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Parshat Chukat

Public Policy

Moshe sends messengers to the King of Edom with a simple request- to allow the People of Israel passage through his land. When Moshe sends the messengers he instructs them to preface their request with a historical explanation stating the right of the People of Israel to return to their land and a description of the denial of human rights they experienced at the hands of the Egyptians, which led to their current pitiable and needy condition. This introduction is meant to elicit the king’s empathy, as well as clarify that the People of Israel pose no strategic threat. They are not nomads looking for refuge; rather they are people with clear ideals and goals who wish to return to their land. Their only request is for safe passage. 

Even so the King of Edom refuses their request and defends his borders against these strangers in spite of all the hardships they have faced.  He does not fear that they will remain in his borders long term and they were willing to accept any condition he might impose, nevertheless he is unwilling to open his doors. 

There are two stages of dialogue in the negotiations with the King of Edom. Initially they promise him that people will not use any natural resource, “we will not drink well water,” (see Rashbam 20, 17) and that they will not harm any crops along the way, “we will not pass through fields or vineyards.” After the king threatens them that any attempt to enter his land will be met with the sword the People of Israel make him another offer, to pay for any water that they drink. At first they try to present their passage as benign, nothing gained nothing lost.  When that does not work they progress to the next stage of the negotiation and present the Edomites with the benefits of their passage, the profit they can make as demand for their food and local resources rises. 

Rashi explains the two stages a bit differently. He explains that at first the messengers stated they would not use the private well that traveled with them wherever they went. When they were rebuffed they tried again and stated that they meant to pay for the use of local goods and resources and did not expect free board. According to Rashi there were not two separate offers, rather the messengers iterated and clarified their initial proposal since they thought it was rejected because it was misunderstood. According to Malbim the difference between the two proposals related to the path they offered to take. At first they asked to travel through the land of Edom, and when that was rejected they offered to take a path that skirted the boundaries of Edom. (Malbim v. 21, Ramban ibid.) Whatever the case, the diplomatic efforts did not succeed and they were met with military force. The Edomites were determined to defend their borders from foreigners:

‘Rabbi Eliezer said: When it mentions “Because Edom went out to fight them” the scripture mentions “no man was lost when they came from the city of Edom.”’

And this is incorrect, for Israel turned away from them and did not fight them at all. (Ramban v. 20)

According to Rabbi Eliezer the conclusion of the story is that Edom fought Israel and Israel was saved. Ramban brings this opinion but notes that according to the plain meaning of the text Edom did not fight Israel since Israel never stepped foot into their territory.

Edom was the first nation to close its borders to the People of Israel, but it was not the only one. They were also rebuffed by Amon and Moav, who went as far as to hire Bilaam to curse them. It is clear that a sovereign power has every right to deny entry to another people. Edom did not attack Israel; they merely defended their territory in the face of a foreign invasion. And yet the Torah criticizes their actions in Devarim when it imposes various prohibitions and restriction on marrying Edomites, as well as Amonites and Moabites, for their inhospitable behavior. (Devarim 23, 5-9) The prohibition to marry into these nations is a reflection of their actions. They were afraid of foreigners and were determined to guard their territory, and as a result that is the way Israel acts with them in future generations. 

Diplomatic relations between any two nations are often an encounter between two cultures. These two particular cultures represent two fundamentally different approaches to the question of diplomacy. Edom’s approach is easily justifiable; after all they have no obligation to allow foreign nationals into their territory. This political fortification is typical of a culture that stresses individual rights to land and property, an isolationist culture. 

What approach do the People of Israel represent? We can discern the position of the Torah, the Oral and Written law, by studying how it treats situations where an individual’s private domain is invaded by others. The Torah certainly protects individual property rights; yet it also commands us to welcome guests (hachnasat orchim) and deal kindly with others (gmilut chassadim). Additionally, the lengthy laws of damages make it clear that every person is meant to restrict the use of their own property so that it does not harm others. Furthermore, there is even a rule which states “this one benefits and the other hasn’t lost” which determines that a person must allow others access to their personal property as long as this does not cause him any loss. Now it is possible that such a situation does not actually exist, that there is always some downside when one person makes use of another’s possessions. Yet the principle is important nonetheless, one that stands true even as the Torah ensures the protection of private property. 

This is the way the Torah instructs us to treat strangers, to welcome them with hospitality and, as long as it does not cause us harm, to allow them to live among us in the land of Israel with dignity. The Jewish approach makes it clear that the home of the Jewish People is not an isolated fortress and the Land of Israel is not merely meant to serve the interests of the People of Israel. Rather, it is meant to be a place founded in the principles of kindness, consideration, and hospitality. 

Rav Tzadok HaCohen of Lublin explains that there is a connection between the relationships nations have with one another and the spiritual forces they exert. In this world nations may have positive holiness, negative holiness, or no holiness at all. The People of Israel are commanded to distance themselves from negative holiness, but there is no reason for distance from those who have no holiness:

 “For those nations that have a stronger association with holiness, they are worse, for they possess more potential impurity, and so we must distance ourselves from them.” (Divrei Sofrim, 20) 

Put into modern terms, there are “anemic” nations who lack vision and exert little influence. There are other nations that have a clear spiritual position, one that may even seem fair and moral. Yet when the ideologies they represent contradict the values of Judaism their influence has the potential to harm the Jewish People, particularly when their position appears moral. Their influence does not merely present a PR problem for the Jewish People or inhibit the ability of Jewish ideals to spread outward; it can also seep into Judaism and make us lose sight of who we are and what we stand for. To ensure this does not happen to us we must stay true to our foundation and stand on our principles, to look to our sources in order to gain insight and forge our own path. 


Mon, August 3 2020 13 Av 5780