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To Give or Not to Give?

Chukat-Balak (Numbers 19:1-25:9 )

by Yehuda Appel

One of the most difficult dilemmas human beings face is weighing our own needs against the needs of others. This issue takes many forms, for example: How much should we contribute to charity? Should we regularly go out to restaurants if that will lessen our ability to help the less fortunate? When a homeless person asks us for money, should we give it to him? Should America, most of whose citizens have themselves been the beneficiaries of a relatively liberal immigration policy, now more tightly restrict immigration?

How do we draw the line between our own legitimate self-interests and our concern for others?

This week's Torah portion, Chukat, describes just such a dilemma. The Jewish People, after long wanderings in the desert, are finally on the brink of entering the Land of Israel. Since the travel route will take the Jews through Edomite territory, Moses sends emissaries to the Edomites asking if the Israelites may pass through. Edom is well aware of the difficulties and hardships the Israelites have suffered in the recent past - the attack by Amalek, the fiasco of the Spies, and the uprising of Korach. Nevertheless, the Edomites refuse Moses' entreaty - and even threaten military attack if the Jews try to enter their territory!

Moses is persistent and sends another message. He assures the Edomites that when the Jewish People travel through, they will remain (as Nachmanides explains) "on an isolated road far from any population centers." Moreover, the Israelites promise to pay for any food or water they consume. Despite this plea, however, the Edomites again refuse entry.

On one hand, the Edomites' obstinence was not totally unreasonable. It's risky to allow a mass of three million people pass through one's territory, even if they are staying out of the populated areas. Moreover, as the Abarbanel explains, had the Edomites in any way assisted the Israelites -who were on their way to attack the Canaanite nations - it would have certainly brought Cannanite disfavor upon Edom.

So why does Jewish tradition view the Edomite response as cruelty - to such an extent that the Torah forbids accepting an Edomite who wants to convert to Judaism?!

One possible explanation is based on a verse in Deuteronomy which refers to the Edomites as "brothers." The Edomites are not strangers to the Israelites; the two nations share a common ancestry going back to Isaac. As family, they should have known better.

Another explanation focuses more on the Edomites' lack of compassion. Instead of expressing regret and explaining to the Israelites that they weren't able to take geopolitical risks, the Edomites merely threatened the Israelites with death if they crossed the border! Couldn't they have come forward with some expression of kindness - offering food or drink instead?

What is the lesson for us today? When legitimate concerns do not allow us to aid others the way we'd like, we should at least look for some alternative way to express our concern. To not offer any kindness at all, is to echo the harsh and selfish actions of Edom.

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