Parsha Hukat

Who Do You Fight?


We come to the start of the invasion of Canaan. As the Children of Israel approach they first encounter Edom (descendants of Esav). They send ambassadors asking for permission to pass through. They stress their family ties and expect some reciprocity or at least no opposition. They offer to compensate them for anything they use on the way. Edom refuses and marches out to block them. Israel is disappointed but it does not go to war. The decision is to go around instead.

The Amalekites, kings Og of Bashan and Sihon of the Emorites all assume this is a sign of weakness and so try to attack Israel. They are destroyed and their lands are confiscated. Some modern liberals argue that the Israelites were barbaric in destroying these tribes. But this was a brutal time. And not all enemies were the same.

One can understand the Emorites (often conflated with Canaanites) fighting to save their land. But what of the Hittites who came from much further north, where Turkey is today? And the Amalekites? When Israel left Egypt they intentionally avoided the Amalekites because they were not heading to their territory on the sea. So, what were the Amalekites doing by the River Jordan? They were invaders just as much as the Israelites who at least had history in the area. They were following, tracking the Israelites looking for booty, weakness and opportunity to strike. That is why the Amalekites were singled out for odium and special treatment. They were not defending their land. They had no reason to attack the Israelites.

The moral is clear. One has to choose one’s battles. Sometimes one decides that for various reasons one would prefer to avoid conflict. Sometimes one offers to negotiate and compromise. Caution is not necessarily a sign of weakness and if our enemies mistake it for that they are going to suffer. The message is clear. One does not treat every enemy in the same way. But when there is no alternative one either stands one’s ground and one defeats the opposition or one is lost.

In the Middle East if you are not brutal and fanatical you are presumed to be weak. If you try to be humane you are perceived as soft. It is easy for people living in peace with secure boundaries and abstract ideals to attack Israel. And it is true we should not descend to the level of brutality the others use. But our strength and ability to defend ourselves is what the Torah instructs us to do and is what in the end ensures we survive.