THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Hukat – פרשת חקת
July 9, 2022 – י תמוז תשפב
This essay is sponsored by Betsy Schrott in memory of Eileen Schrott Z”L; by Suzy Levin in memory of Yehonatan ben Yosef David v’Shirah Z”L; and by Lawrence & Doina Bryskin.
Seeking PeaceIn the fortieth year of their wilderness sojourn, the Israelites sought free passage westward through Transjordanian territory so that they could enter the Land of Canaan from the east. “Israel now sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, saying: ‘Let me pass through your country’ (Numbers 21:21-22).” The Septuagint and Samaritan Torah here add “with an offer of peace,” consistent with the Masoretic Text’s re-telling of the story (in the last book of the Torah): “Then I sent messengers from the wilderness of Kedemoth to King Sihon of Heshbon with an offer of peace (Deuteronomy 2:26).” Moses’ offer of peace to the Amorites is surprising. It seems to contradict a direct Divine command recorded in the immediately preceding verses in Deuteronomy. God told Moses, “See, I give into your power Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon, and his land. Begin the occupation; and engage him in battle (2:24).” God explained to Moses the broader purpose of having the Israelites convincingly defeat the Amorites. “This day I begin to put the dread and fear of you upon the peoples everywhere under Heaven (2:25).” Victory against the mighty and renowned Sihon would elevate the Israelites’ martial reputation in advance of their expected war with the Canaanite nations that they had been told by God to dispossess. Had Moses’ offer of peace been accepted by the Amorites, seemingly this Divine plan would have been frustrated. God’s instruction for the Israelites to wage an aggressive and unprovoked war against the Amorites stands in sharp contrast to His command that the Israelites avoid provoking the Edomites (2:5) and refrain from even harassing, let alone provoking, the Moabites (2:9) and Ammonites (2:19). How, then, could Moses make a peaceful overture to Sihon? Some modern Biblical scholars, including Jeffrey Tigay in the JPS Commentary, suggest that Moses’ peace offer was insincere and was a deliberate attempt to throw the enemy off its guard. It might be compared to Moses’ initial (and deceptive) request to Pharaoh that the Israelites be permitted a three-day religious holiday in the wilderness. In typical Aggadic fashion, the sages recognized the need to resolve the seeming inconsistency between Deuteronomy 2:24 and 2:26 and then claimed that their proposed resolution is merely an example of a wider phenomenon. (In general, we often see that textual difficulties transform themselves into opportunities for the homilists to advance bold theological constructs.) Rabbi Joshua of Sikhnin said in the name of Rabbi Levi that whatever Moses decreed, God would agree with him (Deuteronomy Rabbah 5:13). The Midrash there cites two examples: 1) Moses shattered the first set of the Tablets of Testimony without Divine authorization. Still, God congratulated Moses on his action, signaling post-factum Divine approval. 2) Despite God’s ordering Moses to do battle with Sihon, Moses sent the Amorite king a diplomatic mission offering peace. Heavenly approval of Moses’ actions is implicit in the Torah’s subsequent legislation about warfare. “When you approach a town to attack it, you shall offer it terms of peace (Deuteronomy 20:10).” Other Talmudic and Midrashic passages address instances in which Moses did something on his own authority for which there would be after the fact Divine approval. The most widely known text mentions Moses’ 1) separating from his wife, 2) breaking the tablets, and 3) adding a day to the preparatory period preceding the Sinaitic Theophany (Shabbat 87a). As with the above passage from Deuteronomy Rabbah, which taught its lesson of favorable Divine reaction to Moses’ behavior in response to difficulties in the Biblical narrative, the Baraita in Tractate Shabbat expounded roughly the same lesson in response to difficulties in the timeline of the Revelation narrative. An even more audacious Aggadic text asserts that in three instances God said to Moses “you have taught Me.”: 1) In the first utterance of the Decalogue, God uses the singular form of “your” in proclaiming “I am the Lord your God (Exodus 20:2).” Moses noted that the language of the Ten Commandments, combined with the fact that only Moses directly communed with God at Sinai, while the masses of Israelites were assembled at a distance, might give the erroneous impression that the Israelites are not recipients of Torah and that the Lord is not their God. God accepted Moses’ critique and subsequently employed the plural form of “your” in proclaiming “I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 18:2).” 2) Moses noted the inherent unfairness of punishing someone for the sins of his forebears, as is articulated in the second utterance of the Decalogue, “visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations (Exodus 20:5).” He referenced the example of the righteous Abraham who descended from the idolatrous Terah. God conceded the point and issued revised guidance: “Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor children be put to death for parents; a person shall be put to death only for his own crime (Deuteronomy 24:16).” Moses received credit for his part in improving Divine Law when the later Biblical author lauded King Amaziah for declining to kill the children of his father Joash’s assassins “in accordance with what is written in the Book of the Teaching of Moses (II Kings 14:6).” 3) Moses was discomfited by the idea of waging an unprovoked war against Sihon. He sent a peace embassy instead. God conceded that Moses was right and revised the law of warfare accordingly (Numbers Rabbah 19:33). The sages were willing to resolve theological, legal, and narrative inconsistencies in the Bible by ascribing to Moses the temerity to challenge God. The boldness of the homilists, specifically on the matter of the war against Sihon, is most apparent in a Midrashic passage expounding on the verse “This is the Torah of the peace-offering that one may sacrifice to the Lord (Leviticus 7:11).” The Midrash asserts that everything written in the Torah -- inclusive of the laws of war -- is designed to produce peace, consistent with the maxim “Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths peaceful (Proverbs 3:17).” Moses could not accept the idea of wholesale butchery in which the attacker does not bother to distinguish between the innocent and the guilty (see Deuteronomy 20:17), and so he sent an embassy to Sihon. Only when peace was rejected by the enemy was Moses willing to engage in a ferocious battle and inflict mass casualties on the adversary. God accepted Moses’ independent initiative and codified it into law (Tanhuma Tzav 3). The Talmud records that Joshua followed the precedent set by Moses and extended an offer of peace to the nations living in the Land of Canaan. Joshua gave the heathens three choices: leave voluntarily, make peace and become a tributary, or wage war. The Girgashites evacuated to Africa, the Gibeonites made peace, and the thirty-one other Canaanite potentates waged war and lost (Yerushalmi Shevi’it 36c). Not a few moderns have a dim view of Biblical morality, regarding Scripture as filled with gore and bloodlust. Scholars credit the sages with having softened the hard edges of Biblical religion in their fashioning of Rabbinic Judaism. Yet the above Midrashic passages show that, so far as the sages were concerned, that process was already underway in the time of Moses. Alternatively, and at a minimum, the Aggadists desired to retroject that endeavor to the Mosaic era. Throughout Jewish history, some prominent individuals and institutions have favored pacifism. These range widely from, for example, Brit Shalom of British Mandate Palestine to the Grand Rabbi of Satmar, Joel Teitelbaum. Several passages from rabbinic literature regularly appear in the writings of those who wish to steer Jewry away from militarism. One such Midrashic passage describing the greatness of peace emphasizes the diplomatic efforts of Moses vis a vis Sihon, and Jephthah vis a vis the Ammonites, the stories recounted in this week’s Torah and Haftorah portions, respectively (Sifre Numbers 42). Another oft-cited passage is Rashi’s comment concerning Scripture’s double reference to Jacob’s dread in advance of his long-awaited encounter with Esau: He was afraid that he might be killed, and he was also petrified that he might have to kill others (see Genesis 32:8). Those polemicists with knowledge of Rishonic literature could cite the words of Tosfot (Baba Kamma 23a): “A man must be more vigilant about not harming others than he needs to be about not harming himself.” And a favorite prophetic reference is: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit said the Lord of Hosts (Zechariah 4:6).” Rashi, citing Midrash Tanhuma Yashan Hosafah 10, offered a less audacious approach to understanding Moses’ peace overture to Sihon. Rather than claiming that Moses taught God a lesson, the Midrash has Moses claim that he learned from God’s example. Before the Revelation at Sinai, God offered the Torah to the descendants of Ishmael and Esau, despite knowing that they would reject the offer. So, too, Moses offered peace to Sihon regardless of the slim (or zero) chance that Sihon would accept. Alternatively, Moses claimed to have mimicked God’s handling of Pharaoh. God could have struck down the Egyptians with a single bolt of lightning. Instead, He sent Moses on a diplomatic mission with the message “Let my people go.” So, too, Moses declined to hit the Amorites with a military thrust before first sending a diplomatic mission. Rashi’s interpretation has two significant advantages. 1) It is theologically restrained. In this reading, man learns from God, rather than, as Midrash Rabbah theorizes, man teaches God or, as it were, out-moralizes Him. 2) Jews are bidden to attempt peacemaking ahead of any military undertaking, even when diplomacy seems (or is) futile, because the pursuit of peace is itself a high virtue. Yet the pacifist who knows only diplomacy and can never countenance war adopts a flawed approach. Ultimately, Moses and Israelites assaulted the Amorites, dominated the battlefield, and secured a clear victory. World Jewry and the modern State of Israel are well-served by Moses’ example. We have our emissaries who talk to the adversary. But when talks fail to bear fruit, the armed forces, with help from the Almighty, stand ready to achieve victory.