Parashat Devarim 5781
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites
This week, we begin reading the book of Deuteronomy, the fifth and last of the five books of the Torah. Most of the book consists of a succession of Moses’ speeches to the Jewish nation as they stood on the verge of entering the Land of Israel. As we read in previous weeks, Moses was not going to lead the nation into the Promised Land, so these were farewell, preparatory speeches; the last testament of an esteemed leader before they began living as G-d’s nation in G-d’s land.
In this week’s parasha, Devarim, Moses focused on the years when the Jewish nation wandered in the desert and on the trials and tribulations they experienced there. Every event Moses described carried a message to the nation as they were about to enter the Holy Land. Moses described, among other things, the wars with Sihon and Og; the wars that had taken place that year when the Israelites overcame the kings of the mighty Amorites who ruled the eastern bank of the Jordan and conquered their land.
Moses said that G-d had turned to him and said:
Get up, journey, and cross the river Arnon. Behold, I have delivered into your hand Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon, and his land: Begin to possess it, and provoke him to war.
(Deuteronomy 2, 24)
These Amorite kings were part of the Divine plan to destroy the seven nations in the region and then give their land to the Israelites. As described later in the book of Deuteronomy, these nations were lowly idol worshippers and their lifestyle was morally and ideologically corrupt.
But unexpectedly, Moses did not immediately follow G-d’s directive. He first sent Sihon, the Amorite king, a message of peace:
So I sent messengers from the desert of Kedemoth to Sihon, king of Heshbon, with words of peace, saying, “Allow me to pass through your land: I will go along by the highway, I will turn neither to the right nor to the left…until I cross the Jordan to the land which the Lord our G-d is giving us.”
(Deuteronomy 2, 26 – 29)
Ultimately, not only did Sihon refuse to allow the Jewish nation to pass through his border, but he went toward them in battle; one that ended in the Israelites’ clear victory and conquest of his land.
Why did Moses first send messages of peace to Sihon and only afterwards, when left with no choice, fight against him? Why did Moses veer away from G-d’s instructions?
The sages of the midrash address this question and their answer is both amazing and surprising:
This is one of the three things that Moses said before the Holy One, blessed be He, and He said [back] to him, “You have taught me…” When the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, “Make war on Sihon; even if he does not want to engage with you, wage war with him…But Moses did not do like this. Rather what is written above? “And I sent messengers.” The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, “By your life, I will nullify My words and preserve your words, as it is stated (Deut. 20:11), ‘When you approach a town to attack it, you shall offer it terms of peace.'”
The sages of the midrash describe a dialogue between G-d and Moses. G-d tells Moses to make war on Sihon, but Moses begins with attempts to make peace. We would have expected G-d to react angrily for Moses’ act of independence. But the opposite occurred. Not only did G-d accept Moses’ plan, but he even made it one of the Torah’s commandments, as a way to behave for generations: When there is a dispute between nations or countries, one must first strive to find peaceful solutions, and only if those fail, go to war.
The words of the midrash shed light on a new perspective regarding man’s position vis a vis G-d. Yes, G-d is all-knowing and omnipotent. Yes, we must follow His commandments and laws. But there are times when G-d expects man – obviously one as spiritually great as Moses – to take a stand before G-d when that stand is in the name of absolute justice. Moses, as the nation’s leader, as one who pursued justice, and as G-d’s student, felt that justice compelled him to do something different. And G-d’s reaction was nothing less than, “You have taught me!”
The second message concealed here is even more powerful than the first – G-d’s inconceivable humility. The Creator of the Universe, the G-d of truth and justice, the Creator of all human beings is capable of listening to the claims of a person made by Him and tell him, “You have taught me!”