Rabbi Dror Brama
Former Rosh Kollel in London
Parshat Chukat contains the following incident:
“The Canaanite king of Arad, who dwelled in the south, heard that Israel had come by the route of the spies, and he waged war against Israel and took a captive from it. Israel made a vow to Hashem, and said, if You will deliver this people into my hand, I will consecrate their cities. Hashem heard the voice of Israel and delivered the Canaanite, and he destroyed (vayachareim) them and their cities; and he called the place Chormah.” (Bamidbar 21:1-3)
Two questions arise from these p’sukim. First, who were these captives, and how many were there? Second, the reader is left wondering about the negotiations over the captives. No one speaks to the captors; the negotiations are conducted with HaKadosh Baruch Hu; and Yisrael offers to give something to Hashem in exchange for victory over the Canaanites.
Furthermore, the Torah does not tell us about the captives’ fate or about their families. Were the captives rescued and returned home?
Chazal address the second question in their response to the first. According to Chazal – as cited by Rashi – the captive was a single maidservant. Therefore, the pasuk says “a captive (shevi)”. Yisrael’s response did not relate to the captive herself but rather to the provocation inherent in the act of taking a captive. As Yisrael traverse the wilderness and head towards Canaan, they are surrounded by hostile nations who are unwilling to provide passage. The Midrash (Eichah Rabbah 1) describes the national mood:
“This is comparable to a king who married a matron. He said to her, ‘Do not speak with your friends; and do not borrow from them; and do not lend to them.’ At one point, he got angry at her and threw her out of the palace. And she went to all her neighbors, but they would not accept her. When she returned to the palace, the king said to her, ‘You made it difficult for yourself (akshit apeich – literally, you hardened your face).’ The matron said to the king, ‘My lord, if I had lent to them and borrowed utensils from them, and if my work was with them or their work was with me, would not they have accepted me?’
“Similarly, HaKadosh Baruch Hu said to Israel, ‘You made it difficult for yourself.’ They said to Him, ‘Master of the Universe, did You not write in your Torah: “You shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughter to his son, and you shall not take his daughter for your son.” (Devarim 7:3) If we had borrowed from them or lent to them, if we had intermarried with them and they with us, if our daughter was with them or their daughter with us, would they not have accepted us? Alas, because You did this.’”
Yisrael claims that the Canaanites’ war is a result of Hashem’s Torah and mitzvot. They insist that if Hashem would have permitted them to go to Eretz Yisrael and assimilate with the Canaanites, the latter would have been willing to get along. In effect, Yisrael is asserting: “We are stuck on the way to Eretz Yisrael and dealing with war and captivity. But it is Your war, and we are not to blame.”
Hence, negotiations are not conducted with the captors, and instead of promising not to touch the booty, Am Yisrael undertakes to consecrate it to Hashem. This undertaking is a manifestation of Am Yisrael’s awareness that the fact that we are forced to live by the sword is connected to the role entrusted to us by Hashem, and therefore, the discussion is not about the captives.
We are taught (Rambam Matanot Aniyim 8; Shulchan Aruch Yoreh De’ah 252) that:
“Redeeming captives precedes supporting the poor and clothing them, and there is no greater mitzvah that redeeming captives…”
However, we are also taught that:
“Captives are not redeemed for more than their worth, because of tikun olam (loosely, the way of the world) – so that the enemies will not chase after them to capture them.”
Finding the proper balance between these two principles is very difficult. Yet, we must recall an important caveat about the aforementioned tikun olam. During the Exile, we were helpless; paying a low price for a captive was the only way for us to try and prevent further kidnapping. But during the Biblical era, when we had the power of deterrence, consecrating the captors’ cities – rather than the captives themselves – was the primary focus.
As our nation shares in the captives’ pain, perhaps we should remember – as our parsha states – that an exchange of captives does not serve as a satisfying conclusion to this type of affair. We do not fight just for the sake of one family or another. In Parshat Chukat, Yisrael did not just destroy the captors and their cities, they also called the place Chormah (literally, “banned”), as a frightening