When conventional morality clashes with the Torah’s explicit word, the argument can sound something like this:
“Liberal”: I can’t accept that the Torah would command something which is so clearly immoral!
“Traditionalist”: Clearly, yours is not a Torah-true morality. It must be influenced by external values. If the Torah was the source of your morality, you wouldn’t feel any tension.
“Liberal”: But these aren’t just external values! What about Tzelem Elokim? Tikkun Olam? Shalom, Tzedek and Mishpat?
“Traditionalist”: Do you think you understand those concepts better than the Torah does? Obviously, if there is an explicit verse that contradicts your understanding, you must have it wrong. You can’t disagree with an explicit commandment.
Enter Moshe, Devarim chapter 2. Thrice, God forbids the Jewish people from engaging in battle with unfriendly nations, because of those nations’ God-given rights to their lands (apparently, we’re not the only chosen people in the neighborhood). But when it comes to Sichon, the command is the exact opposite, to “begin to conquer, and incite war with him.”
This first war, God explains, is significant because it is needed to set the stage for the subsequent conquest of the nations of Canaan. “On this day, I will begin to place the terror and fear of you upon the face of the nations, who will hear of you, and tremble and quake before you.”
In response to this command, Moshe does the strangest thing. He disobeys God. Rather than instigating war with Sichon, he seeks peace. It’s such an inappropriate gesture that the Ramban tries to suggest that it’s out of order. But even if it is, it matters little, because it is Moshe who is crafting his narrative based on the message he wants to convey, as we say yesterday. If he is telling things out of order, there must be a lesson in it.
That lesson is found in Rashi, quoting the Midrash, explaining the meaning of the mysterious “Desert of Kdemot”, a place we’ve never heard of before.
“Although God didn’t command me to call to Sichon in peace (!!), I learned to do so from the Sinai Desert, from the Torah which preceded (kadma) the world…A different interpretation: I learned it from You, who preceded (kadamta) Your world…” From my understanding of your ways in the world, God, I can learn your Will, even when that contradicts your Word. This is the powerful, radical, potentially dangerous message of Moshe…the “liberal”?
This is my daily reflection on a perek of Tanach, breathlessly following the 929 project. We just started the final book of the Torah, Devarim- it’s a great time to join the fun! You can learn more at 929.org.il.