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Parashat Chukat: A Sibling Rivalry that Refuses to be Put to Rest by Yaakov Bieler

June 27, 2012 by  
Filed under New Posts

Revisiting a dispute of long ago.

In Parashat Chukat, we encounter a curious exchange between Moshe and the King of Edom, which reverberates with enmities of long ago.

BaMidbar 20:14-21.

And Moshe sent messengers from Kadesh to the King of Edom (with the following message): So says your brother Israel—You know all of the difficulties that have found us.

And our fathers when down to Egypt and we dwelled in Egypt for many days, and the Egyptians dealt badly with us and our fathers.

And we cried out to HaShem, and He Heard our voices, and He Sent a “Malach” (messenger/angel) and He Took us out of Egypt and behold we are in Kadesh, the city at the edge of your border.

Let us please pass through your land. We will not pass through fields and vineyards and we will not drink from the waters of the spring. We will travel on the King’s Road; we will not turn to the right or to the left until we have passed out of your border.

And Edom said to him: You will not pass (through our land), lest I come out to encounter you with the sword.

And the Children of Israel said to him: We will go up on the road, and if we drink of your waters, either I or my herds, I will give their worth (pay for them). It should not matter if I pass through by foot.

And he said: You will not pass through. And Edom came out to meet him with a great number of people and with a strong hand.

And Edom refused to allow the Children of Israel to pass by foot, and Israel turned aside from him.

Comparing the two biblical accounts.

Although this particular confrontation is playing out between the descendants of Yaakov and Eisav after the passage of many generations, a comparison between BaMidbar 20 and the tension-filled reunion between the twin brothers described in Parashat VaYishlach as Yaakov returns to Canaan after having been away twenty-two years,[1] in the spirit of Ma’aseh Avot Siman LaBanim  (the deeds of the forefathers is a foreshadowing for the offspring) is unavoidable.

a) Beraishit 32:4-7, 14-21.             Yaakov sends messengers to Eisav.

b) Ibid. 32:5.                                       Yaakov alludes to his difficulties with

Lavan while he was in exile.

c) Ibid. 32:7.                                        Eisav comes to meet Yaakov with a

sizeable force.

d) Ibid. 33:8-11.                                 Yaakov insists that Eisav accept a gift

from him, clearly indicating that he wishes nothing from Eisav in return.

e) Ibid. 33:16-17.                              The brothers go their separate ways.

While in this second confrontation, Moshe, embodying the role of Yaakov, appears to argue from a position of strength and confidence[2] rather than weakness and fear,[3] the result is still the same, with no rapprochement in evidence, and everyone maintaining a healthy distance from one another. Although not only Moshe in BaMidbar 20:14 refers to Edom as a “brother”, but HaShem Himself Iterates this relationship between the Jews and the Edomites in several verses in Devarim—2:4, 8; 23:8—the interactions between the two nations appear hardly to bespeak anything approaching brotherly love. It is one thing not to dwell together in the same land—perhaps that is asking too much, as exemplified in the conflicts that arose between Avraham and Lot in Beraishit 13:7; but refusing to allow the offspring of your closest sibling to pass through your country without any cost or harm to you,[4] appears not only to be devoid of typical emotional feelings, but in fact to be extremely hostile.

The long-term treatment of Edom as compared to Amon and Moav.

Devarim 23:4-7 emphasizes how Jews are to avoid accepting even converted members[5] of Amon and Moav as marriage partners due to their refusal to offer bread and water to the Children of Israel as they were passing through their land.[6] Amon and Moav’s relationship to the Jewish people is more protracted than that of Edom—they are the descendants of Lot and his daughters, Lot being only the nephew of Avraham, the son of his brother Haran (see Beraishit 11:27; 19:31-38)—and this perhaps can explain why such harsh measures are extended against them, in contrast to the Edomites, descendants of Eisav, against whom a ban of only three generations is levied (Devarim 23:8).[7]

But doesn’t the refusal by Edom to allow the Jews to pass through their land also include unwillingness to offer them bread and water?[8] Consequently, shouldn’t we conclude that the Edomites were worse than even the Moavites and Amonites who at least let the Jews pass through, and therefore a comparable, if not more severe restriction,[9] should be placed upon the Edomites for their unkindness?

RaMBaN’s view.

It would seem that those tracing their lineage back to Amon and Moav would fall into the latter of the two tiers of Jewish family relationships delineated by RaMBaN on Devarim 2:4.

And the connotation of the phrase “Your brothers, the offspring of Eisav (a reference to the Edomites)” is that the immediate Jewish family begins with Avraham, and all of his offspring are considered brothers, reflected by the fact that all of them were circumcised.[10] And this is the reason for Devarim 23:8, “And do not view as abominable the Edomite because he is your brother.”

However the offspring of the concubines,[11] Yishmael,[12] Midian[13] and all of the children of Ketura are not “brothers” (of the Jewish people), and this is demonstrated by the verse, (Beraishit 21:12) “…Because through Yitzchak will be defined for you your descendents.”

While RaMBaN does not mention Amon and Moav specifically, it would be logical to assume that they would be considered even further removed familially than those who at least shared Avraham as a father, and therefore distancing ourselves from these peoples in terms of marriage becomes less problematic, in contrast to the dilemma we face with our “brothers” Edom.

The relationship between Israel and Edom is paradoxical.

But even if we acknowledge the genealogical closeness of Yisrael and Edom, nevertheless, the reluctance on the part of the inhabitants of Edom to allow the Jews to pass through their land suggests that the members of the two nations simply could not be trusted to respect one another’s land and property, at least from the point of view of the King of Edom, and to act civilly, if not lovingly, towards one another, i.e.,  with respect to Jews refraining from taking what is not theirs, and  Edomites demonstrating inhospitality and itching for an excuse to engage in violence. The two peoples consequently are regrettably so close genealogically and yet so distant emotionally and relationally.

Could competing claims regarding the land of Israel lie at the heart of the enmity?

A number of commentators[14], basing themselves upon Beraishit Rabba, suggest that aside from the general dictates of Middle Eastern hospitality as well as the expectations that relatives have for one another regarding the treatment to which they believe they are entitled, Moshe was either calling upon an ancient sense of guilt, or laying a claim for personal entitlement, when making the request specifically of the Edomites to be allowed to pass through their land. The subsequent refusal then becomes on the one hand a denial of past history and present responsibility von the parts of the Edomites, as well as a justification for the exclusive claim to Canaan by the Jewish people[15] on the other.

Beraishit Rabba 82:13

(Beraishit 36:6) “And Eisav took his wives and his sons and his daughters and all of the souls of his household and his herds and his animals and all of the possessions that he acquired in the land of Canaan and he went to the land ‘Mipnai Yaakov Achiv’ (because of Yaakov his brother)”

R. Eliezer said: Because of a claim of indebtedness (i.e., that Eisav was in debt to Yaakov) (based upon) (Beraishit 15:13) “…And your children will be sojourners in a land that will not belong to them…”

R. Eliezer reads the “Covenant between the Pieces” (Beraishit 15:13-14,16) entered into by HaShem and Avraham in an inclusive rather than exclusive manner in terms of to which of Avraham’s descendents it is meant to apply.

…Know surely that your children will be sojourners in a land that does not belong to them, and they shall serve them, and they shall afflict them for four hundred years.

And also that nation whom they will serve, I will Judge, and afterwards they will come out with great wealth…

But in the fourth generation they will come back here…

In this Tanna’s view, when HaShem Refers to “your children”, He is not only potentially including Yaakov and his descendants, but Eisav and his offspring as well.[16] According to this approach, therefore, Eisav loses his claim to the Chosen Land when he opts to journey away from Yaakov and Canaan, thereby insulating himself from the future famines and exiles that will afflict only the inhabitants of Canaan proper according to the original prophecy received by his grandfather Avraham in Beraishit 15.

The pre-requisite to possessing the land of Canaan.

HaShem’s Stipulation that Canaan will be possessed only after its future inhabitants will have been subjugated in a foreign land, i.e., learned how to sacrifice, is the prototypical formulation of one aspect of a Talmudic statement in Berachot 5a—

It has been taught: R. Shimon bar Yochai says, “Three extraordinary gifts are given by HaShem to the Jewish people, and all of them are earned by means of undergoing trials and tribulations/afflictions—Tora, the land of Israel and the World to Come.

Consequently, according to R. Eliezer, since Eisav and his offspring chose not to subject themselves to such a fate, while Yaakov and his ensuing generations accepted what was to take place,[17] the Edomites end up with no historical entitlement to the land of Israel. And just as Yaakov’s claim to the land was tacitly acknowledged by Eisav in terms of Eisav relocating as soon as Yaakov returns from Charan, so too, Moshe suggests, the Edomites should not only desist from placing obstacles in the path of the Jews coming back to Israel after the significant hardships endured in Egypt, but they should even assist their brethren in claiming and settling that which rightfully belongs to them on the basis of HaShem’s Promise to Avraham. Unfortunately, the King of Edom is less than sympathetic to this argument.

Edom does not wish to be compared to the descendants of Yaakov.

A second view in the previously cited Midrash considers the future rather than the past as a factor that dissuades Eisav from remaining in Canaan.

R. Yehoshua ben Levi said: Because of the embarrassment.

Moshe Aryeh Mirkin, in his commentary to the Midrash Rabba, explains this view as follows: “the individuals who are living in the land who will see the differences in the behaviors of Yaakov and Eisav should not come to say “Look how different one brother is from the other!” And this would have proven an embarrassment to Eisav. Such an approach parallels both the Rabbinic understanding why Eisav was prepared to part with his birthright, as well as his descendants’ reputed rejection of the opportunity to receive the Tora.

RaShI on Beraishit 25:32

“Behold I am going to die…” (Eisav has come in from the field famished, and upon requesting some of the lentil soup that Yaakov was preparing, he is told that in return he would have to bequeath to his younger brother his status as Yitzchak’s firstborn.)

…Said Eisav, “What are the obligations of the status of being the firstborn?”[18]

He (Yaakov) said to him, “There are a great number of prohibitions, punishments and even death penalties associated with it. As we have learned: These are capital offenses—those who are drunk, those whose hair is allowed to grow long and disheveled.”[19]

He said to him: “I will die as a result of the birthright (i.e., I cannot live up to the expectations of this role). Therefore, why should I desire to keep it?”

Devarim Rabba, Parshat Eikev.

At what point were the other nations disqualified (from being designated the “Chosen People”) before Hashem? From the time that the Holy One Blessed Be He Gave the Tora on Sinai, and He Went among all the nations offering them the opportunity to accept His Tora, but they did not wish to…

He Said to the descendents of Eisav, “Do you wish to receive My Tora?” They said to Him, “What is written within it?” He Said to them, “Do not murder.” (Shemot 20:13; Devarim 5:17) They said to Him, “But we depend upon this, for this is a part of our patrimony, (Beraishit 27:40) “By your sword you shall live”…


While a simple reading of the verses in Parashat Chukat concerning the interaction between Israel and Edom would appear to unfortunately have more to do with xenophobia, militarism and nationalism, Rabbinic thought appears to attempt to view the interactions as fitting into the greater Divine Plan of the melding of the people of Israel, Tora and the land of Israel into an organic whole.

Perhaps it is fitting to conclude with an evocative comment by NeTzIV in his commentary HaEmek Davar: (Devarim 23:8) “Because he is your brother”—HaShem wished to make Israel accustomed to acting in accordance with a refined soul. The more that a person’s soul is spiritual, the more s/he will draw close his relatives…For this reason He Commanded him to remember his kinship with the Children of Edom.

[1] See RaShI on Beraishit 29:9.

[2] Moshe is traveling with a great mass of people who have experienced the Help of HaShem in vanquishing Egypt and Amalek. Edom, relatively speaking, is a much smaller kingdom and consequently poses less of a threat militarily, however warlike its traditions beginning all the way back with Eisav himself—see RaShI on Beraishit 27:40.

[3] Yaakov was clearly panic-stricken when he:

a) Divides the encampment into separate groups (Beraishit 32:8-9; 33:1-2)

b) Prays desperately to HaShem, (32:10-13)

c)  Sends messengers with gifts, (32:14-22)

d)  Bows obsequiously to Eisav when he first encounters him, (33:3)

e)  Insists that Eisav accept his gift despite his brother’s strong protestations, (33:10-11)

out of fear that Eisav would try to avenge himself for his earlier perceived wrongs, particularly the purchasing of the Bechora (first-born status), and the misrepresentation involved in obtaining Yitzchak’s Blessing.

[4] In Bava Metzia 108a, the law of Bar Matzra is discussed and there is even a view that an individual can be forcibly made to comply with this rule. The particular example in question is where an individual is interested in divesting himself of part of his real estate. The question posed is, assuming that he will receive the same price whether he offers it first to a neighbor or to a complete outsider, i.e., he is not losing anything financially, must he first offer it to a neighbor, who will benefit that much more since he will end up with two pieces of property contiguous to one another. The Hebrew abstraction of the concept states: Zeh Neheneh VeZeh Lo Chaser (this one [the neighbor] benefits while this one [the seller] does not lose anything). A refusal to provide such a benefit is also referred to in Rabbinic literature, at least according to some, as Middat Sodom (the attribute of the inhabitants of Sodom) (see e.g., Avot 5:10) since dwellers in this city and its suburbs had the reputation of caring only for themselves and no one else.

[5] According to Yevamot 76b, when one interprets the reason that the Tora gives for this prohibition, it becomes apparent that only the men rather than the women are covered by this ban. It is contended that it would have been immodest for women to have offered food and drink to the men of another nation, and therefore Amonite and Moabite women bear no responsibility for the lacking in hospitality evidenced by the men. Although a counterargument is offered to the effect that even if the A. and M. women could have welcomed and made comfortable the Jewish women, the ultimate conclusion of the Talmud is that it was permitted for women who have converted to marry men who were born Jewish; consequently Ruth is not to be censored despite being a Moabite woman, and, as a result, there are no questions regarding King David’s legitimacy.

[6] Although Balak, king of Moav, tries to destroy the Jewish people by means of curses that Bilaam attempts to impose upon them, he fails due to HaShem’s Intervention, and therefore it is implied that the Jews do pass through the land of the Moabites unhindered. Devarim 23:5 then goes on to state that in addition to the hostility implied in the hiring of Bilaam, their failure to be hospitable while the Jews were passing through their land also figured into the ban that was placed upon them in terms of marriage into the Jewish people.

[7] Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzva #563, speculates regarding why Devarim 23:8 is stated in the form of a Hekeish (two different topics within the same verse which are therefore thought to be related, in this case the status of Edomite and Egyptian converts), as opposed to dealing with the members of each of these nations in a verse unto itself. Certainly the reasons for their lesser exclusion, as compared to the prohibitions against Amon and Moav, are distinct, i.e., the Edomites because of their “brotherhood” and the Egyptians because of their having allowed the Jews to sojourn in their land during the years of famine in Canaan. Sefer HaChinuch suggests that what links them together is that despite the fact that the Edomites and the Egyptians caused the Jews so much more grief cumulatively than did the Amonites and Moavites, nevertheless the problems that the former caused were “the result of the Decrees of HaShem upon us, and therefore we should not feel negatively towards them as a result.” Sefer HaChinuch is of the opinion that the lack of hospitality on the parts of Amon and Moav constitutes a far graver violation and reflects a deeper character flaw than what was perpetrated by Edom and Mitzrayim.

While such an explanation renders the two punishments symmetrical and consistent, it appears to me to be problematical for the following reasons:

a) The Egyptians might initially have had a mandate to subjugate the Jews and place them in bondage in accordance with what Avraham is told in Beraishit 15:13, but by all accounts they went far further than they had been authorized to do, e.g., killing children, trying to prevent the Jews from multiplying, giving them Avoda BeFarech (destructive work), etc. Had the Egyptians been careful to do only what HaShem Decreed should be done to the Jews, there would have been no reason to punish the Egyptians.

b) There is no record that the Edomites as a distinct nation afflicted the Jews up until this point. (If Sefer HaChinuch is referring to the Rabbinic equation between Edom and Rome, and therefore is including what will take place within the context of the Roman persecutions and the destruction of the Second Temple, that would constitute an anachronism with regard to explaining why a three-generation prohibition against marrying into the Jewish people should be imposed at this point.) At best it could be pointed out that Amalek begins from one of Eisav’s sons (Beraishit 36:12) and therefore the attack at Refidim (Shemot 17:8 ff.) as well as the battle against the Ma’apilim (BaMidbar 14:43-45) could very well be understood to be the result of Divine Decrees (the Jews had acted badly immediately after the splitting of the sea and therefore had to be shown how dependent upon HaShem they truly were; once the Decree was issued that those who were above twenty at the time of the Exodus would die in the desert, it was unacceptable for a group to try to enter the land anyway in defiance of the punishment that had been meted out as a result of the people’s terrible reaction to the report of the spies.) Nevertheless, Amalek was only a small subcategory of the Edomites in general and it is therefore difficult to understand why the entire nation should be restricted at all if only a small segment of them participated in these activities against the Jews.

c) Finally to claim that the failure to fulfill Gemilut Chassadim is so agrievous that it outweighs even what the Egyptians and Amalekites did, both of which included murder, appears to be illogical. While David HaMelech decreed against the Givonim in Yevamot 79a since the brutal revenge that they wished to extract from members of Shaul’s family demonstrated that they lacked the qualities of Rachmanim, Bayshanim VeGomlei Chassadim (mercifulness, modesty and doing good deeds) and therefore could not become members of the Jewish people in a manner parallel to what the Tora states concerning Amon and Moav, nevertheless Amon and Moav’s actions appear to pale in comparison with certainly Egypt.

[8] RaShBaM on Devarim 2:4 suggests that not all Edomites, nor for that matter even all Moavites, refused to make food and drink available to the Jews. Citing Devarim 2:27-29, in which is described the request made to Sichon, King of Cheshbon for passage through his people’s land, RaShBaM points out that while food may not have been given by the two other nations without cost to the Jews, it was made available for sale:

I wish to pass through your land, on the highway I will go, I will not turn to the right or to the                                            left.

Food for money you can sell to me, and water for money you can give to me and then I will                                              drink; just allow me to pass through on foot.

In the same manner that the children of Eisav did for me who dwell in Sei’ir, and the Moavim                                           that live in Ohr, until I cross the Jordan to enter the land that the Lord our God is Giving                                        to us.

Therefore in order to reconcile the account in BaMidbar 20 with what is stated in Devarim 2, RaShBaM distinguishes between the people of Edom who are the more hostile former group, as opposed to the inhabitants of Sei’ir whose actions are depicted in the latter source, and who apparently did allow the Jews to pass through, as implied in Devarim 2:4.

And the people command (this is a Divine Instruction being given to Moshe) saying, “You are                           passing through the borders of your brothers the children of Eisav who dwell in Sei’ir,                                           and they are afraid of you and be very careful.”

So then the critique of both Moav and Edom is that they charged for the food rather than freely offering it. And while Moshe is explicitly quoted as offering on behalf of the Jews to pay for what the people would consume, it would appear that the assumptions of basic Chesed (kindness)  in general and Hachnasat Orchim (welcoming guests) in particular for anyone, let alone familial relatives, would require food and drink to be provided gratis. Once again, if the Moavites are being criticized and Halachically censored for their charging money for food and drink, if the Edomites did the same, then why isn’t the same punishment equally meted out? It would appear that the Edomites’ status as “brothers” precludes their being excluded from choosing Jews from birth as marriage partners.

[9] E.g., perhaps in addition to not being able to marry someone who was born Jewish, they should not be allowed to engage in commerce with any Jew, a type of Cheirem (social ostracism).

[10] Beraishit 17:12-13 serves as the general commandment for all of Avraham’s male offspring and servants to be circumcised, leading to the reasonable conclusion that not only the son Yitzchak that Sara bears, but also the sons of Ketura and the concubines (if they are not one and the same—see commentaries on Beraishit 25:6). As for Yishmael, 17:25-26 explicitly states that he was circumcised at 13. RaMBaM, Hilchot Melachim 10:7-8 states explicitly that circumcision is incumbent upon the descendents of Avraham and Hagar and Ketura.

[11] Although many consider the term “concubines” to refer to Avraham’s second wife Ketura whom it mentions he marries in Beraishit 25:1, the fact that this word appears in the plural leads RaMBaN to conclude that Avraham had others wives in addition to Ketura, following Sara’s death. Perhaps the arrangement Ketura and the “concubines” according to RaMBaN, paralleled the situation when Sara, Avraham’s “main” wife, gave him Hagar so that there would be a chance that Avraham would father a child.

[12] This is a reference to the child that Hagar bore to Avraham. Whereas Yishmael would qualify as a member of the immediate Jewish family from the perspective of both having Avraham as a father and undergoing circumcision, the later exclusionary and definitive verse in Beraishit 21:12 ultimately disqualifies him from HaShem’s Perspective.

[13] Midian is identified in Beraishit 25:2 as one of Ketura’s sons that she bore to Avraham. The text itself states in 25:6 that after having given them all gifts, Avraham dismisses them from his household, leaving Yitzchak as the child who will clearly be expected to carry on after him.

[14] E.g., RaShI, Rabbeinu Bechaye, Ohr HaChayim.

[15] This type of polemic is already extent in the very first RaShI on Beraishit 1:1.

[16] See RaMBaN on Devarim 2:4 quoted above in the body of the essay.

[17] R.Eliezer’s position flies in the face of a stream of Rabbinic thought that is indicated in RaShI’s commentary to Beraishit 37:1,2, as well as the following Midrash.

RaShI: “’VaYeishev Yaakov’ (And Yaakov dwelt) in the land that his father sojourned, in the land of Canaan. These are the generations of Yaakov, Yosef being 17 years old…”

These are the dwellings and wanderings until they came to a general dwelling. The primary cause (of the wanderings) was Yosef being 17…Because of this, they wandered and descended into Egypt…

And it is further interpreted concerning this phrase (“VaYeishev Yaakov”): Yaakov sought to dwell in peace and tranquility. But the aggravation of Yosef (his son’s disappearance and alleged murder by a wild beast) beset him. The righteous desire to dwell in peace. Says the Holy One Blessed Be He, “Is it not enough for the righteous what is prepared for them in the World to Come, that they seek out to dwell in peace in this world as well?

Beraishit  Rabba 86: (Beraishit 39:1) “And Yosef was brought down to Egypt…”…

Yaakov was thereby forcibly brought down to Egypt. R. Berachya in the name of R. Yehuda bar Simon: (This is comparable) to a cow that was being taken to the slaughter, but refused to go. What did they do to her? They drew her calf in front of her, and she followed against her will. So too it would have been befitting for Yaakov to go down to Egypt in chains (in light of the Decree made to Avraham, and the sooner Yaakov would begin the exile, the sooner it would be concluded). Said HaShem, “He is My Son, My Firstborn, and I will Bring him down to Egypt in a disrespectful manner? I will make him think that he is not going down in order to be subjugated to Pharoah, but rather I will drag his son prior to him, and he will descend after him against his will…

According to this perspective, Yaakov was as reluctant as Eisav to be subjected to afflictions, regardless of what was at stake. While one could counter that we never learn of Eisav going into exile, in contrast to Yaakov who spent twenty-two years away from Canaan, nevertheless it would have been difficult for Yaakov to view those twenty-two years as a fulfillment of the “Brit Bein HaBetarim” (the Covenant between the Pieces) in Beraishit 15. A more likely explanation is that while afflictions may be a prerequisite for being given a great prize, that doesn’t mean that one has to go looking for such situations. Unfortunately they will present themselves sooner or later.

[18] Prior to BaMidbar 3:12, the firstborn were intended to serve the role that the Kohanim eventually fill.

[19] See VaYikra 10:6, 9.

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