By Rabbi Moshe Bloom
Torah VeHa’aretz Institute
“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, Chullin 80b, Gittin 38a).
Biblical Stories Have a Purpose
There are no superfluous accounts in the Torah. Rashi, based on Chazal, explains why 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 conquered this territory so that eventually the Jewish people would be able to conquer these lands. Had Sichon not done so, it would have been forbidden for the Jews to take the ancestral lands of Moav and Ammon. 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 wickedest men of his generation. Could such a person purge others? Why didn’t Chazal use an expression with a negative connotation when describing one of the wickedest people in history?
It may very well be that Chazal wanted to impart an important tenet of faith. The Kabbalists discuss the spiritual work of “raising the sparks.” Every single object in the world contains sparks of sanctity that give life to it; without these sparks, it 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 spiritually. 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, contains 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 “kelipot, peels” in Kabbalistic 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 properly, but rather are mixed with the kelipot, it is very confusing; people sense that there is goodness and 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 take place.
There is another path to perform this sorting process. At times, the forces of impurity burst forth with such intensity, and evil becomes so blatantly obvious, that even the sparks hiding within no longer cause confusion. Intelligent people, including the vast majority of non-Jews, providing that deep antisemitism 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, will it be possible to conquer these lands (as did King David in his time).
However, at least for part of the Moavite 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.
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 teshuvah is greater than a complete 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 teshuvah is familiar with it. The ba’al teshuvah 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 teshuvah’s familiarity with the sin that enables him to purge himself from it, just like in the case of Ammon and Moav.
Rabbi Moshe Bloom is head of the English department of Torah VeHa’aretz Institute. Torah VeHa’aretz Institute (the Institute for Torah and the Land of Israel) engages in research, public education, and the application of contemporary halachic issues that come to the fore in the bond between Torah and the Land of Israel today. For additional information and inquiries, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 972-8-684-7325.