Bread, Water, and Beyond by Jesse Dunietz

(2003/5763)

 “Lo Yavo Amoni Umoavi Bik’hal Hashem…Al D’var Asher Lo Kid’mu Etchem Balechem Uvamayim Baderech B’tzeit’chem Mimitzrayim, Va’asher Sachar Alecha Et Bilam Ben B’or…L’kallilekah.”  “The Amoni and Moavi shall not enter into the nation of Hashem…Because of the fact that they did not greet you with bread and water on the road when you were leaving Egypt, and that he hired Bilam, son of Beor… to curse you.”  The reasoning the Torah gives for this prohibition is very strange.  What exactly is so terrible about not offering food and water?  As Rabbi Yissocher Frand points out, our history is full of much more active and harmful oppression.  For example, though Esav and his descendents have troubled us for millennia, the very next paragraph in the Torah states specifically that descendents of Edom are to be allowed to join the nation.  In comparison to nations like these, the complaints against Moav and Amon seem trivial!  Why do we exclude them for such a relatively small shortcoming?  Additionally, if the first reason to exclude these nations is indeed a good one, why include the second?

One answer to the first question can be found in a careful reading of Rashi.  On the words “because of the fact,” Rashi comments, “Because of the idea that they planned about you, to cause you to sin.”  As the Kli Yakar points out, this is not the simple reading of the text.  He explains that Rashi is picking up on our first question, and saying that, in fact, the bread and water were not the main issue.  Rather, Amon and Moav took advantage of the fact that Bnei Yisrael were traveling – they were “Baderech,” “on the way,” which Rashi explains as expressing a state of turmoil.  Since they were so tired and hungry, if Amon and Moav refused to offer them normal bread and water, they hoped to convince Bnei Yisrael to accept food from idolatrous offerings, and the like.  As Rashi indicates, they used Bnei Yisrael’s weakness as a way to make them sin.

Though the Kli Yakar’s reading solves one question, it ignores the other.  It also seems to be a roundabout interpretation of the Torah’s actual words.  Rabbi Frand brings down a novel explanation from Rav Nisan Alpert, z”l, to solve all these problems:

The problem with Amon’s and Moav’s actions was not simply that they did not treat us nicely.  It was that they were willing to put their hatred of Bnei Yisrael before their own interests.  Bnei Yisrael had quite a reputation after Yetziat Mitzrayim.  As we see from elsewhere in the Torah and Tanach, they were still feared greatly even at this time, after forty years in the desert.  Logically speaking, Amon and Moav should have jumped at the chance to act peacefully towards a very threatening nation.  Yet when we asked to buy food and drink, their hatred was strong enough that they were still willing to refuse.

It is possible to defend Amon and Moav by saying that they simply did not want to be hypocrites, to put up a false front of peacefulness.  To combat this, the Torah adds that they hired Bilam.  Sichon had previously employed the very same Bilam to defeat these nations themselves!  Despite his history, they were willing to “shake hands with the devil” and strike a deal with him in order to fight Bnei Yisrael.

This is the reason why Amon and Moav are rejected.  Even when presented with the most sensible options, they never hesitated to express their hatred for us.  This attitude of total hatred is one that is simply unacceptable for the Jewish nation.

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