Chukat: The Purification by the Wicked
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Sichon's politics are of interest to us because he "purged" Ammon and Moav. Wicked people can also "purge" by removing confusion. In Ammon and Moav tithes are obligatory, but exempt in shemita—where is this territory exactly?
"Israel took all those towns; and Israel settled in all the towns of the Amorites, in Cheshbon and all its dependencies" (Bamidbar 21:25).
"Why was this necessary to write? Since it is stated: "Do not harass Moav," and Cheshbon was a Moavite ruler. So it is recorded on our behalf that Sichon wrested [these lands] from them, and in doing so purged it for the Jewish nation" (Rashi on Chullin 80b and Gittin 38a).
Biblical stories have a purpose
International political scoops can be an excuse to cut down entire forests so that they can be published in newspapers, but their importance is truly marginal. The proportions of the events that appear in the Torah shed light on the true understanding of world events, proves this all too well. In contrast to the first 1948 years of human history until Avraham's birth, which are surveyed briefly in the first two parshiyot of the book of Bereishit, a mere two hundred years of stories about the forefathers take up the remainder of the book. Shemot opens with an exile of 210 years, but from there until the end of the Torah, only 40 years pass until the death of Moshe at the conclusion of VeZot HaBeracha. Had the printing press been invented in antiquity, the proportions in the newspapers of these stories would have been drastically different, no doubt.
Rashi, based on Chazal, explains the reason that the Torah takes the trouble to detail the conquest of the northern portion of the Moabite kingdom until the Arnon River (situated on the bank of the Dead Sea, opposite Ein Gedi) by Sichon the king of Amora. It is because Sichon, who most likely believed that by conquering this territory he achieved glory, this took place in truth so that eventually the Jewish People would be able to conquer these lands. Had Sichon not conquered the territory previously, it would have been forbidden for the Jews to take the ancestral lands of Moav and Ammon, which they inherited from Lot. The expression coined by Chazal for this move is: "Amon and Moav were purged (taharu – also, purified) by Sichon" (Gittin 38a).
This puzzling statement deserves further investigation. Sichon was one of the most wicked men of his generation. So much so that the Rambam includes him in the list of wicked people whose free will was suspended as a punishment, so they would accumulate even more sins and be destroyed because of them. Could such a person purge others? Would it not have been possible for Chazal to use an expression with a slightly more negative connotation when describing one of the most wicked people in history?
It may very well be that Chazal wanted to impart an important tenet of faith. The kabbalist masters discuss the spiritual work of "raising the sparks." Every single object in the world contains sparks of sanctity that give life to them; without these sparks, they would cease to exist. The job of the righteous (and as we know, "Your nation is completely righteous") is to sort through these sparks and elevate them to a place of sanctity. This is true in our individual service of G-d. A repentant artist who used his skills for profanity needs to use his G-d-given abilities to draw people closer to sanctity. Every talent or drive we discover in ourselves—even if seemingly negative—contain Divine sparks. We are charged to elevate them through a careful and ongoing quest for truth, and with the guidance of great people who are G-d's servants.
This is what seems to be the spiritual work of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook zt"l: in his time the great movement of national rebirth seemed to be in a fierce battle against all that was sacred. Yet Rabbi Kook discerned the sparks of sanctity hiding behind the masks of secularity (or "peels," kelipot, in kabalistic terms), and sought to elevate them. By doing so, he believed, these kelipot would simply vanish by themselves. When these Divine sparks are not sorted and are mixed with the kelipot causes much confusion: people sense that there is truth in these sparks—but they don't know how to differentiate the sparks from the kelipot, the peels that conceal them. So they eat them together—both the peel and the fruit. This is why it is so important that this spiritual sorting process takes place.
There is another path to perform this sorting process. Not picking out the fruit from the peels, but rather removing the peels from the fruit. At times, the forces of impurity burst forth with such force, and evil becomes so blatantly obvious, that even the sparks hiding within no longer become a source of confusion. All intelligent people, including the vast majority of non-Jews—providing that deep Anti-Semitism does not make them lose their minds altogether—do not espouse that the Holocaust was moral and just; rather, they simply deny it occurred. The evil is so great and overpowering that it is simply inconceivable that the Nazis' actions reflected any sort of truth.
Ammon and Moav are Avraham's relatives. They were the children of Lot, who accompanied Avraham on his journey and was considered Avraham's potential inheritor before Avraham was blessed with offspring of his own. As such, Ammon and Moav contain a great deal of truth and goodness. Yet, even their birth, through an act of incest, reveals that this goodness is quite problematic. G-d wanted to prevent this danger of confusion of goodness mixed with evil when commanding Moshe that we not "deal" with them. Even their soil, saturated on a mystical level with this same confusion, is certainly dangerous. Only in the Final Redemption, when Mashiach arrives on the scene, highly skilled in spiritual sorting, it will be possible to conquer these lands (as did King David in his time). However, at least for part of the Moabite and Ammonite territories, Sichon already did the work for us. By conquering parts of these kingdoms, he turned them into Ammorite territory thus averting the danger of spiritual confusion. Sichon was so evil that there is no danger that we will learn and be influenced by him. Without intending to, Sichon thus purged these territories for us of their confusing status.
Briefly, it seems that this fundamental message lies at the basis of Torah laws in the context of one of the seemingly bizarre laws of tzara'at, spiritual leprosy: if a person's entire body is afflicted and turns white, the affliction is rendered pure. So too, a ba'al teshuva is greater than a completely tzaddik (at least in certain ways), because one cannot fool him. He knows that evil is evil. In contrast to a righteous person, who knows this on an intellectual level, the ba'al teshuva is intimately familiar with it. Of course, the ba'al teshuva will need to uproot negative habits and traits that became entrenched in him. For this reason, it is not the optimal modus operandi in the service of G-d (especially since when a person sinks into the quagmire of sin, he has no way of knowing when or if at all he will emerge from it). Nevertheless, it is the ba'al teshuva's familiarity with the sin that enables him to purge himself from it—just like in the case of Ammon and Moav.
The Dead Sea, the border between the Land of Israel and Moav
Ma'aser Ani in Ammon and Moav
"The votes were counted and they decided that Ammon and Moav should give the tithe for the poor in the seventh year" (Mishna Yadayim 4:3).
Ma'asarot during shemita?
To see this long mishna, of which we only quoted the conclusion, we need to go all the way to the end of Seder Taharot—a tractate most are not sufficiently familiar with. It is full of halachic discussions and rich with emotion. This tractate also includes several points that are essential for understanding the history of the Oral Law. We will visit Taharot thanks to the discussion on the issue of which type of ma'aser we take in Ammon and Moav during the shemita year.
At first glance, this mishna is perplexing: during the shemita year all produce is ownerless and no tithing is required! However, while shemita does not apply to Ammon and Moav we nevertheless need to take terumot and ma'aserot there miderabanan for years 1–6 of the shemita cycle. Not only there: this obligation applies also to other countries in close proximity to the Land of Israel. These include Babylon and Egypt, which are certainly (unlike Ammon and Moav) not included in the borders of the Promised Land, not even in its most expansive borders. However, they are neighboring countries (Rambam, Terumot 1:1) and—at least as Babylon was concerned--"Most of the Jewish People go [from there] and return there (and might compare the laws governing the Land of Israel to those governing Babylon)." It is for this reason that ma'aser sheni is required there so that ma'aser ani will also apply (since ma'aser sheni and ma'aser ani interchange at regular intervals), so that "the poor of the Jewish People could rely on it" (Rambam Ma'aser Sheni 1:14).
The mitzvah of shemita does not apply to these areas, so terumot and ma'aserot need to be separated there, just like any other year. As we know, during years 1,2,4, and 5 of the shemita cycle, we take ma'aser rishon and ma'aser sheni, while on years 3 and 6 we take ma'aesr ani instead of ma'aser sheni. During the shemita year, no ma'aserot are taken in the Land of Israel. Which ma'aser, then, should be taken during the shemita year in the areas surrounding the Land of Israel?
Ma'aser sheni was instituted during shemita in Babylon by the prophets during the Babylonian exile. The elders in Egypt instituted that ma'aser ani be given during shemita (see the beginning of the mishna above, and Rambam's gloss). Our mishna above discusses the status of Ammon and Moav, and concludes that ma'aser ani should be separated there "so that Israel's poor can be supported by them during the seventh year."
What are the Ammon and Moav mentioned in the mishna?
The big question, then, is whether the Ammon and Moav mentioned in the Mishna are the portions of Reuven and Gad that were purged by Sichon. Alternatively, the portions of Reuven and Gad could be considered within the borders of olei Mitzrayim (and parts of this territory included in olei Bavel, since the eastern bank of the Jordan River is one of the territories for bi'ur during shemita). This means that Ammon and Moav mentioned here is the remaining territories belonging to these two kingdoms that were not conquered by Sichon, so they were not settled by the Jewish People (see Rabbi Yehuda Amichay's responsum on the matter).
The Land of Moav is essentially plains covered by fields of farmland (which is why Elimelech's family, in Megillat Rut, relocates to the "fields of Moav" during the famine in the Land of Israel). It originally bordered on the north of the Ammonite kingdom, which ruled up through the southern Gilad, while the border ran through Nachal Cheshbon (Wadi Hisban). Sichon conquered approximately half of the Moabite territory at the north of Moav through Nachal Arnon (Wadi al Mujib), which flows out to the mid-section of the Dead Sea. He also took over the majority of the settled area of Ammon in the southern Gilad. The Ammonites were pushed eastward towards the desert, with only a narrow strip of settled land remaining in their hands, including Rabbat Ammon—modern-day Amman—one of the world's most ancient cities. Amman today serves as the capital of Jordan's Hashemite kingdom, which rules over all of these areas—both those purged by Sichon and those not conquered by him.