This is my 24th consecutive post connecting the parasha to Israel’s pro-democracy protests.
In a single chapter of this week’s parasha, Hukkat, Miriam dies (Numbers 20:1); God tells Moses and Aaron that they will not enter the promised land because Moses struck the rock at Meribah (Numbers 20:12); and Aaron dies as a punishment for Meribah (Numbers 20:28). This emotionally wrought sibling history is interrupted by another: an encounter between the descendants of Jacob and Esau (Numbers 20:14-21).
Moses sends messengers to the King of Edom seeking permission to pass through his land. He makes an excellent diplomatic case to be allowed free passage, emphasizing Israel’s relationship with Edom, the descendants of Jacob’s brother, Esau: Thus says your brother Israel… He summarizes Israel’s turbulent history since their ancestors last met: We went down to Egypt, the Egyptians oppressed us, God brought us out, and here we are at the edge of your territory. And he promises that Israel will not pass through Edom’s fields or vineyards or drink from wells but will stay on the king’s highway. But the King of Edom refuses, and, when Moses presses, comes out against Israel with a large armed force.
Deuteronomy also reports the encounter between Israel and Edom, but from a different angle. The instruction to enter Edomite territory comes from God. After many days of avoiding Mount Seir, God tells Moses to enter the land of Edom. They’ll be afraid of you, but don’t fight with them, God warns. I won’t give you a foot’s length of their land. I gave it to Esau as a heritage, he says. You should pay them for your food and water. So the Israelites passed by their ‘brothers’, the ‘descendants of Esau’ (Deuteronomy 2:1-8).
Both accounts of the desert encounter hark back to the reunion that took place between Jacob and Esau when Jacob finally left the house of his father-in-law Laban (Genesis 32:4-33:17).
Understandably – they separated on terrible terms – Jacob takes great pains to prepare for the uncomfortable meeting with his brother. He sends a messenger ahead, bringing Esau up to speed with what’s gone on with him since they last met: he’s been a servant in the house of Laban. And whether to reassure Esau that he’s not in need, or to hint that he’s bringing gifts, Jacob boasts about his assets. His messengers return to tell him that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men. And here’s the question. Is this a welcome party or a militia?
Fearing the worst, Jacob divides his camp into two, figuring that even if Esau attacks one, the other will be saved. But hoping for the best, he sends many animals ahead in separate droves as gifts for Esau. Perhaps Jacob misread Esau’s intentions, or perhaps the gifts served their purpose, but Esau greets him with open arms and a big hug. But was he sincere?
Traditional commentators have tended to think not, and the encounter between Israel and Edom in the wilderness as described in Numbers 20 supports their skepticism. Like Jacob, Moses sends messengers and summarizes what’s been going on – as Jacob had been in service to Laban, the people of Israel had been slaves to Pharaoh. Like Esau, Edom comes out with a large force. But unlike Esau, Edom explicitly rejects Israel, refusing them passage through the land, and driving them away when Moses tries to negotiate.
Deuteronomy’s account offers a different perspective on the reunion between Jacob and Esau. As noted above, it’s God who instructs Israel to enter Edom’s territory. He tells them that they’ll be able to buy food and water; Edomite hospitality is assumed. God makes it clear that the Edomites will fear the Israelites, not vice versa, and he cautions Israel against seizing Edomite land; he has given it to Edom as an eternal inheritance. Either way, the brothers, and their descendants, separate at the end. But read through Deuteronomy’s lens, we have reason to take Esau’s generous reception of Jacob at face value, and to assume that relations between their descendants could be cordial, if cautious.
A question that’s been occupying Israel’s pro-democracy protest movement is how to think about the face-to-face encounters that have been taking place at the President’s House between the coalition and the opposition. Should we be skeptical and assume that it was a stalling tactic on the part of the Government? Or should we give the coalition the benefit of the doubt — we are, after all, brothers — and believe that compromise is possible?
The President has spoken out strongly in favor of continuing the negotiations. In Jerusalem, at least, some speakers at the post-Shabbat demonstrations have been visceral in their condemnation. The coalition is not, they said, sincere. And even if by chance they are sincere, there’s no-one with enough power to deliver true compromise, no strong man capable of deciding whether his troops are a welcome committee or a hostile militia.
Either way, calling a halt to the demonstrations now is not an option. It’s getting harder every week to take to the streets. Shabbat is ending later. Other post-Shabbat options beckon. People are beginning to travel for the summer. No-one knows where this is leading. But the demonstration organizers are doing their upmost to keep it fresh — we had a DJ in Jerusalem last week — and for the time being we must try to find the strength to continue.