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Hirsch At Your Table

Traversing Edom

A brief Dvar Torah on the Parsha, based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary
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ויאמרו אליו בני ישראל במסילה נעלה ואם מימיך נשתה אני ומקני ונתתי מכרם רק אין דבר ברגלי אעבורה. (Nm 20:19)
Having exited the wastelands and reached inhabited countries, the Jews have made progress towards entering the land of Canaan and now require permission from various governments to continue on their way. Moshe's request of the king of Edom to permit transit over his territory is refused. The Jews request permission again, this time conditioning their travel and promising to pay for any water that is consumed while traversing Edom.

There were two routes that the Jews could use in traveling through Edom. The first was through fields/שדה, and vineyards/כרם, generally referred to as דרך המלך, the main highway. (Nm 20:17) This was the easy route that went past populated areas. The request to travel that route was refused. The second request, recorded in this verse, was much more difficult, taking the people through hills and mountains.

The word שדה is from the root ש-ד-ה which means "to produce food." The word כרם is from the root כ-ר-ם which means "to work on terrace-like terrain." The word דרך is from the root ד-ר-ך which means "to step forward."


The land given to Esav/Edom was a mountainous area. It is even called הר שעיר. This second route that was requested by Israel was the mountainous route. It required going up/נעלה, and traveling במסילה/on an uphill road, that went into and through the mountains of Seir. A major difference between this route and the main highway was the source of water. The request to travel the king's highway referred to well water/מי באר that would be common in populated areas. In the mountains, however, the water flows freely in streams. In either case the Jews were prepared to pay for any water that they or their cattle drank.

The word נעלה is from the root ע-ל-ה which means "to rise up." The word מסילה is from the root ס-ל-ל which means "to elevate." The word באר is from the root ב-א-ר which means "to clarify." Well water is clear and clean.


One could understand the offer to pay for well water, since the availability of the water required major physical effort to dig wells. However, mountainous streams flow naturally without the need for heavy human effort. Despite this, the Jews offered to pay/נתתי מכרם for that water as well. All they asked from Edom was permission to traverse their land on foot/אעבורה ברגלי.

The word מכרם is from the root מ-כ-ר which means "to sell." The word אעבורה is from the root ע-ב-ר which means "to cross to the other side." The word רגלי is from the root ר-ג-ל which means "to move step by step."


Despite this, the second route through the country is also rejected by Edom. And to emphasize that rejection, Edom mobilizes its army and comes out to confront the Jews with a major show of force. However, Israel refuses to fight them, since they had been forbidden to use any aggressive force against Edom. Edom was descended from Esav, the son of Yitzhak, and the land given to him was inviolate.


Copyright © 2014, Matityahu Clark. All Rights Reserved. This is an excerpt from the forthcoming Hirsch At Your Table, a collection of brief divrei torah based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary.
Rabbi Matityahu Clark
Served in principal/director positions throughout North America. One of the founders of the Educator's Council of America, and former president of the Council for Jewish Education. Former Director of the Board of Jewish Education of Greater Washington.
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