Parshas Chukas - Balak
All Pain, No Gain
Volume 6 Issue 43
by Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky
It is not so easy having a brother like Esav. We ask one little favor, it
wouldn't cost him a dime. We wanted to pass through his land on the way to
Canaan. In fact, he would be able to make some money off the venture. But
he says no. And he does not just say no the way they tell you to just say
no, this no is a resounding exclamation that warns of war. If you follow
the chain of events, it is important to note that the Jewish pleas for
mercy and understanding were met with such vociferous antagonism.
Moshe first sent emissaries from Kadesh to the king of Edom - "So said your
brother Israel - You know all the hardship that has befallen us. Our
forefathers descended to Egypt and we dwelled in Egypt many years, and the
Egyptians did evil to us and to our forefathers. We cried out to Hashem and
He heard our voice; He sent an emissary and took us out of Egypt. Now
behold! we are in Kadesh, a city at the edge of your border" (Numbers
After Moshe defines the hardships and trials that the Jews endured he makes
one small request. "Let us pass through your land; we shall not pass
through field or vineyard, and we shall not drink well water; on the king's
road shall we travel -- we shall not veer right or left -- until we pass
through your border."
The commentaries explain that Moshe promised not to use the water from the
miraculous well, rather they would purchase water from the Edomites. In
fact, Moshe was willing to pay for any amenity that the Jews used. But it
did not help. Edom was not satisfied and turned his back on his
cousins. More so, he responded with a threat. "The king of Edom said to
him, "You shall not pass through me -- lest I come against you with the
sword!" (ibid v.18)The Children of Israel said to him, "We shall go up on
the highway, and if we drink your water -- I or my flock -- I shall pay
their price. Only nothing will happen; let me pass through on foot." Edom
replied, "You shall not pass through! Then Edom went out against him with a
massive throng and a strong hand." The Torah concludes that Edom refused to
permit Israel to pass through his border, and Israel turned away from near
him. (see Numbers 20:18-20)Rashi quotes the Midrash Tanchuma Beshalach Esav
was irked by that detail of the Jew's narrative, "We prayed to Hashem and
he heard." And so he responded: You pride yourselves on the "voice" which
your father bequeathed you as a blessing, saying, "And we cried unto the
Lord and He heard our voice" (cf Rashi on v 16); I, therefore, will come
out against you with that which my father bequeathed me when he said, (Gen
:27:40) "And by thy sword shall thou live." It seems that despite the story
of oppression, once the Jews mention their spiritual proficiency, Esav
balks. Why is there a vehemence directed at Yaakov's declaration? What
irked Esav when he heard about Yaakov's successful supplications?
I heard this Soviet Union story during the height of Brezhnev's reign back
in the 1970s.
After a two month hiatus, the monthly potato shipment to Moscow was
supposed to finally arrive the next morning. Two hours before dawn, a
throng of people began queuing up in the Russian winter's frostiness, in
front of the market. After half an hour the official stepped out of the
shop. I am sorry we will not be getting enough potatoes to service all of
you. All Jewish comrades must return home. There will be none for you.
The rest of the crowd smirked as they continued waiting in the bitter cold
for the anticipated delivery. Two hours later, the proprietor
emerged. "One of the trucks broke down. All non-communist party members
should go home. They too trudged off into the cold. It was only another
three hours later when the storekeeper emerged again, this time breaking
the news to the remaining party faithful. "I apologize, but the trucks
have broken down and will not be delivering potatoes this month. All of
you should go home.
This time there was only frustration, "Those cursed Jews have all the
The Torah tells us how Edom reacts to Yaakov's misfortune. When the Jews
talk about their long captivity, there is no emotion. When they mention
the torture and affliction there is no compassion.
But the minute the Jews allude to even a minor success, one that alleviated
their torture and pain, "we prayed to G-d and he stopped the oppression,"
He retorts, "Jew are you boasting about your spirituality. I, too, have my
talents I live by the sword and I will greet you with it!" He forgets
that our prayers did not advance our position. It did not cause us to
inflict undue harm on other nations. It just let true justice be served on
our tormentors. One thing our enemies ought to learn. If you don't
appreciate our pains, at least admire our gains!
(c) 2000 Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky
Dedicated in memory of Joseph Heller by Beth and Ben Heller and family
L'iluy Nishmas Reb Yoel Nosson ben Reb Chaim HaLevi Heller -- 9 Tamuz.
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