To be a great nation

Jews are not naturally superior nor are they genetically so.

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg, | updated: 12:52

Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg
Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg

Among the many commandments found in the weekly portion of Ki Teitze is that surrounding the nations of Moab and Amon. While this is not the first admonition regarding those two specific antions, the strength of prohibition is as clear as can be in this version (Devarim 23:4):

“An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter the assembly of the Lord; even the tenth generation shall never enter the assembly of the Lord.”

It would appear these people are not welcome into the fold. The Torah continues (ibid 5-7):

“Because (1) they did not greet you with bread and water on the way, when you left Egypt, and because (2) he [the people of Moab] hired Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor in Aram Naharaim against you, to curse you. But the Lord, your God, did not want to listen to Balaam. So the Lord, your God, transformed the curse into a blessing for you, because the Lord, your God, loves you. You shall not ever seek out their welfare or their good, all your days.”

Looking at the first verse, there are two rationales given for excluding these two nations. Do these reasons share something in common? If they are separate, do we need both? And of the two, the second seems more despicable than the first. In fact, while not pre-emptively bringing food and water to the Jews might seem selfish, does it really raise to the level of preventing them from becoming a part of the Jewish nation?

The sequence of verses is also quite difficult to understand. After justifying the prohibition, the Torah should have concluded with the verse pertaining to not seeking out their “welfare or their good”, the appropriate supposition to the entire theme of this section. Instead, we are reminded that God did not allow Bilaam to succeed and turned his curses into blessings.

Why? Because God loves us. How is this information relevant to the admonition? Of course, it is important to know that God intervened on our behalf. But why are we being reminded of this right now? The verse does not appear to fit into the theme concerning the exclusion of the people of Moab and Amon.

When discussing the reason for the prohibition, the Sefer HaChinuch (561) offers an even more negative description of the Moab and Amon nations. He explains that a source for the concept of gemilut chasadim, the “giving of loving-kindness”, and the opposite selfish and contemptable behavior, can be found in this prohibition. How so?

First, he explains that the people of these two nations did not offer “even” the most basic mode of sustenance, bread and water, to the weary tired Jews who had left Egypt. They also hired Bilaam to curse the Jewish people. As a result, we must despise them. After contrasting them to the Egyptians, he explains how the two nations had no repression in acting publicly in such a manner. Such people cannot be changed, and therefore can never be accepted into the Jewish nation.

These are extremely harsh words, but they fail to truly explain why the two nations are to be excluded forever from the Jewish nation. Yes, not bringing bread and water seems inconsiderate, but does such an action personify the antithesis of gemilut chasadim? Furthermore, the Sefer HaChinuch appears to unite the two reasons as expressions of the same evil trait. Yet they appear to be disparate, and the hiring of Bilaam does not seem to be a rejection of gemilut chasadim.

The idea of an act of kindness to others, chesed, is a cornerstone of appropriate behavior between individuals in society. Acting for another’s benefit represents a minimizing of one’s own sense of self-importance, recognizing the equal importance of another existence outside his own. This minimization is a critical feature of one’s personality, both in regard to functioning within society, as well as with approaching any area of wisdom. A rejection of this principle is supremely harmful to any individual.

This is all fairly intuitive. The prohibition in the Torah is focused on an entire society or culture which rejects the idea of chesed (those in Sodom appeared to suffer from a similar distortion). When a society sees itself as intrinsically superior to others, that sense of superiority will naturally lead to rejecting any interest in assisting any other nation. Why should they help the Jews leaving Egypt? Even minimal assistance would be an acknowledgment of some small value in the foreign entity.

Once the Jewish nation pushed forward, sojourning through the desert, the people of Moab and Amon saw a potential threat to their sense of preeminence. Hiring Bilaam was an attempt to expose a weakness in the Jewish nation, bring them down a rung on the ladder of importance (how “cursing” the people might accomplish such an objective is a separate topic). Thus, both actions reflected the distorted sense of self-importance suffered by the entire society. No mechanism internally existed to correct this defect, thereby ensuring there would be no way for changing their ways.

Taking a step back, then, one can surmise that there are two societal archetypes incompatible with Judaism. The first is the perversion of the relationship between man and God, those societies steeped in idolatry. The second is when the relationship between men ceases to exist and cultural superiority becomes the norm.

This very concept of cultural superiority is at the heart of the seemingly “out of place” verse. Why do we need to be reminded that God transformed Bilaam’s curses to blessings? Why do we need to understand that the rationale for God’s action was due to his love for us?

The Malbim (among others) reads into this implication that there was a chance Bilaam might have been successful, meaning the Jewish people may have “deserved” the attack. God, though, did not allow this to take place. The emphasis, then, is on our stature being dependent on our relationship with God. We are not intrinsically superior, nor are we genetically or culturally superior. Only when we function in line with our mission, as light to the nations of the world, adhering to the commands of the Torah, can we point to our uniqueness and set the right example for the world. When we stray from this path, our stature falls, and we are viewed as being inferior.

The Torah recounts God’s actions against Bilaam as it would be tempting to respond to the ideology of Moab and Ammon with an exclamation of our own superiority. God reinforces the concept our greatness as a nation is truly a dependent one. While of course we can celebrate accomplishments and achievements as a people, we must always be careful to recognize that it is through the system of Torah where we can reach the greatest heights of any society.


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