Rabbi Eliad Skuri
Former Rosh Kollel in Kansas City (2003-2005)
Parashat Chukat, as we know, begins in the second year following the Exodus from Egypt (Chapter 19), and ends in the fortieth year, as the Jews are about to enter the Land of Israel (Chapters 20 and 21). At the end of the parashah, Moshe sends peace emissaries to Sichon, king of the Amorites, and asks permission to cross through his country. The story continues with Sichon’s refusal of the request, his attack on the Jews, and his total defeat at their hands. In Parashat Devarim, when Moshe retells this story, he says: “Then I sent messengers from the Wilderness of Kedemoth to King Sichon of Cheshbon with an offer of peace, saying: Let me pass through your country. . .” (Deuteronomy 2:26-27). However, just a few verses earlier in the parashah, we find God commanding Moshe: “Get up, go, and cross Wadi Arnon. See, I give into your power Sichon the Amorite, king of Cheshbon, and his land. Begin occupying it and engage him in battle” (Ibid., v. 24).
It seems that God commanded Moshe to begin a war against Sichon. How then, and why, does Moshe decide to send peace emissaries to Sichon, defying God’s command? Isn’t this a case of flat-out insubordination (seruv pekudah) directed at the Master of the Universe by his most loyal servant?
The commentaries set their minds to explaining this issue.
Ramban explains that actually, the chronological order is reversed. “Before [being told to declare war], Moshe sent Sichon messengers from the Wilderness of Kedemot. After God commanded him to go to war, he wouldn’t have sent peace emissaries. For if they were to accept the peaceful overtures, he would be transgressing a command of God. . . . When the verse says “Then I sent messengers” (Va’eshlach malakhim), it means “I had already sent messengers.”
The Netziv,in his Torah commentary Ha’amek Davar, offers an alternative explanation. Moshe decided to send peace emissaries to Sichon even though he knew that Sichon would refuse the offer. This was in order to find a pretext and justification for entering into the war which God had commanded. According to this, Moshe always intended to fulfill God’s command in its entirety. He was simply engaging in a tactical maneuver to justify starting a war.
The common denominator of these two explanations is that they resolve the contradiction between God’s command to start a war and Moshe’s peaceful overtures.
In contrast, Rashi, following Chazal, explains otherwise and leaves the contradiction unresolved. He elaborates on what went through Moshe’s mind: “Even though God did not command me to make peaceful overtures to Sichon, I derived this in the Wilderness of Sinai from the Torah which preceded the world.” This is in accordance with and more fully explained in Midrash Tanchuma:
The verse says, “Seek peace and chase after it” (Psalms 34:15). Normally, the Torah does not demand that we chase after mitzvot. Rather, if they come our way, we are commanded to do them. However, when it comes to peace, “Seek peace” where you live, “and chase after it” everywhere else. This is what the Jews did. Even though God said, “Begin occupying it and engage him in battle,” they chased after peace, as it says, “Israel sent emissaries, etc.” (Numbers 21:21).
According to this explanation, Moshe really did change God’s command, and decided on his own to make peaceful overtures. However, he did this out of a deep understanding of the Divine command (even if it wasn’t made explicit), and out of a desire to follow in God’s ways.
The Rambam’s ruling (Hilkhot Melakhim 6:1) seems to follow this understanding as well: “We do not start a war with anyone in the world until we have first called for peace. This is true of both obligatory wars (milchemet mitzvah) and optional wars (milchemet reshut).”
It would seem that this requirement to begin with a peace proposal does not merely indicate a pragmatic, pacifistic approach, but rather has deeper significance. The Jewish nation embodies the idea that there is one God, and its mission is to spread this idea throughout the world. Even the wars of conquest in Israel were intended to further this mission – to create a connection between the nation and the land from which this message would be disseminated to the world. Chazal teach us that if not for the sins of the desert generation, the Jews would have deserved to enter the land peacefully and unopposed by the nations. There would have been no need for a war of conquest. Rav Kook explains: “If not for the sin of the golden calf, the nations living in the Land of Israel would have made peace with the Jews. For the name of God which was upon them would have inspired yirat harommemut(awe of His grandeur) among the nations, and there would not have been a war of any sort. The influence of the Jews would have spread peacefully, as it will in the Messianic era” (Orot HaMilchamah, p. 14).
The ideal for which the Jewish nation strives is to perfect the world under the rule of God. The entry of the Jews into their land is meant to herald a universal ethical revolution. It will involve the nations accepting the seven Noachide commandments upon themselves, or minimally recognizing the pre-eminence of the Jewish nation and its rights to its land.
However, in order to reach this lofty goal, the Jewish nation must be at the peak of spiritual perfection so that its influence can radiate to the nations of the world, and it can serve as a light unto the nations. This is why we make gestures of peace. The purpose is to determine whether we can express our influence upon the world in this lofty manner. Only out of lack of choice, after the nations refuse peace, are we then permitted to go to war. We undertake a war out of necessity, with the wish that in its wake, we will be able to become positive educational influences in the future.
For this reason, Moshe is not guilty of insubordination or changing God’s command. On the contrary. He is offering peace because he has a deep understanding of God’s will and Israel’s mission in the world. He has faith in the ability of the Jews. And he has hope of exerting influence in a peaceful fashion. He starts a war – and wins it – only when it becomes clear that he has no other choice.