Shabbat Parshat Chukat
The Children of Israel approach their land from the southeast. After passing the Zered Stream, they find themselves at the southern part of the territory of Moav. Then they continue traveling northward, keeping east of Moav, until they arrive at the Arnon River:
From there they traveled and encamped across the Arnon that is in the desert, extending from the Emorite border. For Arnon was the border of Moav between Moav and the Emorites (Bamidbar 21:13).
Moav, like Ammon who dwell to the northeast, are descended from Lot, Avraham’s nephew. This kinship explains why Israel is avoiding them.
The Emorites, however, are Canaanites who were driven from the western side of the Dead Sea to the eastern side in the time of Avraham (Bereishit 10:15-16; 14:7); they are among the nations who are destined to be conquered by Israel (15:21; Shemot 3:8).
Israel is thus poised for a military encounter with one of the nations of Canaan. They send emissaries to Sichon king of the Emorites, asking permission to traverse his land on the way to their land. He refuses and attacks them instead. Israel fights back and occupies all his land from the Arnon to the Yabbok (Bamidbar 21:21-25).
But first the Torah provides background information about these territories: Therefore is it said in the Book of the Wars of Hashem: “Vahev in Sufa, and the streams of Arnon And the waterfall of the streams that turns towards the settlement of Ar, and hugs the border of Moav” (vs. 14-15).
[We will not discuss here the many translations of the difficult phrases the Book of the Wars of Hashem … Vahev in Sufa.
For a complete discussion, see The Living Torah by R. Aryeh Kaplan.] Simply, this excerpt shows that the Arnon River is a border of Moav.
One of the prizes of Israel’s conquest of Sichon’s land is his capital city, Cheshbon. Again, the Torah provides some background information: Because Cheshbon was the capital of Sichon, king of the Emorites: and he had fought against the first king of Moav and taken all his land from his hand, as far as the Arnon.
Therefore the balladeers say:
“Come to Cheshbon! Be built and established, O city of Sichon! For a fire has gone forth from Cheshbon; a flame from the municipality of Sichon: It has consumed Ar of Moav, the masters of the altars of Arnon. Woe to you, Moav! You are destroyed, O nation of Kemosh! His sons have become refugees, and his daughters are captive, To the King of the Emorites, Sichon! And we cast them down, from Cheshbon as far as Divon, And we laid waste as far as Nofach, which is near Meideva” (vs. 26-30).
These incidents seem out of place: They are quoted from outside sources, and are retold poetically rather than in straightforward prose, as well as include references to other nations’ deities. Moreover, they seem to stray from the narrative flow. So, why are they inserted in the Torah? Would knowing the Emorites’ history accord them a measure of respect in Israel’s eyes? Must they understand their enemy in order to oppose them effectively?
Rashi (21:26, based on Gittin 38a, Sanhedrin 94b, Chullin 60b; Yalkut Shimoni) explains the inclusion: and he had fought : “Why did this need to be written? Because it is said, Do not provoke Moav (Devarim 2:19), and Cheshbon was part of Moav. The text [therefore] writes for us that Sichon took it from them, and through him it was cleansed for Israel” (it became permissible).
Hashem told Israel that they were not meant to conquer Moav: The descendants of Avraham’s nephew Lot were to keep their land. However, the information provided by this section shows – as a matter of public record – that this area of land was no longer in Moav’s possession at the time of Israel’s offensive. Sichon’s earlier conquest now permits Israel to conquer this formerly-Moav-owned land. [This would have ramifications for these territories insofar as the “mitzvot dependent upon the Land (of Israel)” are concerned.]
Rabbi Zvi Magence (1914-1989), in Magen Zvi, Sefer Kedushat Ha’Aretz (chapter 37) explains further, “the children of Israel were not actually commanded not to take land from Ammon and Moav; rather it was forbidden for them to fight in order to conquer their land for themselves. However, they were not obligated to return to Ammon and Moav the land that Sichon had conquered from them.”
R. Shimon ben Lakish (in Chullin 60b) includes Because Cheshbon … among those passages “which are fit to burn, yet they are the very body of the Torah”: At first glance they seem inappropriate to the Torah, yet closer examination reveals that they contain fundamental principles.
In this case, “said the Holy One, Blessed be He: ‘Let Sichon come and take from Moav, and then let Israel come and take from Sichon.’ This is what Rav Pappa said, ‘Ammon and Moav were cleansed by Sichon.’”
This not only means that Hashem orchestrated events so that Israel could obtain additional territory; it establishes a precedent recognized by the world:
Just as Sichon’s conquest had been legitimate, so would all of Israel’s conquests be legitimate. This concept is central to the first Rashi in Bereishit: The creation of the world is included in the Torah to confirm that Hashem, as Creator, decides who is the rightful owner of the Land of Israel.But, note how the nations celebrate their conquests, as compared with Israel! Sichon crows:
Woe to you, Moav! You are destroyed, O nation of Kemosh! His sons have become refugees, and his daughters are captive, To the King of the Emorites, Sichon!
Whereas the Israelites refer to their conquests as the land which Hashem conquered before the community of Israel (32:4).
With the conquest of its land, Israel is about to become a world power. It is an opportune time for them to get to know the mentality of the people that surround them, as well as valuing their own.