I am very puzzled by these two incidents in our parasha, and their very different outcomes.
1. Encounter with the Edomites
"Hey, Mr. Edomite. You know all the tsuris we've had. enslaved in Egypt by Pharaoh and cruelly treated. Our G"d freed us, and now, here we are, on your doorstep. Can I and my family cross through your property on the way to our new home? We promise, we'll just cut right through-we won't, wander off course, or take anything along the way. We'll stay out of your fields and vineyards, we won;t even take water from your wells. We promise."
"Not by the hairs of our chiny-chin-chins. Just try it and we'll be all over you like that!"
"We promise we won't stray off course. If, perchance, any of us or our animals drink your water, we'll pay you for it."
"We're sending heavily armed soldiers out to make sure you keep off our territory."
"OK. Never mind. we'll just go another way."
2. Encounter with the Amorites
"Hey, King Sichon of the Amorites. Can I and my family cross through your property on the way to our new home? We promise, we'll just cut right through-we won't, wander off course, or take anything along the way. We promise."
"No way, Jose. We're sending out our troops to stop you"
Sichon sent out troops and engaged the Israelites in battle. The Israelites defeated him, and took possession of his lands.
Two incidents, two very different outcomes. In the first case, rather than take on the Edomites, the Israelites skirted around their territory. In the second case, Israel defied King Sichon of the Amorites, then defeated them him in battle and acquired his territory. After that, they went on to tackle King Og of Bashan, also an Amorite king. According to the text, they defeated him utterly, there was no remnant of him or his people left.
One simple explanation is the matter of tribal affinity, the Edomites being descendants of Esau. Perhaps the thought was--best not to get into a fight with relatives, even distant ones.
Another explanation involves the fact that, while the Edomites threatened to protect their territory and keep the Israelites out, they did not stage a pre-emptive attack or actively engage the Israelites. Sichon, on the other hand, engaged the Israelites in battle. (King Og, didn't even wait to be asked for permission to pass from the Israelites. Probably having seen what happened to his fellow Amorite king Sichon, King Og decided a pre-emptive strike was best. Of course, he was defeated worse than Sichon!))
Was it the mood of the Israelites? Before the encounter with the Edomites
- the Israelites got really thirsty and rattled Moses so much he struck the rock to get water instead of just speaking to it.
After the encounter with Edom:
- Aaron dies
- The King of Arad attacks the Israelites without provocation. The Israelites offer to proscribe any captured towns, and G"d gives them victory.
- The people get sick of manna, and G"d sends fiery serpents to attack them. In what appears to be a violation of earlier proscriptions, Moses mounts a serpent figure on a staff to ward off the snakes (and it works!)
Maybe the people were restless enough that engaging in battle was a necessary diversion? (There's a horrid thought, but one well demonstrated throughout history. Need a diversion, start a war.)
If none of these or other explanations work, what to do? Apropos to the parasha that starts with the ritual of the red heifer, I suppose we can just chalk it up to another of those Divine mysteries we're not meant to understand. (The ritual of the red heifer is so puzzling that, according to midrash, even Solomon himself threw up his hands in despair at ever understanding it.)
I don't know about you, but for me, nothing gets under my skin more, making want want to delve deeper, than being told that it's just a Divine mystery, not meant for us to understand.
(I've been tutoring a student for bat mitzvah whose parasha is Nitzavim, with it's "the hidden things are for G"d and the revealed things are for us and our descendants to do..." The catch with what we find in parashat Chukat is that we have something that is both revealed and also had apparently hidden meaning. So we perform the ritual of the red heifer (at least when there is a Temple) exactly as described, and don;t even think about the reasons behind it. That is the definition that some, both ancient and contemporary, give for faith.)
Like Solomon, must I just throw up my hands and say "I'll never know why the Israelites bypassed Edom but engaged the Amorites?" I suppose I could say, with all humility, that if Solomon couldn't figure it out, why should I worry about it.
Is that the lesson? Is that why these stories are here, as they are--to teach us to learn to let go, to accept that there are things we may/will never know or understand?
Part of me wants to say yes, and just let things rest. The other part of me will stay up nights trying to figure it out. Is that yetzer tov and yetzer hara balancing themselves? Is my desire to know and understand prideful, selfish, vain? Or does my mere existence as a human being, and the miracle that endows me with creative thought, justify my curious nature?
If I want to sleep, if I want my blood pressure and anxiety to remain at a safe level, I might have to accept not knowing or understanding certain things. Yet my own inner nature seems destined to pursue my query. Where is that middle path?
You have a choice. You can stop here, read no further, and accept there are some things you will not understand, and have a happy and peaceful Independence day Shabbat. If that's your choice:
STOP READING HERE.
If, like me, you can't resist the urge to inquire, the need to know and understand, here are some things to think about:
1. Why do the Israelites bypass Edom, yet attack and overwhelm the Amorites
2. What is the ritual of the red heifer all about?
3. Why were Moses and Aaron so strongly punished for the incident of striking the rock to get water?
4. Why, despite clear earlier prohibitions against the use of magic and talismans, does Moses put a serpent talisman on a staff to ward off the serpents sent by G"d? Why does it work?
5. So, is Bilaam a true worshipper of Ad"nai, the G"d of the Israelites? Or can a prophet be from outside the covenant? What's the story here?
©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester