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Shmuel Polin
ניט מיט שעלטן/לאַכן קען מען די וועלט איבערמאַכן

Parshat Chukat and Edom

This week, we read from Parshat Chukat, in which Moses is taught the laws of the red heifer, whose ashes purify a person who has been contaminated by contact with a dead body.

Our Torah reading also describes how, after 40 years of journeying through the desert, the people of Israel arrive in the wilderness of Zin. There, G-d tells Moses to speak to a rock and command it to give water. Moses becomes angry at the rebellious Israelites and strikes the stone. Water gushes forth from the rock, but G-d tells Moses that neither he nor Aaron will enter the Promised Land.

Towards the very end of our Torah reading of this week, Moses and the people of Israel arrive at lands adjacent to Israel after wandering the desert from Egypt. There they encounter the Emorites and the Edomites. On the border, Moses will lead the people in battles against the Emorites.

Most Torah commentaries and discussions stress the focal point of the incident with the miraculous water pouring from the rock stricken by Mosses in this week’s Torah portion. However, instead, let us turn attention to a previously overlooked item from this week’s Torah portion, specifically, Numbers 20:17-18. Here, Moses is pleased with the Edomites:

(17) “Allow us, then, to cross your country. We will not pass through fields or vineyards, and we will not drink water from wells. We will follow the king’s highway, turning off neither to the right nor to the left until we have crossed your territory.” (18) But Edom answered him, “You shall not pass through us, else we will go out against you with the sword.”

Taking a step away from our text, build up this moment in your imagination. After 40 years of wandering the desert, the Israelites have grown weary. They have rebelled, they have starved, and they have fled oppression and slavery. But now they stand at the gates of the Holy Land. Blocking their safe passage are buffer states that surround the Land of Israel.

Imagine a migratory group, exiles and refugees from a foreign land arriving to the shores of a Promised Land in search of freedom, but being turned away. That is what this week’s Torah portion is describing. The Edomites could either hinder or assist the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion.

You should imagine that this would have been a make-or-break moment for the Edomites. The Edomites had a limited periphery into the sphere of Israelite consciousness until this point. At this vital moment in our history, the Edomites could have been either an impediment or an aid to the Israelites. Unfortunately, the Edomites did not assist the Israelites in safe passage into the Land of Israel. Their history moving forward was thus tainted because of the interaction described in this week’s Torah portion.

In Rabbinic literature and as a direct result of the chapter described in our Parshat HaShavua with the Edomites, the Edomites are described in the harshest possible terms. Throughout the rabbinic and middle ages of Jewish history, commentators and rabbis have been critical of Edom and have made lofty associations of Edom to Rome, and even Christendom.

Even into the Roman and Medieval periods, the Edomites were tainted in our consciousness. The medieval Jewish commentator Ibn Ezra wrote that Edom had been the literal and metaphoric progenitor of Rome. On one hand, a complex genealogy underpins these claims by rabbis that hinges on the sibling rivalry between Esau and Jacob. While on the other, Edom was a polity allied with Rome later on in our history. King Herod was buttressed by the Romans, yet he was of Edomite origin. For this reason, Herod did not enjoy the full support of Judeans during the Roman period.

Edom was metaphorically understood as a progenitor of Rome by the same rabbinic commentators because of the descriptions made in this week’s Torah portion. Rather than assisting the Israelites on Derek Yisrael, the way to Israel, the Edomites provided an impasse. Similarly, Rome seemingly provided endless impasses for the Judeans to be on Derek Yisrael. Hellenization, the destruction of the Temple, forced exile, and the wars against the Jews created a literal barrier between Jews and their religion. Rome equally so to Edom could have provided safe passage for Jews to their religion, but rather Rome did not. Neither did Edom.

We should learn from our experiences and apply them to our world. What has these experiences taught us? What may be our ethical teachings? Imagine again our migratory group, exiles and refugees from a foreign land arriving to the shores of a Promised Land in search of freedom, but being turned away. What does our tradition teach us?

Recall in Devarim 10:19, our Torah states, “You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” What this week’s Torah portion describes is the inverse of the ethical calling made in Devarim. In Numbers, we set about entering into the Land, yet we were turned away once again as strangers.

From our biblical exegesis until today, we have experienced being turned away at the shores of Freedom and in the deserts of Sinai. Today is no different. Countries and borders have changed, but people have not. Polemics against the stranger, the immigrant, or the refugee are alive today as they once were in antiquity. Yet it is our ethical calling to treat the stranger with dignity and good faith.

Lest we become as Edom and turn the homeless, the orphan, and the widow away from us.

May the ethical teachings from our Parshat Hashavua be a light for us for ages. May we learn to honor these teachings and strangers amongst us. May we always remember we were once strangers in the land of Egypt and from Edom’s errors as a way of informing our ethical orientation.

About the Author
Shmuel Polin is an imminent rabbi from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). A Greater Philadelphia/New Jersey native, he completed his B.A. at American University in Washington D.C. where he studied Jewish Studies and International Studies. He also completed both an M.A. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and an M.A. in Jewish Studies from Gratz College of Melrose Park, Pennsylvania. His thesis focused on the depiction of European antisemitism in 1930's-1940's American and foreign cinema. Shmuel has years of experience of teaching Hebrew School at Kehillat HaNahar of New Hope, Pennsylvania, leading as a student rabbi at Beth Boruk Temple (Richmond, Indiana) and Temple Israel (Paducah, Kentucky), and also working for Israeli non-governmental organizations. Currently living in Cincinnati, he is finishing up his studies at HUC-JIR, while serving as the rabbinic intern of Adath Israel.
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