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The Ultimate Battle: Morality

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

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

As Parshat Chukat begins, the Jews have moved away from Mount Sinai and begun their trek to the Promised Land. The path would not be a simple one, for while the desert was relatively uninhabited, and they were therefore generally1 able to make progress unmolested, they had now left the desert. From this point on, they must cross population centers, coming into contact with different nations, in order to enter the Land of Israel.2 As we shall see, not all of the nations whose paths they cross are treated equally.

When they meet up with Edom, Moshe begins with warm words: he notes their close genealogical relationship, going so far as to call the two nations "brothers". Moshe "catches up" on what the Jewish People have been doing over the past few hundred years:

And Moshe sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom: 'Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the travail that has befallen us; how our fathers went down into Egypt, and we dwelt in Egypt a long time; and the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and with our fathers. And we cried out to God, and He heard our voice and sent an angel, and brought us out of Egypt; and, behold, we are in Kadesh, a city at the outer limits of your territory. (Bamidbar 20:14-16)

Beneath the surface of the pleasantries is a powerful message: Edom is another name for Esav, who was, of course, the brother of Yaakov/Yisrael. Esav detested the responsibilities of the firstborn, and happily sold his birthright for a pot of beans.3 Being firstborn meant living up to the covenant that God had made with Avraham, a covenant that promised the Land of Israel at the cost of hundreds of years of slavery.4 Moshe seems to be politely communicating to our "brother": the Children of Yisrael made a "down payment" on the Land of Israel with the slavery we endured in Egypt, and we are now ready to come home and take what is ours.

Moshe then makes a request; he asks, as a long-lost brother, if Israel can pass through the land of Edom. His request is denied:

Please let us pass through your land; we will not pass through field or through vineyard, nor will we drink of the water of the wells; we will go along the king's highway, we will not turn aside to the right nor to the left, until we have crossed your border.' And Edom said to him: 'You shall not pass through me, lest I come out with the sword against you.' And the Children of Israel said to him: 'We will go up by the highway; and if we drink your water, I and my cattle, I will pay full price for it; let me only pass through on my feet; there is no harm in it.' And he said: 'You shall not pass through.' And Edom came out against him with a heavy force of people, and with a strong hand. Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through his border; and Israel turned away from him. (Bamidbar 20: 17-21)

In this instance conflict is averted; Moshe leads the people on a more circuitous route. Earlier confrontations with descendents of Esav did not end so quietly: Amalek did not wait for the People of Israel to establish contact, to stake their claim or even to approach the Land of Israel. Immediately after the Jews left Egypt, Amalek attacked - but their onslaught was thwarted: Moshe sent Yehoshua to lead the charge and repel the Amalekite onslaught.

In fact, these two scenes of confrontation are closely related, even though their respective resolutions are so divergent: The hatred articulated by Edom was acted upon by Amalek. It is the "stolen" birthright and blessings that enraged the descendents of Esav. They felt they had a moral claim against Yaakov who had behaved with deceit, but they staked this claim only when the positive aspects of the birthright were about to come to fruition. When the children of Yaakov went down to Egypt, in fulfillment of the first part of the Covenant forged with Avraham, namely the slavery, Esav and his descendants were nowhere to found. Only now that the Israelites had endured unspeakable hardship, the hatred of these self-righteous adversaries bubbled up to the surface and they did what they could to prevent the Nation of Israel from reaping the rewards of their foresight, their patience, their unwavering faith in God's promise to their forefathers.

Yehoshua, from the tribe of Yosef, is particularly able to offer a moral counter- claim to Esav's charges. Esav claimed that Yaakov had not treated him in a brotherly fashion; Yaakov's treachery had cost him the birthright - which he did not even want. Yet Yosef's brothers acted in a manner so far beyond anything Yaakov had done to Esav: they plotted to kill him, and in the end "only" sold him as a slave. And how did Yosef repay this treachery? He took care of his brothers, supported them, supplied them with food, jobs and homes for over 50 years. Esav's moral outrage would fall on deaf ears with Yehoshua; that is why Yehoshua was the right man to lead the people in the battle against the descendents of Esav: It is Yosef's moral superiority that defeats Amalek.

The next nation that crosses paths with the Israelites is the Canaanites. They, too, make a preemptive strike, even managing to take prisoners:

And the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who dwelt in the South, heard that Israel came by way of the Atarim; and he fought against Israel, and took some of them captive. (Bamidbar 21:1)

The Jews respond by turning to God for help, and they make vows in an attempt to cajole God to hear their prayers:

And Israel made a vow to God, and said: 'If You will indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities.' And God heard the voice of Israel, and delivered up the Canaanites; and they utterly destroyed them and their cities; and the name of the place was called Hormah. (Bamidbar 21:2-3)

Victorious, the Israelites continue their trek. They bypass Edom5 and come to the territories of the Emorites and the Midianites;6 again, they send a message asking to transverse land:

And Israel sent messengers unto Sihon king of the Amorites, saying: 'Let me pass through your land; we will not turn aside into field, or into vineyard; we will not drink of the water of the wells; we will go by the king's highway, until we have crossed your border.' (Bamidbar 21:21-22)

The request is denied and they are met by an army sent to fight:

And Sihon did not allow Israel to pass through his border; Sihon gathered all his people together, and went out against Israel into the wilderness, and came to Yahaz; and he fought against Israel. (Bamidbar 21:23)

The Israelites are victorious. Not only do they capture the land of the Emorites, they also liberate land that was taken by the Emorites from the Moavites:

And Israel smote him with the edge of the sword, and possessed his land from the Arnon to the Yabbok, even unto the children of Ammon; for the border of the children of Ammon was strong. And Israel took all these cities; and Israel dwelt in all the cities of the Amorites, in Heshbon, and in all the towns thereof. For Heshbon was the city of Sihon the king of the Amorites, who had fought against the former king of Moab, and taken all his land out of his hand, even unto the Arnon. (Bamidbar 21:24-25)

While Edom and Moav are from the larger Avraham family, the Emorites are descendents of Cham,7 via Canaan.8 Their ownership of the land was temporary, in fact part of the promise which God made to Avraham, when he forged the covenant was that this land would be given to his descendants, but only when the Emorites sin to the extent that they forfeit the Land.

And the fourth generation will return here, for the iniquity of the Emorites will not be complete until that time. (Bereishit 15:16)

Apparently not allowing the Jews to cross through their land, and instead waging war on them, was the final straw; this was the sin that tipped the scales against them, a sin significant enough to cause forfeit of the Land. As we see, not only did they lose their own land, they also lost lands they had conquered from others.9

Generations later, the people of Ammon had not forgotten. They let it be known that they still wanted "their" land back:

And the king of the Ammonites answered to the messengers of Yiftach: 'Because Israel took away my land, when they came up from Egypt, from Arnon to Yabbok, and to the Jordan; now therefore give back those lands peacefully.' (Shoftim 11:13)

The people of Ammon claim that the Jews captured their land, and declare that they are willing to work out a deal which could be called "land for peace."

The chosen warrior, Yiftach, seems to have a well-developed and well-informed historical consciousness, refutes the Ammonites' claim.

And Yiftach sent messengers again to the king of the Ammonites, and said to him, 'Thus said Yiftach: Israel did not take away the land of Moav, nor the land of the Ammonites; when Israel came up from Egypt, and walked through the wilderness to the Red Sea, and came to Kadesh; then Israel sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying, Please let me pass through your land; but the king of Edom would not listen to it. And in like manner they sent to the king of Moav; but he would not consent; and Israel stayed in Kadesh. Then they went along through the wilderness, and around the land of Edom, and the land of Moav, and came by the east side of the land of Moav, and camped on the other side of Arnon, but did not come within the border of Moav; for Arnon was the border of Moav. And Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Ammorites, the king of Heshbon; and Israel said to him, Let us pass, we beseech you, through your land into my place. But Sihon trusted not Israel to pass through his border; but Sihon gathered all his people together, and camped in Yahaz, and fought against Israel. And the Almighty, God of Israel, delivered Sihon and all his people to the hand of Israel, and they defeated them; so Israel possessed all the land of the Ammorites, the inhabitants of that country. And they possessed all the borders of the Ammorites, from Arnon to Yabbok, and from the wilderness to the Jordan. So now the Almighty, God of Israel, has dispossessed the Ammorites from before his people Israel, and should you possess it? Will not you possess that which Kemosh your god gives to you to possess? So whoever the Almighty our God shall drive out from before us, them will we possess. And now are you any better than Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moav? Did he ever strive against Israel, or did he ever fight against them, while Israel lived in Heshbon and her towns, and in Aroer and her towns, and in all the cities that are along the borders of Arnon, for three hundred years? Why therefore did you not recover them during that time? Therefore I have not sinned against you, but you do me wrong to war against me; the Almighty God of Judgement shall be judge this day between the people of Israel and the Ammonites.' And the king of the Ammonites did not listen to the words of Yiftach which he sent him. (Shoftim 11:14-28)

Yiftach had learned our Parsha well, and he cited it with ease and conviction.10 It is no coincidence that he concludes his message with a very particular phrase: "The Almighty God of Judgement shall be judge this day between the people of Israel and the Ammonites." This turn of phrase was first used by Sarah when she insisted that Avraham banish Hagar, her pregnant slave,11 and exclude any child born to her from the inheritance and birthright. Likewise the children of Lot, Ammon and Moav, are not Avraham's rightful heirs, even though there was a time that Lot seemed to be Avraham's heir apparent, the only blood relative who would inherit Avraham's physical and spiritual empire. As with Lot, any rights they may have had to the Land are a result of their relationship to Avraham. Therefore, only behavior in line with Avraham's mores will allow them residence; any other type of behavior causes their exile.

The land which Lot himself receives is given to him by Avraham, its' rightful owner - by virtue of God's covenant:

And there was strife between the herdsmen of Avram's cattle and the herdsmen of Lot's cattle. And the Canaanite and the Perizzite dwelt then in the land. And Avram said to Lot: 'Please let there be no strife between me and you, and between my herdsmen and your herdsmen; for we are brethren. Is not the whole land before you? Please, separate yourself from me; if you will take the left, then I will go to the right; or if you take the right, then I will go to the left.' And Lot lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of the Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere, before God destroyed Sodom and Amorrah, like the garden of God, like the land of Egypt, as you go to Zoar. So Lot chose for himself all the plain of the Jordan; and Lot journeyed east; and they separated themselves from one another. (Bereishit 13:7-11)

Here too the word "brother" is used to describe the relationship, however the shepherds of Lot caused an untenable situation, and hence they needed to separate - Avraham allowed Lot to choose which land he wanted. Lot's right to the Land is by proxy, because it was given to Avraham. Lot has two son's Ammon and Moav, when they lost their land in battle, and that land is subsequently captured, Yiftach feels no moral compunction to return the land to Ammon or Moav, they had forfeited the land in war.

In fact Ammon and Moav, did not exactly behave like relatives should, when a relative comes to visit, you welcome him in and you provide food and drink, just like their great-uncle Avraham.

An Ammonite or a Moavite shall not enter into the Congregation of God; even to the tenth generation none of them shall enter into the Congregation of God forever; because they did not meet you with bread and with water on the way, when you came out of Egypt; and because they hired against you Bil'am the son of Beor from Petor of Aram-Naharaim, to curse you. (Dvarim 23:4-5)

Instead of providing food they tried to curse us. The punishment for this behavior is they are no longer considered "brothers"12 and can not marry into the Jewish People. When they behaved as they did, in a manner that went against everything their great-uncle Avraham stood for, they severed their connection with the land which belonged to Avraham, and from the people who were Avraham's legitimate heirs.

Conversely, Edom is still considered our brother:13

You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother; you shall not abhor an Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land. (Dvarim 23:8)

With his keen sense of history, Yiftach - who hails from the tribe of Yosef - prepares for battle. He, too, like the Jewish People generations before, makes a vow:

Then the spirit of God came upon Yiftach, and he passed over Gilead, and Menasheh, and passed over Mizpeh Gilead, and from Mizpeh Gilead he passed over to the Ammonites. And Yiftach made a vow to God, and said, 'If you shall deliver the Ammonites completely into my hands, then it shall be, that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the Ammonites, shall be God's, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering. (Shoftim 11:29-31)

Yiftach promises that the first to walk out his door to greet him will be dedicated to God.

And Yiftach came to Mizpah, to his house, and, behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances; and she was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter. (Shoftim 11:34)

As luck would have it, his only child walked out the door, and now Yiftach would seem to have a dilemma - does he keep his word or break it? To this point, Yiftach has lived by a finely-tuned moral compass, and this episosde is no exception. He does not consider breaking his vow, and his daughter follows in his footsteps:

And it came to pass, when he saw her, he tore his clothes, and said: 'Alas, my daughter! you have brought me down, and you have become my troubler; for I have opened my mouth to God, and I cannot go back.' And she said to him: 'My father, you have opened your mouth to God; do to me what you have spoken; for God has taken vengeance for you on your enemies, the children of Ammon.' (Shoftim 11:35-36)

There is a tradition that Yiftach actually saw it through to the bitter end, went ahead and sacrificed his daughter - an act that certainly would be considered a moral outrage. However, there are other choices: Jewish tradition allows a person to question the vow; in such a case, if an opening (a petach )14 is found, the vow may be canceled. Yiftach did not seek a petach;15 he made a vow - albeit one that is difficult to understand:16 He only had one child. How surprised should he have been when she, and no other, is the first to come out of the door of his home (also called petach) to welcome him?

Is it possible that this is precisely what Yiftach was thinking - to a greater or lesser degree? The text never states that his daughter was turned into a sacrifice; in fact, this would be an absurdity. The law is very specific as to what types of animals may be brought as offerings. In fact, at most Yiftach would have been required to offer the monetary value of a person to the Temple. We may assume, based on Yiftach's detailed knowledge17 of the Book of Bamidbar, that he was conversant with the other books of the Torah as well.18 It would illogical to think that Yiftach and all of the kohanim were totally ignorant19 of the laws of sacrifice. What, then, was Yiftach thinking, and how did he fulfill the vow that he made- apparently in full awareness of what would or could happen?

The text uses very specific language in describing the results of Yiftach's vow: not murder, not slaughter, rather olah, an 'elevation'20 or 'uplifting' sacrifice:

And she said to her father: 'Let this thing be done for me: let me alone two months, that I may depart and go down upon the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my companions.' And he said: 'Go.' And he sent her away for two months; and she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity upon the mountains. And it came to pass at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed; and she had not known a man. And it was a custom in Israel, that the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Yiftach the Gileadite four days a year. (Shoftim 11:37-40)

The daughter's lament seems clear: she mourned for the life she would not live, for the love a man she would never meet, for the family she would not have. The verses that deal with Yiftach's fulfillment of his vow are far more difficult to understand: What exactly was the vow? Was it to slaughter her, or was it to sanctify her? A number of commentaries21 understand that Yiftach's daughter led a life of celibacy and isolation, in some sort of Jewish version of a nunnery, and these same commentaries severely chastise Yiftach for bringing upon her this completely un-Jewish fate.

Let us consider Yiftach's motivation: If we assume that Yiftach was neither mad nor ignorant, we may say that he had a specific moral motivation for making the vow that he did. The key to his motivation must surely lie in the identity of his enemy, Ammon. We have already noted that Ammon and Moav where the children of Lot; in fact, they were the products of incest:

And they made their father drink wine that night also; and the younger arose, and lay with him; and he did not know when she lay down, nor when she arose. Thus were both the daughters of Lot with child by their father. And the firstborn daughter bore a son, and called his name Moav; he is the father of the Moavites to this day. And the younger, she also bore a son, and called his name Ben-Ammi; the same is the father of the Ammonites to this day.

Perhaps realizing that at the enemy's very core, the Ammonites' proverbial Achilles heel was sexuality, Yiftach decided to consecrate his own daughter and keep her far away from sexuality and sin. Hence she mourned her virginity, which would be perpetual; other young women would make pilgrimages to cry with Yiftach's daughter.

At the door of his tent Lot showed bravery; he saved the angels from the marauding mob, who wanted to "know them" in the biblical sense.

But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, surrounded the house, both old and young, all the people from every quarter; And they called to Lot, and said to him, 'Where are the men who came in to you this night? Bring them out to us, that we may know them.' And Lot went out the door to them, and closed the door after him, and said: 'I beg you, my brothers, do not do this wicked deed. (Bereishit 19:4-7)

Therefore, at the door of his own tent, Yiftach felt he needed to equal and offset the possible moral superiority of his enemy. In actuality, Lot was not a formidable foe: he left the holiness of Avraham's tent, and when pressured, in an act which exemplifies his own moral failure, he offered his daughters as the consolation prize to the lecherous masses:

Behold now, I have two daughters who have not known man; let me, I beg you, bring them out to you, and do to them as is good in your eyes; only to these men do nothing; seeing that they have come under the shadow of my roof. (Bereishit 19:8)

Yiftach22 was correct: we must be far more moral than our enemies; unfortunately for his daughter, he overreacted to the moral challenge posed by Lot's descendents.

Today, as we face opponents of many different kinds, as we engage in both physical and moral battles, we must retain our moral superiority23 on an individual and national level. If we are able to do so, God will be with us, and victory over our physical and spiritual foes is assured.

  1. An exception was the attack waged by Amalek which transpired soon after the Israelites left Egypt. See Shmot 17.
  2. One premature, aborted attempt to enter Israel was the ill-advised attempt recorded in Bamidbar 14:44-45; in that instance they met resistance from Amalek and Canaan.
  3. See Bereishit 25:34.
  4. See Bereishit 15:12-21.
  5. See Bamidbar 21:4.
  6. See Bamidbar 21:13.
  7. Bereishit 10:6.
  8. Bereishit 10:16.
  9. See Talmud Bavli Gittin 38a.
  10. Perhaps this is the reason that the Haftorah reading for Parshat Chukat is this section of the Book of Shoftim.
  11. See Bereishit 16:5. "And Sarai said to Avram: 'My wrong be upon thee: I gave my handmaid into thy bosom; and when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her eyes: God will judge between me and you.' "
  12. See Bamidbar 23:7.
  13. Edom also did not provide food and drink, perhaps they did have a reason for their displeasure, due to the birthright and blessings, while Amon and Moav should have had no reason to hate the Jews.
  14. See Mishna Nedarim 3:4.
  15. See Midrash Tanchuma Bchukotai chapter 5.
  16. The Talmud Bavli, Ta'anit 4a, states that he was in fact mistaken to make such a vow, and the implication is that he brought her as a sacrificial offering.
  17. The Midrash Tanchuma Bchukotai chapter 5, states explicitly that Yiftach was not a scholar (ben Torah).
  18. See Bereishit Rabbah 60:3: Yiftach asked in an unfitting manner, and God answered him in an unfitting manner. He asked in an unfitting manner, as it says, And Yiftach vowed a vow unto the Lord, and said: Then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth... it shall be the Lord's and I will offer it up for a burnt-offering (Judg. XI, 30 f.). Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to him: 'Then had a camel or a donkey or a dog come forth, thou wouldst have offered it up for a burnt-offering I ' What did the Lord do? He answered him unfittingly and prepared his daughter for him, as it says, And Yiftach came... and, behold, his daughter came out to meet him (ib. 34). And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he rent his clothes (ib. 35). R. Johanan and Resh Lakish disagree. R. Johanan maintained: He was liable for her monetary consecration; Resh Lakish said: He was not even liable for her monetary consecration. For we learned: If one declared of an unclean animal or an animal with a blemish: 'Behold, let these be burnt-offerings,' his declaration is completely null. If he declared: 'Let these be for a burnt offering,' they must be sold, and he brings a burnt-offering for their money. Yet was not Phinehas there to absolve him of his vow? Phinehas, however, said: He needs me, and I am to go to him! Moreover, I am a High Priest and the son of a High Priest; shall I then go to an ignoramus? While Yiftach said: Am I, the chief of Israel's leaders, to go to Phinehas! Between the two of them the maiden perished. Thus people say: ' Between the midwife and the woman in travail the young woman's child is lost!’ Both were punished for her blood. Yiftach died through his limbs dropping off: wherever he went a limb would drop off from him, and it was buried there on the spot. Hence it is written, Then died Yiftach the Gileadite, and was buried in the cities of Gilead (ib. XII, 7). It does not say, 'In a city of Gilead,' but, 'In the cities of Gilead' Phinehas was deprived of the divine afflatus. Hence it is written, And Phinehas the son of Eleazar had been ruler over them (I Chron. IX, 20): it is not written, He was ruler over them, but 'Had been ruler in time past, [when] the Lord was with him (ib.).
  19. Many sources speak of Yiftach in a derogatory fashion see Talmud Bavli Rosh Hashanah 25b.
  20. See my article on Akeidat Yitzchak:, which will be a chapter in my forthcoming book, "Echoes of Eden"(Jerusalem: OU/Geffen Publishers).
  21. See Radak and Ralbag, Shoftim 11:31.
  22. Yiftach is introduced at the outset as the son of a prostitute; perhaps this contributed to his sensitivity. See Shoftim 11:1. "Now Yiftach the Gileadite was a mighty man of valor, and he was the son of a harlot; and Gilead begot Yiftach."
  23. During the recent Second Lebanon War, I received a phone call from a group of soldiers who were in southern Lebanon. They had run out of supplies, and had entered a store that had been abandoned by the proprietors. Based on the signs and pictures hanging all around them, the soldiers had no doubt that the shopkeeper, as well as the entire town, were supporters of the ruthless terrorists with whom we were at war. The question they posed was whether they should leave money behind for the goods taken from the store. It is, quite frankly, impossible to imagine that soldiers in any other army in the world would be occupied with similar questions of ethics and morality in the middle of a war. It is the moral strength of these soldiers, and thousands more like them, that protects us.


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