Far distant relatives of the Jewish people are harshly alienated in this week's Torah portion. Members of the nations of Amon and Moav are permanently prohibited from becoming Jewish, as the doors to conversion are slammed in their faces.
Far distant relatives of the Jewish people are harshly alienated in this week's Torah portion. Members of the nations of Amon and Moav are permanently prohibited from becoming Jewish, as the doors to conversion are slammed in their faces. The Torah explains this treatment by faulting these two nations for what sounds like a relatively insignificant crime: "Because of the fact that they did not greet you with food and water on your journey when you were leaving Egypt, and because they hired against you Bilam. . .to curse you" (Deuteronomy 23:5). The Torah's rationale for this prohibition sounds unsettling. Why should the entire nation and future generations pay for a deed their ancestors perpetrated? Moreover, aside from the apparent insignificance of their behavior, other nations also prevented our passage through their land. When we requested passage through the land of Edom, we were violently refused permission; yet, the following verses in the Torah allow members of Edom to eventually become part of the Jewish nation (ibid. 23:8-9). Why are Amon and Moav denied acceptance to our nation if other peoples behaved similarly and are still allowed to join the Jewish nation?
The Ramban, one of the greatest leaders and Torah commentaries of the Middle Ages, recognized this apparent discrepancy and clarified the prohibition. Reasonably, he is disturbed with the restriction Hashem lays on the people of Moav and Amon. The punishment does not seem to parallel the deed! The problem with these people was not that they were cruel when we needed help. If it was, Edom would also be prohibited to join the Jewish people. Indeed, their not allowing us to cross their territory was their right. However, Ramban explains, Amon and Moav really owed us a great debt of gratitude for a favor we had done for them many years before, and they should have returned the favor that our forefather did for them.
Abraham, out of his sincere innate kindness, made certain that when the city of Sodom was destroyed, his nephew Lot would not die in the ashes. Lot was saved only because of Abraham's intervention. After the fire and brimstone which destroyed Sodom had subsided, Lot had two children: Amon and Moav. Since Abraham and, by extension, the Jewish people provided the opportunity for Moav and Amon to be created in the first place, they owed us a debt of gratitude.
When we asked to collect on that debt, they refused. Not only did they refuse to help, but they also conspired to hurt us through Bilam's cursing of the Jewish nation. The problem of Amon and Moav runs deeper than merely refusing to help. In the historical context, they lacked any element of gratitude. In fact, they showed active ingratitude by attempting to destroy us. It was not enough for them to leave us alone. They insisted on hurting us. After all that the Jewish people did for them, this sin is inexcusable and antithetical to the entire Jewish philosophy. A people so corrupt to their very essence can never become part of the Jewish people, a nation charged to be a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation".
This d'var Torah is based on a class from Rabbi Yissocher Frand in the name of the late rosh yeshiva (dean) of Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore, Rabbi Yaakov Ruderman.
Micah Gimpel, a native Atlantan and graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, is a junior at Yeshiva University in New York.
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