When we think of the period of desert wandering as described in the book of Bamidbar (Numbers) we often think of violent struggle. And, indeed, the Israelites do spend much of the book fighting with each other and with the various peoples they encounter along their circuitous route to the border of the Promised Land. There are battles galore in the book of Numbers; a war movie could certainly be made from this period of Israelite history.
But this week’s parasha offers a reminder that the warlike story could have been different; and, if the midrash is right, would have been so had the people of Israel had their way. This week, we read of two different efforts by Israel to avoid armed conflict with their soon-to-be neighbors, and though neither ends in peace, both give us a sense that there was a road not taken in the desert. First, Israel sends messengers to the king of Edom, asking permission to pass peacefully through his land. Hoping to inspire fellow-feelings with the Edmoite kingdom, Moses refers to the Israel as Edom’s brother (Edom being the people descended from Esau) and reminds the Edomite king of all the hardships the Israelites have endured. Though Moses promises that his people will take nothing from the land, Edom refuses, and follows up that refusal with an armed force to dissuade the Israelites. For reasons left unclear here—Deuteronomy will indicate that the Israelites are forbidden from taking anything from the descendants of Esau by force—the Israelite turns away from Edom and head in a different direction.
Later in the parasha a similar event occurs. Moses again send messengers, this time to the Amorite king Sihon, asking for peaceful passage through the land. He promises once more than the Israelites will pass through the land and take nothing, but once again he is rebuffed. Unlike in the case of Edom, the Amorite refusal ends in battle, as the Israelites route Sihon’s forces and take possession of his land.
Two offers of peace, two rejections. The first ends with a longer path for the Israelites to the Promised Land, the second in war. According to the midrash, there was even a third set of messengers sent during this time period, though the Torah makes no mention of the fact. The midrash points out that the book of Judges explicitly says that Moses also sent messengers of peace to the Moabites, who, according to that account, also refused Moses’ entreaties. Moab, of course, will next week enter into the annals of Israelite history in the role of arch-villain, hiring the sorcerer Balaam to curse the people and then having a part in enticing the people into idolatry at Shitim. Peace, it seems, is profoundly elusive.
But there is another version of these stories—two of them at any rate. In Deuteronomy, Moses reports that when asking for peaceful passage through the land of the king of Sihon, he asked only for what had already been granted to the Israelites by none other than Edom and Moab. “Just let me pass through,” Moses says, “as the descendants of Esau who dwell in Seir did for me, and the Moabites who dwell in Ar.” As Jacob Milgrom points out, there seem to be two traditions here: one reflected in our parasha and also in the book of Judges wherein Israel is continually rejected as it searches for peace, and one reflected in Deuteronomy which remembers a much more gracious series of interactions with Israel’s neighbors.
Our midrash clearly prefers the latter tradition, the tradition of peace. Using the repeated sending of messengers as a starting point, the midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah comments that the Torah does not normally require us to go out in search of mitzvoth to perform. If the chance to perform a mitzvah comes before us we are of course required to fulfill the precept, but, in general, we need not go in pursuit of positive commandments to perform. Not so, the midrash insists, with the commandment of peace. We must track down, seek out and hunt opportunities to make peace. Just as Moses sent messengers of peace wherever he went, desperately trying to find a way to avoid conflict, so too should we be active in our pursuit of the peace that so often eludes us.
The beauty of this midrash is that it finds connection within the most prominent death of our parasha, that of Aaron. Aaron, as the tradition tells us, was the peacemaker of Israel, a man committed to bringing people together across chasms of hurt and anger. As Pirkei Avot (Wisdom of the Fathers) famously reports, “Hillel said, be like the disciples of Aaron, a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace.” Aaron’s death occurs prior to the events surrounding king Sihon—prior, that is, to the offer of peace—which means that his spirit still animated the people even as they journeyed on without him. It must animate us still. Although the narrative of Numbers is often one of strife and conflict, there are hints in our parasha and in our midrash that the story can be told a different way, or at the very least could have been. That is the story we should tell: a story of peace, a story of coming together, not breaking apart. A story where we strive to find what is common, not what is disparate. That is the story we shall try to write at Camp this summer, and, as our first Shabbat together as a full Camp community descends upon us, it is a ballad of peace we sing together, a story of peace we will do our best to live.