A Spiritual War for all Generations
It is written, “Moses sent emissaries from Kadesh to the king of Edom” (Numbers 20:14), and further it is said, “Let us pass through your land … on the king’s road shall we travel … if we drink your water – I or my flock – I shall pay their price … He said, You shall not pass through!” … So Edom refused to permit Israel to pass through his border.” Several points regarding this passage need to be understood. We shall specify them one by one.
1. How is it possible that Edom, who greatly loved wealth, refused to let the Children of Israel pass through his territory? The Edomites could have earned a fortune because the Children of Israel were ready to pay for the permission to pass through. Now the Children of Israel did not lack money, for they possessed all the riches of Egypt, yet Edom opposed them to the point of marching out to war against them, as it is written, “Then Edom went out against him with a massive throng and a strong hand” (v.20). How can this be understood?
2. We are still more surprised when we recall that Edom represents the descendant of Esau. Now the latter passionately loved gold and riches, since the Sages have said, “From where did Jacob have a tomb in the cave of Machpelah? He took all his silver and gold and placed it into a pile, which Esau took and gave Jacob his portion in the cave of Machpelah” (Tanhuma Vayechi 6). Esau therefore greatly desired silver and gold. Thus how can we understand that Edom refused to take what the Children of Israel proposed to give them in exchange for the water they would use?
3. There is yet another problem. After the refusal of the king of Edom, it is written, “and Israel turned away from near him” (v.21), meaning that the Children of Israel immediately gave up and left. How could Moses not fear that the Children of Israel would become instilled with terror (since they were going to have to wait for 40 years in the desert) by making them back away as soon as they reached their first obstacle? Was Moses not afraid that from that moment on, the other peoples would not at all hesitate to come out against the Children of Israel because they had backed away from before Edom? Moses should have at least demonstrated an outward show of strength, and even if G-d had ordered him not to fight against Edom, in any case he should not have backed away immediately without leaving the Children of Israel any way out for all the years to come!
We shall now explain all this. Concerning Jacob and Esau, the Sages say that already while in the womb of their mother, they shared the heritage of two worlds (Tanna D’vei Eliyahu Zutah 19). Esau had taken this world, which is why he sold his part in the world to come to Jacob, as it is written, “Jacob said, ‘Sell, as this day, your birthright to me’” (Genesis 25:31), meaning “according to that which we’ve agreed to in our mother’s womb.” We know that this world is filled with food and drink and the possibility of becoming rich, everything that Esau desired and obtained. We therefore see that the sharing between them did not consist of a material distribution, but rather that it was above all a distribution of the whole, according to which Esau would not partake of any spiritual resources whatsoever. In fact, the Sages teach: “If one tells you that there is wisdom among the nations, believe him; that there is Torah among the nations, do not believe him (Lamentations Rabba 2:17). The wicked Esau passed down to all his descendants the characteristic of not attributing any worth to spirituality. They were people who did not have any regard whatsoever for the Children of Israel because they had no portion whatsoever in the G-d of Israel.
There is a difference between Jacob’s and Esau’s nature. Even before blessing Jacob, Isaac said, “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are Esau’s hands” (Genesis 27:22), meaning that in the same way that a voice is only heard (and not seen), Jacob’s children (the Children of Israel) do not only believe in what they see, but also in that which is hidden, in spirituality. It is not same with Esau (“the hands are Esau’s hands”), who believes in hands that are seen – in his own strength – and in that which he sees with his own eyes. This is why he does not believe in the G-d of Israel. It is because he does not see the Creator.
We will now understand why Edom did not allow Israel to cross over his territory. During the 40 years that the Children of Israel spent in the desert, they elevated themselves to a high level of spirituality, to the point that they truly resembled the angels, arrayed in glory. Their faces beamed with the radiance of the Shechinah, for in them was a portion of G-d Most High, particularly with Moses at their head. Who would not have marveled at their holiness? Just the fact of letting them cross their territory would have amounted, therefore, to recognizing the Creator of the world, and this Edom would not do at any price! “It is known that Esau detests Jacob” (Sifrei Beha’alotcha 9:10), and his hate is such that he preferred to lose gold and silver rather than to accord the least recognition to the Children of Israel, a recognition that would have been equivalent to recognizing the Master of the world. That would have been impossible, for Esau and his descendants have no portion in the G-d of Israel.
It remains for us to understand why Moses wanted to pass through Edom, since he could have bypassed that country without the risk of having to reverse the Children of Israel’s direction and allowing fear to take hold of them. He did this because he understood the danger that Edom represented to the spiritual lives of the Children of Israel, even until the coming of the Redeemer. This is why he wanted to subject them to Esau, from the very beginning. It was in order to make Esau understand the greatness of the Children of Israel, for all undertakings begun by Moses are permanent. And even if it had been decided that Moses himself would not enter into Eretz Israel (Numbers 20:12-13), he laid out for the Children of Israel the path to the Redemption, of which the submission of Edom was the first step.
However the Holy One, blessed be He, did not let the Children of Israel fight against Edom, for before the time of the Redemption, Edom and the Children of Israel must retain their free will. “The voice is Jacob’s voice” – when the voice of Jacob will be heard in the places of prayer and study, the hands of Esau will be powerless (Bereshith Rabba 65). And if, unfortunately, this is not the case, then the hands of Esau will be dominant and the voice of Jacob will have to return though the intermediary of the sufferings that the nations will make him endure. This is why Edom did not allow Israel to cross over his country. He feared that this would give the Children of Israel an influence over the Edomites, that they would push them to believe that there is a G-d and try to precipitate their repentance. If this were to have been the case, Edom would have had to admit that the blessings rightfully belonged to Jacob, which would have meant that they would have had to submit themselves and disappear from the world. This is why it was preferable to them that they lose a great amount of wealth than to let the Children of Israel enter.
We should be even more amazed by the fact that the king of Edom was not afraid to come out for battle against Israel, even though he had heard what had happened to Pharaoh in Egypt and by the sea. As it is written: “Then the chieftains of Edom were confounded, trembling gripped the powers of Moab, and the dwellers of Canaan dissolved” (Exodus 15:15). In reality, Edom was very fearful of the Children of Israel, and if he went out with a great quantity of men and weapons, it was not for waging war. When the king of Edom noted Moses’ persistence (since even after Edom refused the Children of Israel the right to cross his territory, Moses still asked him, “And if we drink your water – I or my flock – I shall pay their price”), he began to ask himself why Moses continued to act in this way. Certainly, he wanted to enter in order to have an influence over the people of Edom and to convince them to return to G-d, which is demonstrated by the words “if we drink your water.” He planned to bring them closer to the Torah, which is compared to water (Bava Kama 17a), and to have that which they had swallowed come out of their mouths, similar to what is written in the verse that states, “He devoured wealth, but will disgorge it” (Job 20:15). The king of Edom therefore came out to meet him with many people in order to make the Children of Israel understand that the spiritual battle had not yet ended, and that it would continue until the time of the future Redemption.
This is the difference between Edom and the Children of Israel. Edom said, “You shall not pass through me – lest I come against you with the sword!” (Numbers 20:18). All Edom’s strength is in his sword and spear, in accordance with the blessing of Isaac to Esau his son: “By your sword you shall live” (Genesis 27:40). Yet the strength of the Children of Israel is in their mouths, as it is written, “We cried out to the L-RD and He heard our voice” (Numbers 20:16). Their entire nature was to be completely self-effacing before the Eternal, without any ulterior motives. From this, everyone should understand that sometimes a person does something and thinks that it constitutes a desecration of the Divine Name, while in reality there is a sanctification of the Name. How is that possible?
Imagine that someone who wears a kippah, eats kosher, and observes the mitzvot is scorned by all those around him. He may therefore think that this entails a profanation of G-d’s Name, since they are really scorning the Torah and the mitzvot. Now he should realize that it is precisely because he pays no attention to them and observes the mitzvot with pride that he sanctifies the Name of G-d! In fact, in the case of Edom and Israel, when G-d commanded the latter that they not wage battle against Edom, they could have thought that this constituted a profanation of G-d’s Name, since all the other peoples believed that the Children of Israel did not have the means to defend themselves. However the Children of Israel had no ulterior motives. Thus by performing His will by not defending themselves, they sanctified the Name of G-d.
In this we find a proof for what we mentioned earlier, namely that Edom did not wish to do battle against the Children of Israel because he was content by coming out against them without pursuing them. Why this attitude? We have already said that Edom wanted to imply to them that their spiritual war was not over, but that each side would continue to try and weaken the other, similar to what is written in the verse that states, “I will be filled, for she was destroyed” (Ezekiel 26:2). When Edom was destroyed, Jerusalem lived in peace, and when Jerusalem was destroyed, Edom lived in peace (Megillah 6a), for the goal of Israel is to influence Edom, and vice-versa. This battle will continue up until the time of the Final Redemption, when that which is written will occur: “And saviors will ascend Mount Zion to judge the Mountain of Esau” (Obadiah 1:21). Thus the Eternal will uproot Edom from the world, speedily in our days. Amen.