In loving memory of Ada Bat Avroham, Alice Stone z"l,
beloved mother and grandmother on the occasion of her Yahrzeit, 2 Tammuz
Ellen & Stanley Stone and their children and grandchildren,
Jake & Chaya, Micah & Addie, Zack & Yael, Allie & Isaac,
Ezra & Talia, Shai, Yoni & Cayley, Azi, Eliana & Moshe,
Adina & Emunah, Gabi & Talia
Towards the end of Parashat Chukat, we read of Benei Yisrael’s conquest of the Emorite kingdom after the kingdom launched an attack against them. The Torah in this context explains that the territory seized by Benei Yisrael had once been part of Moav, but the territory was captured by the Emorites under the leadership of its king, Sichon.
The Torah here records a poem composed by the “moshelim” (“poets”) after the Emorite conquest of this territory, which placed special emphasis on the fall of the capital city, Cheshbon: “Come to Cheshbon! Let the city of Sichon be built and established! For a fire has burst forth from Cheshbon… It consumed Moav’s [city of] Ar… O, Moav…it turned its sons into fugitives and its daughters into captives, to Sichon, the Emorite king…” (21:27-29).
Rav Gavriel Zev Margolis, in his Torat Gavriel commentary, cites a novel interpretation of these verses from Rav Bentzion Aryeh Leib Tzizling, who notes that in this poem, the “fire” that ravaged Moav is described as having originated from its own city – Cheshbon (“For a fire has burst forth from Cheshon”). What this might mean is that Sichon, in his quest to capture the territory, used bribes to elicit the support of the people of Moav, or at least those in the capital city. These citizens of Moav turned against their own king and their own countrymen, easily handing Sichon a resounding victory over Moav. Thus, the “moshelim” who composed this poem were moved to depict not simply the crushing defeat suffered by Moav, but the betrayal of Moav’s own citizens, who were bribed to fight against their own country. This is why they described Moav as actively turning its young men and women into fugitives and captives – because they assisted the enemy, essentially bringing calamity upon their own countrymen in exchange for some cash.
On this basis, Rav Margolis suggests an explanation for the Gemara’s well-known reading of the introduction to this poem – “Al kein yomeru ha-moshelim bo’u Cheshbon” (“Therefore, the poets would say: Come to Cheshbon!”). In Masekhet Bava Batra (78b), the Gemara comments that the word “moshelim” may be read as referring to “ha-moshelim be-yitzram” – people who “rule” over their natural instincts and inclinations, who restrain themselves from wrongdoing. The way they succeed in exercising self-restraint is by saying, “Bo’u cheshbon” – which the Gemara understands to mean, “Let’s calculate” – referring to the “calculation” between the benefits of sin and the harm of sin. We are able to restrain ourselves when we truly understand that the harm and long-term consequences of wrongdoing far outweigh any fleeting enjoyment it offers. Several writers raised the question of how this Midrashic reading of the verse connects to the context – the conquest of Cheshbon by the Emorites. Why would this lesson – that the detrimental effects of sin exponentially outweigh the benefits – be alluded to in the poem composed after the fall of Cheshbon?
Rav Margolis suggests that if, indeed, the conquest of Moav’s territory was enabled by turncoats who accepted bribes from the Emorites, then this story indeed serves as a compelling analogy for the “calculation” of the benefits and harm of sin. The Moavites who betrayed their countrymen surrendered their nation’s wellbeing for the sake of monetary gain by taking money to facilitate the country’s defeat. This is, in effect, what people do when they enjoy fleeting pleasures at the expense of their long-term spiritual wellbeing. They receive a “bribe’ in the form of temporary enjoyment, while surrendering their overall, long-term condition. It is thus perhaps for this reason, Rav Margolis suggests, that the Gemara associates the fall of Cheshbon with the “cheshbon” of the harm and benefit of sin – viewing the citizens’ betrayal of their country as a model of foolishly sacrificing one’s long-term wellbeing for temporary gain.