Saturday, August 21, 2010

From Yechezkel's Shabbos Table - Crossing the Desert

In this (past) week's parsha, the Torah forbids us from accepting an Amoni or Moavi as a full fledged convert. And why?

On the surface, the Torah offers us two reasons for this:

על דבר אשר לא קדמו אתכם בלחם ובמים בדרך בצאתכם ממצרים ואשר שכר עליך את בלעם בן בעור מפתור ארם נהרים לקללך

  1. For the matter that they did not receive you with bread and water on the road when you exited from Egypt.
  2. And as to that he hired curse you.
The commentaries converge en masse to try to make sense out of these two reasons. And, at the very least, the manner they are presented. The great difficulty is not with reason number 2 - that he hired Bilaam to curse you. It seems to be a very sensible reason to turn down their application. But how are we supposed to understand the first reason - they did not greet you with bread and water?

The questions abound, mainly, isn't this a bit overblown? What's the big deal? After all:

  1. Does this mean free bread and water (Chizkuni)? No other nation greeted us with free bread and water and we have no problem with them. We all know there is no such thing as a free breakfast!
  2. If we mean that they were not willing to sell us bread and water, well, the pasuk in Devarim 2:29 explicitly indicates that the Moavim were happy to do so (see Oznayim L'Torah ad loc). Business is business!
  3. And, why did we need bread and water in the desert anyway, didn't we have the mahn and the spring of Miriam?

And, even if we consider it a valid shortcoming, how does it compare in significance to the second reason? Moreover, why does it deserve to get precedence over the second reason?

Another question: The term the Torah uses for "receive you with bread and water..." is קדמו. Though, difficult to translate into English, the implication of this choice of terminology is to head off, to make the first move, to preempt, to be there before something else... be there before what? What were they supposed to preempt?

I have seen some or all of these questions in the works of various prominent commentaries, but there is one looming question that I have yet to see in print:

The Torah tells us that "they did not receive you with bread and water בדרך בצאתכם ממצרים - on the road as you exited Egypt".

When you exited Egypt? That was 40 years ago! The encounter with Moav and Bilaam and Baal Pe'or occurred at the end of the 40 year period when we were encamped at Arvos Moav. Why does the Torah call this בדרך בצאתכם ממצרים?

Now that we brought it up, it does seem a bit curious, doesn't it? This phrase - בדרך בצאתכם ממצרים - has not yet made an appearance in the entire Torah. And here in this Parsha, Ki Teitzei, it suddenly shows up written identically no less than 3 times!! The first time is here in our pasuk - Devarim 23:5. The second time is in Devarim 24:9 when we are commanded to recall the ordeal of Miriam and her tzoraas. The third time is in 25:17 in the renowned Parshat Zachor when we recall the attack of Amalek.

Three times the identical phrase in this Parsha and nowhere else in the Torah! There must be some common denominator. Yet none of the classical commentaries deal with it. Even the great Baal HaTurim whose mission is to compare identical phrases throughout the Tanach seems to have overlooked this one (we will have to dock him from his pay!)

But, returning to our question, the use of this phrase by Amalek makes perfect sense. They attacked us in Refidim, within a month or two of our Exodus. The ordeal of Miriam occurred in the second year, prior to the incident of the spies. Perhaps, this can also be considered "on our way out of Egypt". But the incident with Moav and Bilaam? This did not occur until after the 40 years, as stated earlier.

The key to solving this problem lies with the commentary of Rabeinu Bechaye. But first, let us study a passage from the gemara in Kiddushin (31b):

Rabi Tarfon had a mother for whom when she wanted to go into her bed he would bend down so she can climb up on him and when she wanted to step off she would step down on him. He expressed an exaltation in the Beis HaMidrash and the Rabbis said to him, "You have not yet reached the midpoint of your obligation. Has it occurred that she threw your money purse into the sea in front of you and you restrained from berating her?"

How are we to understand the obligation of honoring our parents? We can look at it from 2 perspectives:

1- The relationship that we have with our parents mirrors the relationship we have with HKBH. We must honor them in order to simulate the honor that we must have for our Father in Heaven. This is mentioned explicitly in the gemara in Kiddushin 30b.

In this sense, the mitzva is actually a mitzva of Bein Adam L'Makom - between man and G-d. This can explain why this mitzva is to be found on the first of the 2 tablets.

2 - The more pragmatic aspect is that it is Bein Adam L'Chaveiro. We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to our parents. Even if they did not look after us from the time of our birth (which is seldom the case) we still owe our very existence to them for they brought us into the world. For those to whom we owe our very existence, there is no limit to the extent that we must express our gratitude.

This is the message that the Rabbis conveys to Rabi Tarfon. All of your gestures do not even reach the midpoint because, for something without limit, there is no midpoint.

Now, returning to our subject, Rabeinu Bechaye explains that Amon and Moav carry a tremendous debt of gratitude toward the descendents of Avraham. Because it is only in the merit of Avraham Avinu that their ancestor Lot was saved from the destruction of Sodom. The descendents of Ammon and Moav are indebted to Avraham Avinu - and, by extention, to us - for their very existence! And, as such, no gesture of appreciation would be considered too much.
And so, the Torah is telling us in reason number 1 that if Ammon and Moav truly appreciated their obligations to Klal Yisrael, they would have, 40 years previous, the moment they heard that this great nation was released from Egypt, they would have loaded up their camels with bread and water, and crossed over the entire Sinai desert and offered to take care of their needs for bread and water before HKBH took the initative to miraculously supply water and mahn. They should have said, "HKBH, hold off with the miracle bread and spring water. The bread and water is on us."

So the Torah says: על דבר אשר לא קדמו אתכם בלחם ובמים . For the matter that they didn't run across the desert and take the initiative to provide bread and water...

But, you may say, this is a bit of an exagerration. Okay to be friendly and not hostile and to help the Jews when they come knocking at their door, but you don't mean to actually get up and cross the desert and feed them...

So the Torah adds: בדרך בצאתכם ממצרים

Where else do I find this phrase? Oh yes, by Amalek - 25:17 (we will have to shelve the reference by Miriam in 24:9). And what did Amalek do?

That's right, the moment that they heard that this great nation was released from Egypt, they loaded their camels with guns and knives and journeyed out across the entire Sinai desert just to attack us and do us harm. Because they hated us. They hated us so much they just couldn't wait to attack us even if it means transsecting a huge formidable desert.

To attack us. To harm us.

Now, to be fair, this is not without a basis. After all, Yaakov our ancestor did indeed steal the brachos from Eisav, their ancestor. So there does exist some form of "debt of hatred". And the sons of Eisav are very good about making good on their debts. But our relationship with Ammon and Moav should be different. There is no "debt of hatred" to be paid, but rather a debt of gratitude. Something that is normally expressed by chessed and kinship.

So, the Torah asks, if one nation is so motivated to load up their camels with weapons and cross the desert for destruction and evil, and the middah of Tov is 500 times greater than the middah of Rah (Rashi Shmos 20:6), is it too much to ask another nation to load up their camels and to cross the desert for chessed and emes?

And if they would have done so, imagine what they may have been zocheh to!!

So the Torah tells us: על דבר אשר לא קדמו אתכם בלחם ובמים בדרך בצאתכם ממצרים

Okay, so 40 years ago when they had a chance for greatness, which would entail no more effort than the Amaleikim actually invested for their destructive purposes, they passed it up. We can live with that. Not everybody is so motivated. But what happened now when these Jews to whom they owe so much are actually standing at their doorstep?

ואשר שכר עליך את בלעם בן בעור מפתור ארם נהרים לקללך.

Can a nation that is so ungrateful, that is so treacherous ever have a place in Klal Yisrael?

לא תדרוש שלמם וטבתם כל ימיך לעולם.

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