Making the Most of Our Strengths
Ki Tetzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19 )
“An Ammonite and Moabite shall not enter the congregation of God, even their tenth generation shall not enter the congregation of God, to eternity. Because of the fact that they did not greet you with bread and water on the road when you were leaving Egypt, and because he hired against you Bilaam, son of Beor, of Pethor, Aram Naharaim, to curse you.1”
The Torah tells us that Ammon and Moav are the only nations who are prohibited to ever marry into the Jewish people and gives two reasons to explain this severe treatment. The first is that they did not show hospitality to the Jewish people in the desert. The second is that they hired Bilaam to curse them. The commentaries ask how the Torah seems to equate the lack of hospitality with the hiring of Bilaam to curse the Jewish people; surely attempting to curse is a far more serious misdemeanor than a lacking in kindness!
The Be’eros Yitzchak2 explains that the Torah sees Ammon and Moav’s3 failure to offer bread and water as a heinous sin because they inherited a natural tendency to hospitality from their ancestor, Lot. Lot, despite his failings, is portrayed as a highly hospitable person in the account of his efforts at hachnasas orchim (hospitality) in Sodom. He was willing to risk his life in order to serve the needs of travelers. As his descendants, Ammon and Moav inherited this self same character trait and yet they deliberately acted against their nature and refused to offer bread and water to the Jewish people who were traveling through the desert and surely in need of the basic necessities. Even though hiring Bilaam to curse the Jews was objectively a far more damaging act, nonetheless, on their level of free will, the refusal to help the Jews is judged on the same level and is deserving of such a strong punishment.
There are a number of lessons we can learn from Ammon and Moav’s failure to utilize their natural strengths. Firstly, we see that a person is judged according to his own nekduas habechira4 (free will point) and therefore is judged more stringently in his areas of strengths. Accordingly, an essential part of one’s self-growth should be improving one’s strong points. In this vein, the example of Ammon and Moav is particularly instructive; why indeed did they fail in an area where they naturally excelled? The answer is that their good trait of hachnasas orchim did not derive from significant effort at self-growth, rather it was an inborn trait that they inherited from their ancestor. Because their hachnasas orchim was not directed by the Torah’s guidelines, it was almost inevitable that it would be misused or not used at all in certain circumstances. When Ammon and Moav saw the Jewish people coming, their natural inclination was surely to offer them bread and water, however their hatred and fear of Klal Yisroel overcame their trait of kindness and caused them to refrain from offering such vitally needed assistance.
We see from here that if a person does not work on his natural strengths and align them with the requirements of the Torah then he will come to misuse them or not utilize them in the most effective way. For example, a person may be naturally friendly, but there may be occasions where he is tired and is unwilling to make the effort to befriend a stranger. In this case his natural trait is not strong enough to direct him in the right way because it is faced with something else, in this case tiredness, that makes it hard to be friendly. If, however he would strive to be friendly because it is a great mitzvah to make people feel important then he is far more likely to overcome his tiredness and make the effort to approach the other person.
Another very important lesson derived from Ammon and Moav is how much they could have achieved had they maximized their trait of kindness to its fullest potential; had they in fact come out and offered bread and water to the Jewish people it is very likely that the Torah would record this great act of kindness for eternity and of course they would be allowed to marry into the Jewish people5. Instead, because they did not make the correct use of their strengths, they are treated with the greatest disdain. We see from here that a person can achieve great things by maximizing his strengths to their fullest and failure to do so is treated severely.
The Chofetz Chaim stressed this point in his book, Chomas Hadas, Fortress of Faith, which was an exhortation to people to help save the Jewish nation from the many negative influences that surrounded it. He wrote at length of the need for each person to use his strengths to the fullest - for example, a person blessed with the ability to speak in public should give lectures in public. This also applies to character traits; it is very likely that a person’s life purpose would involve utilizing his good traits to their fullest.
We learn from Ammon and Moav how NOT to use one’s strengths - may we all use this lesson for the good and make the most use of those gifts that God has granted us.
- Ki Seitzei, 23:4-5.
- Rav Yerucham Fishel Goldwasser, quoted in Lekach Tov, Devarim 2nd Chelek, p.63.
- Some commentaries write that Moav were not guilty of not offering bread and water and Ammon were not guilty to hiring Bilaam. For the sake of simplicity we will use the simple explanation that both nations were guilty of both sins.
- Rav Dessler zt”l writes at length on this topic in Michtav M’Eliyahu.
- It is also interesting to note that Ruth, the female descendant of Moav, is characterized by her great chesed - she utilized this mida to a great degree and consequently achieved incredible accomplishments, including meriting to be the progenitor of David HaMelech and Mashiach.