Devarim: Fraternal foes

And charge the people as follows: You will be passing through the territory of your kinsmen, the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. Though they will be afraid of you, be very careful not to provoke them. For I will not give you of their land so much as a foot can tread on; I have given the hill country of Seir as a possession to Esau. (Devarim 2:4-5).

Long ago our paths diverged:
though children of one father,
embittered and estranged,
we are brothers but in name.

Still, that early kinship
carries seeds of hope
from which conciliation
can yet put forth its shoots.

The bond God’s hand has forged
pulls us face to face
and brothers who were foes
will foregather once again.


In his book Torah of Reconciliation, on Parashat Devarim, Rabbi Sheldon Lewis cites both the verses above, (Devarim 2:4-5) and also from Devarim 2:9: “And the Lord said to me: Do not harass the Moabites or provoke them to war. For I will not give you any of their land as a possession; I have assigned Ar as a possession to the descendants of Lot.”  Rabbi Lewis notes that the Torah emphasizes the special relationship between God and the Jewish people which, he says, results in “a concept of chosenness, often understood as exclusive”. But, he adds that occasionally the Torah offers brief vistas of abiding covenantal relationships between God and other peoples. He suggests that although the details are sparse, there is evidence of parallel covenants, and “multiple and simultaneous varieties of chosenness”. He says the classic statement of this is found in Amos, “Are you not as the children of the Ethiopians unto me, O children of Israel? says the Lord. Have I not brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt and the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Aram from Kir?” (Amos 9:7). Rabbi Lewis comments that the exodus narrative is central in the Torah, and here Amos is saying that there are other exodus stories. He suggests that these might be found in other peoples’ histories. “Each dramatic episode is the work of God. God’s compassion reaches around the world.”
Rabbi Lewis continues with an interesting Midrash, based on verses later on in chapter 2: “Rise up! Set out across the wadi Arnon; see, I give into your power Sichon the Amorite, king of Cheshbon, and his land. Begin to possess it…Then I sent messengers from the wilderness of Kedemoth to King Sichon of Cheshbon with an offer of peace…” (Devarim 2: 24, 26)
The Midrash (Devarim Rabba 5:13) says, “Rabbi Joshua of Sichnin in the name of Rabbi Levi said: everything that Moses decreed, the Holy One blessed be He, affirmed for him. How so?…the Holy One blessed be He, said that he should fight with Sichon, as it is said, “contend with him in battle…” But he [Moses] did not do that. Rather, “then I [Moses] sent messengers.” The Holy One Blessed be He, said to him: “I said to you to fight with him [Sichon]. But you opened up with [an offer] of peace, as it is said, “When you draw near to a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace to it” (Devarim 20:10).” (Midrash Rabba, Devarim 5:13)
Rabbi Joshua addresses the discrepancy between God’s command to do battle and Moses’s independent initiation of peace talks. Not only is God not angry but actually subsequently endorses and mandates policy according to Moses’s action. Rabbi Joshua intimates that God “learned” from Moses.
Rabbi Lewis notes that this rabbinic passage, compiled centuries following the Bible era, suggests that God “alters God’s stance in the light of human wisdom.” He adds, “More boldly, the rabbis can be understood as affirming their own ability to modify the tradition, even to understand God’s will differently based on their own sensibilities and re-reading of age-old passages. God often comes across as war-like in Torah. Subsequent sages find ways to ameliorate that divine way, to underscore the images of God preferring and pursuing peace, and to advocate pursuing pathways to peace.”

In a commentary on Parashat Devarim, Rabbi Avi Weinstein cites the Midrash in Devarim Rabba 22, “Your kinsmen, the descendants of Esau, even though they are the descendants of Esau, they are still your kinsmen.” Other biblical verses echo this sentiment: “Your kinsmen who hate you…” (Isaiah 66:5);”…and the outrage that will be done to your brother Jacob…”(Ovadiah 1:10).  It seems to be saying that no matter the how much the relationship has deteriorated, the kinship remains. Rabbi Weinstein notes that the Midrash seems to be teaching us that “these bonds were tied by God and cannot be severed by human design and there is always potential for reconciliation.”
He adds, “In times of great strife, when kinsmen become brothers in name only, origins of relationships offer the potential for a way back, when they once shared something in common. The Midrash is teaching that these origins were given by God and cannot be removed by human design. No matter what outrage people perpetrate, they cannot abrogate the potential for reconciliation, because they were not the ones who created the relationship. It is this fact that humbles us and makes us see the world as a place that existed before us and will exist after us, and the darkest moments between peoples will give way to the memory of being kinsmen once upon a time.”
Rabbi Weinstein concludes, “This Parasha precedes Tisha Be’Av when we recall the destructions of the Jewish people, but we are reminded that someday these will be days of rejoicing. And brothers who have become adversaries will be brothers once again.”

 

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