Steve Rodan

Depending on the kindness of strangers

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. [Numbers 20:14-15]
You couldn’t have asked for a more loving appeal. A long-lost brother seeks a rapprochement and reaches out by recalling more than 200 years of slavery.
In this week’s Torah portion of Chukat, Moses does something unusual. Without asking G-d, he seeks a shortcut for the Children of Israel to exit the desert and quickly enter the Land of Canaan. That shortcut is through the kingdom of Edom in the Negev Desert. Israel is tired of the heat, sand, the repeated water shortages and even the manna.
“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.'” [Numbers 20:17]
The offer sounds good: The Jews will walk straight through Edom and support its economy by purchasing food and water. The Israelites will maintain discipline and the children will not stray or pick the prickly pears from the roadside orchards. The bottom line: This would not be a big deal.
But for Edom it was a big deal. His credibility was on the line.
Edom replied to him, “You shall not pass through me, lest I go out towards you with the sword!” [Numbers 20:18]
Throughout history, the Chosen People have never won popularity contests. But Edom stands out in its hate for Israel. Over thousands of years, nothing that Israel would do could ever please or satisfy Edom and its successor Rome. Unlike other countries, Edom’s hate is from the bottom up. Ovadia Sforno, the 16th Century Italian scholar, writes that Edom’s king feared that any deal with Moses could spark a backlash.
The Sforno knew Edom’s ways firsthand. Through a cardinal in Rome, the rabbi was asked by a prominent Christian scholar, Johannes Reuchlin, for help in studying the Torah in the original Hebrew. Reuchlin sat with the Sforno for two years. The church repaid the rabbi by banning his books and seeking to burn the Talmud. Reuchlin would end up saving the Jewish books from destruction.
Three hundred years later, the Vatican was plunged into a crisis in wake of the Napoleonic wars. The Holy See was saved by James Mayer de Rothschild, head of the family’s Paris bank, who in 1832 lent Pope Gregory XVI the equivalent today of billions of euros. Gregory was vilified by the Catholics who also called de Rothschild and his ilk “Christ-killers.” “A Jew now reigns over the pope and Christianity,” was the way French romantic poet Alfred de Vigny put it. Similar invectives were hurled when a Catholic with Jewish roots, Bernardino Nogara, again saved the Vatican in the 1930s from financial ruin.
The sages say Moses tried to appeal to Edom’s shared ancestry. Moses focused on Abraham, the grandfather of Jacob and Esau, whom the latter respected. But on the day Abraham died, Esau broke away.
Rabbi Yochanan said: “That wicked man [Esau] committed five sins on that day: He raped a betrothed maiden; he killed somebody; he denied the existence of G-d; he denied the belief of the resurrection of the dead and he belittled the birthright.” [Talmud Bava Basra. 16b]
The aftermath of Moses’ attempt was humiliating. The Israelites slunk off as other nations become emboldened. Edom’s cousin Amalek disguised themselves as Canaanites and attacked Israel and took a captive. Aaron the High Priest was told that he would not continue to the Land of Canaan and was interred on Mount Hor, opposite the Edomite kingdom. The Midrash says this marked a punishment for the Edom episode.
So why did Moses do it? Why would he lead the Israelites in trying to suck up to their worst enemy? Did Moses expect pity from the descendants of Esau?
A closer look at this chapter turns up something interesting. Moses might have initiated the approach to Edom, but after he was rebuffed, the Children of Israel took over. They remained optimistic that Edom’s goodwill could be bought. After all, a buck is a buck.
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.” [Numbers 20:19]
By now, the king of Edom was joined by his subjects. They formed a united front and prepared for war against the Jews.
But he said, “You shall not pass through!” and Edom came out toward them with a vast force and with a strong hand. [Numbers 20:20]
Moses gave his people a lesson in life and history: Do not seek friends among the nations. They will betray you. The worst of those nations is Edom, who will pretend to be a friend when they are weak but seek to annihilate you when they feel strong. Indeed, the Edomite bravado toward Moses was based on a commandment from G-d not to initiate war against Edom or Moab. Like Reuchlin, somebody other than the Jews had been reading the Torah.
Within months, the Israelites would enter Canaan, but it would not be through any help from Edom or its neighbors. G-d would complete the desert mission and clear a path for the millions of His children to return to the land of the patriarchs. Their dependence on the kindness of strangers was over.
About the Author
Steve Rodan has been a journalist for some 40 years and worked for major media outlets in Israel, Europe and the United States. For 18 years, he directed Middle East Newsline, an online daily news service that focused on defense, security and energy. Along with Elly Sinclair, he has just released his first book: In Jewish Blood: The Zionist Alliance With Germany, 1933-1963 and available on Amazon.