Chukat: No Politics Without History

In this week’s Parsha we are once again reminded: there can be no politics without history. No discussion without facts. Moses’s career as a diplomat is on full display and leaves us a powerful lesson.

The Jews are traveling through the desert and they are finally making their final approach towards the promised land. Instead of walking all around the nation of Edom, a descendant of Esau, the Jews want to see if they can take a shortcut through the land of Edom. The Torah says (Bamidbar 20:14 and on):

Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom: “So says your brother, Israel, ‘You know of all the hardship that has befallen us. Our fathers went down to Egypt, and we sojourned in Egypt for a long time. And the Egyptians mistreated us and our forefathers. We cried out to the Lord and He heard our voice. He sent an angel, and he took us out of Egypt, and now we are in Kadesh, a city on the edge of your border. Please let us pass through your land; we will not pass through fields or vineyards, nor will we drink well water. We will walk along the king’s road, and we will turn neither to the right nor to the left until we have passed through your territory.’

Commentaries wonder why it is that Moses does not just ask for permission? Why does Moses remind Edom of their kinship or share the difficulties the Jewish people have been through? Why would the king of Edom care anyway?

Some explain this based on a parable. A father died leaving two grown children and a large sum of debt owed to others. One of the brothers paid off that debt in full. One day, that brother needed a favor from his brother. He told him:” please do this for me, after all, I am the one who paid off our father’s debt in full! All by myself!”

God said to Abraham: (Genesis 15:13)” “You shall surely know that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and oppress them, for four hundred years…And the fourth generation will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites will not be complete until then.”

Moses is reminding the King of Edom why they need to go through his land. He is reminding him that the children of Israel are the ones who paid that debt, who incurred that suffering. He, therefore, seeks some mercy, some gratitude. Moses also knows that no conversation is complete without the full historical background. Simply asking if this Jews can go through Edom would be missing the fuller context.

Did doing so help Moses? It seems like it didn’t.

The verse in Bamidbar continues:

“Edom replied to him, “You shall not pass through me, lest I go out towards you with the sword!” The children of Israel said to him, “We will keep to the highway, and if we drink your water, either I or my cattle, we will pay its price. It is really nothing; I will pass through on foot.”

But he said, “You shall not pass through!” and Edom came out toward them with a vast force and with a strong hand.”

The Jews decide to avoid a war with Edom and just move on. It seems like all that history went nowhere.

About two hundred years later, history comes back to haunt the region. This happens with the confrontation between the people of Amon and the children of Israel.

In the book of Judges(11:12), also read as the Haftorah for Chukat, we are told of the diplomatic confrontation the precedes the war between Israel and Amon. “And Yiftach sent messengers to the king of the children of Ammon, saying, “What is (between) me and you, that you have come to me to fight in my land?” And the king of the children of Ammon said to the messengers of Jephthah, “Because Israel took away my land, when they came out of Egypt, from Arnon and up to the Jabbok, and up to the Jordan; and now restore them peacefully.”

Like so many of the confrontations in the region today, this war begins with historical claims to land. What belongs to who and since when. The king of Amon claims the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Menashe—living on the eastern side of the Jordan river, are occupying land that belongs to Amon. He sends Yiftach an ultimatum: leave the land or face war.

Yiftach does not just go to war, despite being strong and believing in his own correctness. He responds with a lengthy and detailed outline of history.

“So said Jephthah, Israel did not take the land of Moab and the land of the children of Ammon. Because when they came up from Egypt, and Israel went through the wilderness up to the Red Sea, and they came to Kadesh. And Israel sent messengers to the king of Edom saying, ‘Let me pass now through your land,’ and the king of Edom did not listen, and also to the king of Moab he sent, and he was unwilling; and Israel abode in Kadesh. And they went through the wilderness and went around the land of Edom and the land of Moab, and they came to the east of the land of Moab, and they encamped on the other side of the Arnon, and they did not come within the border of Moab, for (the) Arnon (was) the border of Moab. And Israel sent messengers to Sichon, king of the Amorites, the king of Cheshbon; and Israel said to him, ‘Please let us pass through your land up to my place.’ And Sichon did not trust Israel to pass through his border, and Sichon gathered all his people, and they encamped in Yahatz, and he fought with Israel. And the Lord, the God of Israel, delivered Sichon and all his people into the hand of Israel, and they struck them; and Israel possessed all the land of the Amorites, the inhabitants of that land.”

Once again, this answer is not enough to prevent war. Yiftach and the people of Israel go to war with Amon and are victorious in their battle. The dispute is not resolved in a peaceful way. And yet, these two episodes leave a strong legacy to us the Jewish people. There will always be those who challenge us, people who confront us. History will be distorted, perverted, and denied. We will then be tempted to take one of two paths: the path of arguing against those who distort our history, and the path of outright war. The lesson both Moses and Yiftach teach us is that one path is never enough. They teach us that history matters. We must always make sure history is accurate. We must always present our side with clarity and confidence. We do not have the luxury of assuming others will accept our narrative. We must be prepared for a full confrontation with those who deny history, disposes us, and threaten our existence. We must do everything to assert who we are, not before making sure we explored all diplomatic options and made our moral and historical arguments very clear.

Shabbat Shalom!

About the Author
The writer is a rabbi, writer, teacher, and blogger (www.rabbipoupko.com). He is the president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City.
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