How to be a diplomat

Insights into the Torah reading.

Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple, | updated: 04:17

 Raymond Apple
Raymond Apple


This week’s sidra is part of the history of diplomacy.

On the way through the wilderness from Egypt to the Promised Land, we see Israel encountering two regimes, Edom and Emor.

Interestingly, the approach to the two rulers is quite different.

Dealing with the king of Edom, Moses says, “This is a message from your brother Israel. You know all the troubles that have happened to us” (Num. 20:14).

What’s this “your brother Israel”? On a superficial level it means, “You are a nation and we are a nation. We are international brothers. This is a message from one brother to another.”

The sages tell us something extra, that Edom is descended from Esau, the brother of the patriarch Jacob known as Israel. The message is then, “We belong to the same family, but we’ve had a hard time of it. Please feel for your brother nation, for your brother’s nation”.

To the king of the Amorites the Moses message is much bolder and braver: We’re no victim nation; we are proud and powerful, and we want respect from you, just as we give you respect.

The point is not whether one approach is better, or the other. The point is that diplomacy depends on the assessment of the situation, on a reading of the circumstances. As Kohelet says, there is a time (and place) for everything.

Diplomacy is the art of statesmanship. Kierkegaard said, “If you want to help a man, you must find him where he is”.


What a strange law is spelled out when we read the beginning of Parashat Chukkat (Num. 19). It cries out for an explanation – but we don’t get one.

It continues to puzzle the human mind. For firm believers there is no question: if this is what God requires, so be it.

For adamant non-believers there is no answer: with all the preachments and precedents of the men of religion, they say, these laws of the Torah defy logic.

Is there, then, nothing we can say about the Red Heifer law?

Actually there is a great deal that can be said, especially that there are some (or many) things in human experience which are beyond us ... both in the microcosm and in the macrocosm.

In the microcosm there are people like me who can switch on a computer and use it without having the faintest idea how a computer functions. Nonetheless in spite of all our ignorance we know that things work.

In the macrocosm we see birth and death, illness and health, suffering and joy, and we more or less know how to handle the spectrum of human experience but we can’t work out the ultimate answers to the eternal “Why?”

History confronts us with innumerable quandaries and we can only say, “Lord God, Thou knowest”.

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