To War

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley






To War


By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley



Time flies, and the Jewish people find themselves at the edge of the land of Israel nearly forty years later.  Like the second year in the desert, there are setbacks – the deaths of their two beloved leaders, Miriam and Aharon, the complaints at Meriva, the attack by the king of Arad and the snakes that plagued the camp.  However, these are minor obstacles, not the ultimately fatal roadblocks of the challenges that faced the previous generation.  Now, the people prepare themselves to enter the land promised to Avraham their father so many years ago.


"Israel now sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, saying, 'Let me pass through your country.'"


This request, innocuous though it seems, raised many questions among the commentators, based on Moshe Rabbeinu’s recounting of the episode in chapter 2 of Sefer Devarim.  There, Hashem stated that there are three nations which our ancestors were warned not to harass: Edom, about whom it says, "I will not give you of their land" (Devarim 2:5); Moav, about whom we were warned, "I will not give you of its land" (Devarim 2:9); and Ammon, about whom we are told, "I will not give any part of the land of the Ammonites to you." However, when they approached Sihon, it says:


"See, I put into your hands Sihon the Amorite, king of Cheshbon and his land.  Begin to possess it, engage him in battle." (Devarim 2:24).


The questions are best phrased in the commentary of the Abravenel in our parasha and in Sefer Devarim:


If the land of Canaan which Hashem gave to Israel extended from the Jordan and onwards (i.e. westward) and the lands of Edom, Ammon, and Moab were not given to them, why did Hashem give them the land of Sihon, Og, and the cities of the Amorites which were across the Jordan since those areas were not included in the grant that Hashem made to Abraham? Furthermore, if they were given by Hashem as an inheritance, why was Moshe sent to negotiate peace with Sihon - do we not know that "there is no peace, said Hashem, for the wicked"? (commentary to Sefer Bamidbar).


If Hashem on High said to Moshe, "Up! Start out and ... begin to possess it; engage him in battle" (Devarim 2:24). How could Moshe have sent peace feelers in contradiction to Divine command? If Sihon would have responded: "Here the whole land is before you, the way is clear" then what would our lord Moshe do? Would he have ceased his battle against him? It would have been a violation and rebellion against Hashem's word! If he would battle him after the peace announcement, then it doubtless would have been inappropriate to recant and rescind after having made an appeal for peace that was answered favorably! (commentary to Sefer Devarim)


To answer how Moshe took the initiative to send a peace mission to Sihon, King of the Amorites, one of the seven nations, when not only was Moshe not told to make peace but also he was told "engage him in battle," Rashi answers curtly, based on a longer Medrash in Bamidbar Rabba:


"Let me pass through your country" - Although they had not been commanded to initiate peace negotiations with them, they nevertheless took the initiative to seek peace with them.


Rashi’s words are predicated on the understanding that for the seven nations of Canaan, there is no requirement to initiate peace negotiations.  However, this is not a universally shared assumption.  Here are the words of the Ramban on our verse, and in Sefer Devarim:


"Israel now sent messengers ... 'Let me pass through your country...' - "Although they had not been commanded to initiate peace negotiations with them, they nevertheless took the initiative to seek peace with them." This is Rashi's language. I will yet explain, with the help of Hashem, in its [proper] place (Dev. 32:10), that [unlike Rashi's explanation] they were commanded to initiate peace [terms before beginning to fight] all the nations, except for Ammon and Moab. But in truth, when Moshe said to Sihon, "Let me pass through your country..." he did this of his own accord by way of conciliation, for the land of Sihon and Og was [part of the] inheritance of Israel, since it had originally belonged to the Amorite, [and was included in the territory promised to Israel]. Thus had Sihon and Og responded peaceably, and opened [their cities] to them, they would have been entitled [to take] "all the people that are found therein tributary to them" (Devarim 20:11), and they would serve them.


But Moshe knew that Israel would not conquer now all ten nations, and he wanted all their conquests to be "on the other side of the Jordan, and forward" (Num. 32:19), so that they all should dwell together, and [also because] it was "the good land" (Devarim 8:7) which is "flowing with milk and honey" (Devarim 13:27). Thus you see had not the children of Gad and the children of Reuben requested it [the land captured east of the Jordan] from [Moshe] (Num.32),he would not have left anyone live there, but would have allowed it to be a wasteland!


Similarly, the sages have taught in the Sifre (Ki Tavo, 229, Devarim 26:3):

"To give you their land - this excludes [the land] beyond the Jordan [eastward] which you took for yourself." Our sages have furthermore said (Numbers Rabba 7:8) that the east side of the Jordan is not suitable for the Temple...


Now they did not send to Og a message of peace, because when he saw that the Israelites had defeated Sihon, he [immediately] went forth into battle against [the Israelites].   (Commentary to Bamidbar 21:22)


"See, I put Sihon into your hands ..." This statement is the same as the one stated below, "See, I begin by putting Sihon... at your disposal" (Dev. 2:31). Before that, Moshe sent to [Sihon] messengers "out of the wilderness of Kedemot" (v. 26), but after Hashem had commanded [Moshe] "Begin to possess it, engage him in battle" (Devarim 2:24), he would no longer send him words of peace, saying, 'Let me pass through your country...'." For if Sihon would have listened to him, Moshe would have been transgressing the words of Hashem, and if Moshe knew in advance that Sihon would not listen, his message would have been pointless... But the meaning of the expression "and I sent messengers" is that I had already sent messengers...   (Commentary to Devarim 2:24)


In addition to understanding how what the requirement to make peace entailed differently than Rashi, the Ramban raises several other issues worth noting.  First, he explains that the reason that Moshe did not send peace feelers to Og as he did to Sihon is based on Og’s decision to attack the Jewish people immediately after their battle with Sihon, and not due to an active decision by Moshe.  Second, he suggests that Hashem’s command to engage Sihon in battle only came after the failure over Moshe’s original peace overtures.  Otherwise, one of two untenable situations would have occurred: either Sihon would have accepted Moshe offer of peace, causing Moshe to violate the Divine command to "engage him in battle," or stating that Moshe knew ahead of time that Sihon would refuse his peace offer.  While this could justify Moshe' actions in such a way that they would not have been in violation of the Divine command, than ultimately Moshe was sending a purposeless or aimless mission.


Finally, the Ramban makes the fascinating suggestion that Moshe knew that ultimately, the Jewish people were not destined at this point in time to conquer the land of Israel that lay on the eastern side of the Jordan River.  Had the two tribes not pressed him in chapter 32, he would have left the conquered areas empty.  Instead, it was better that the people remain united on one side of the border, under Divine protection, as Sefer Yehoshua states (22:19):  "But if the land of your possession be unclean, then pass over to the land of the possession of Hashem, where Hashem's tabernacle dwells."


We conclude with the words of the Midrash that Rashi alluded to earlier in his commentary:


"Israel now sent messengers" - This has bearing on what Scripture says, "Trust in the Lord, and do good; dwell in the land, and cherish faithfulness" (Tehillim 37:2). It also says, "Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace and pursue it" (Tehillim 34:15). Now the Torah did not insist that we should actually go in pursuit of the mitzvot, but said: "If you chance upon a bird's nest..." (Devarim 22:6); "If you encounter your enemy's ox..." (Shemot 23:4); "When you see the ass of your enemy..." (Shemot 23:5); ""When you shake the fruit from your olive-trees... that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, the widow" (Devarim 24:20); "When you gather the grapes of your vineyard... that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, the widow" (Devarim 24:21);... In all these cases, if they come your way you are commanded to perform the duties connected with them, but you need not go in pursuit of them. In the case of peace, however, "seek peace" wherever you happen to be, and "pursue it" if it is elsewhere.


Israel in fact acted in this way. Although the Holy One Blessed be He had said to them, "Begin to possess it; engage him in battle" (Devarim 2:24), they pursued peace, as it says, "Israel now sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, saying, 'Let me pass through your country.'"


In our parasha, the Akeidat Yitzchak (R. Yitzchak Arama) cites a mishna from chapter 4 of Pirkei Avot when he says, "the advice of Rabbi Matia ben Harash is quite correct when he states, 'Initiate a greeting of Peace/Shalom with everyone."  Peace is not something that mankind achieves naturally.  Instead, we are commanded to be like Aharon’s students, “to love peace and pursue it." 


Shabbat Shalom