Hashem declared that Edom not be attacked and, as such, Bnai Yisrael really had no choice but to attempt to gain permission from that country. Simply, without permission, Bnai Yisrael could not go through Edom – but does Edom know of this restriction? The challenge, in understanding this request, is to attempt to see how Edom looked at it. From Edom’s perspective, there is a nation, ready for war, requesting to travel peacefully through your land in order to wage war with your neighbours, the Canaanite nations. Do you give permission? Do you trust that this nation will traverse your land in a peaceful manner? Why doesn’t this nation simply attempt to conquer you first in its march to Canaan?

             Meshech Chochma seems to be bothered by these very questions. In commenting on Moshe Rabbeinu’s request, he wonders about why a nation would agree to let a conquering army enter and travel across its land. Even if one assumes that this conquering army would abide by the rules they have set in this case, would they still not benefit, perhaps in some future belligerence, from the information they have gained during this crossing of the land? Meshech Chochma, in fact, states that it was with this in mind that Moshe made the commitment not to veer from the chosen path. He was really saying that Bnai Yisrael will not scout the land to gain information for some potential, future battle. But, still, how could one trust a promise of peace from an army ready for hostilities and conquest? To understand this dialogue between Moshe and Edom it is necessary to consider what Edom was thinking. A possibility may be that Edom thought that this army is asking for safe passage because while it may believe it could defeat the target nations, it is concerned about defeating Edom. Or maybe Israel is worried that a battle with Edom will weaken it to the extent that its real goal will be more difficult to achieve. With either scenario, Edom’s response to threaten battle is understandable; in fact would seem to be the logical response. We don’t trust you; if you try to enter our land we will fight you. Meshech Chochma thus sees in Moshe’s words, not simply a request for empathy for the Jewish People’s plight but, an attempt to deal with Edom’s concerns. We are not a violent nation of slaves who have just rebelled against its masters and are now focused on conquering new lands. We were, rather, taken out of Egypt through miracles reflecting the Will of God. Our goal, as Rashi explains in his comments on Moshe’s request, is our ancestral home. In viewing the situation from a natural perspective, Edom’s response was the one, not only to be expected but, that should be expected. Moshe’s words thus -- and this would seem to be the real point of the Meshech Chochma -- were not intended to only simply make the request but also were intended to explain why the request had to be examined from a different perspective. This is not a natural case of an army requesting permission to travel on Edom’s land. This is an army, a nation, under the direct supervision of the Divine whose request should be viewed from this perspective. Edom’s response, in maintaining the appropriate natural response, as such was, actually and essentially, a rejection of the acceptance of this perspective.

             Throughout the Torah literature, we encounter much discussion on how we are to balance our recognition of the Divine with derech hateva, the ways of nature. There is a great variance of opinion on this matter.1 The focus, however, usually concerns the behaviour of the Jewish People. In the case of Edom, we encounter how this question affects the nations of the world. Edom responded pursuant to the ways of nature; did it have an obligation to consider the Divine within its response? Of course, one could contend that the nations of the world may reject our view of the Divine and thus how could we hold them responsible for this standard? In the case of Edom, however, the reality of God and the special relationship that Hashem had with the Jewish People was evident from the miracles that surrounded the nation in the desert. Within Torah thought, the issue of how we are to integrate the reality of the Divine with a commitment to the path of nature is not a faith issue. The question emerges even with the full recognition of the existence of the Divine. So it was in the case of Edom. They knew Moshe’s words were true. How could they then have rejected the Divine perspective? How could they have not let Israel cross their land?

             Rashi’s understanding of the event focuses on the nature of each nation, not how each nation viewed the other nation. Within his perspective, Israel was informing Edom that they simply have acted and will continue to act as Israel. Edom’s response was that its response will be similar -- to act as Edom, with the sword. In effect, Edom was not just denying the reality of the Divine; it was denying the limitation of any reality. Yaacov Avinu is the model for us that declares that we must always be true to ourselves. Yet being true to oneself demands a recognition of the other for one does not live in a vacuum. One’s behaviour, even in the expression of self, must be with cognition of reality and the other. Ultimately this was the fault in Edom’s response. Edom simply wanted to be violent regardless of whether the situation called for it or not. Its initial response used the language of derech hateva but when that perspective was denied, the truth was forthcoming – Edom simply didn’t want to help Israel.

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Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail

Footnotes

1 One of the major areas of discussion in regard to this topic, and one that reflects the divergent views is the story of the spies found in Bamidbar, chapters 13 and 14. Ramban argues that the request to send spies was a good one as we must attempt to follow the ways of nature – and sending spies is part of the way that nations do battle. Rashi argues that the request was inherently wrong as the nation should have trusted in God. A review of much of Bamidbar will indicate that one of the most important issues within this book of the Torah is this issue of how we balance the Divine with the ways of nature.

Nishma, 2007


 


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2006 NISHMA