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Hirsch At Your Table

Sichon Conquers Moav

A brief Dvar Torah on the Parsha, based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary


Rabbi Matityahu Clark

אוי לך מואב אבדת עם כמוש נתן בניו פליטים ובנותיו בשבית למלך אמורי סיחון. ונירם אבד חשבון עד דיבן ונשים עד נופח אשר עד מידבא. (Nm 21:29-30)
In relating the events in the area of the Middle East as the people of Israel were approaching the borders of the land of Canaan, the Torah discusses the defeat of Moav at the hands of Sichon the king of the Amori. That defeat turned the children of Moav into fugitives and prisoners. That defeat also resulted in major destruction of important cities in the area.

Hirsch provides an interesting history lesson in the politics and struggles of the era. Amon and Moav were descendents of Lot, Avraham's nephew. God promised these lands to Lot and his descendents. As such, Israel was forbidden to attack them. When these two nations refused Israel's request to pass through their lands to get to the land of Canaan, Israel was forced to go around them.

However, when it came to the Amori under King Sichon, a neighbor both to Amon and Moav, Israel was not faced with any such compunctions or limitations. The more powerful Amori under Sichon at first annexed only parts of their neighbor's territory. This first grab included the city of Cheshbon, which became a major Amorite center. For all practical purposes, Moav and Amon became satellites of Sichon's kingdom. Thus, when Israel conquered Sichon's Amori army, Amon and Moav automatically came under Israel's control, without Israel being forced directly to fight Lot’s descendants.

The Torah brings in these verses, the poetic description of the sage chroniclers, who describe Moav's defeat/אבדת and subjugation, lamenting the fleeing/פליטים and captivity/שבית of the youth of the nation. The poetic description continues to describe the defeat of the major cities and their destruction in the second verse. There is a difference of opinion among commentators as to who is responsible for these defeats and destruction.

The word אבדת is from the root א-ב-ד which means "to lose a valuable possession." The word פליטים is from the root פ-ל-ט which means "to escape." The word שבית is from the root ש-ב-ה which means "to capture."

The defeat and destruction of these cities are described by two words, ונירם and ונשים.
All commentators look to the meanings of these two difficult words to determine who did what to the cities of Moav. According to Hirsch, Israel was actually responsible for the defeat. Despite the divine injunction against fighting Moav, Israel pulled the strings that resulted in Sichon conquering Moav. Hirsch comes to this conclusion after analyzing those two words. He says that the two words can be interpreted in two different ways.

Hirsch's first approach is to designate the prefix נון in each of the words as indicating the future tense verb in the first person plural: we/אנחנו. According to this approach the root of ונירם is י-ר-ה, which means "to shoot," and the root of נשים is ש-מ-ם, meaning "to lay waste". Despite God's directive not to make war on the descendents of Lot, Israel indeed was responsible for Moav's downfall and destruction. The word structure indicates how it was done. The word ונירם has the suffix מם which usually means "them." Thus, the meaning of the word would be: We (Israel) forced them (Amor) to do our bidding. Similarly the root ש-מ-ם in the causative form/הפעיל means to cause someone or something to destroy. The prefix נון before this root again connotes "we". Hirsch explains these words indicate that Israel pushed Sichon to conquer Moav. Since Israel was not allowed to fight Moav directly, they pushed Sichon to do it in their stead.

A second possible approach retains the meaning of ונירם as indicating that Israel was indirectly responsible for the overthrow of Moav. However, Hirsch suggests that the word נשים may have a different root and a different meaning. The root of the word can also be נ-ש-ה, which means "to obligate." According to this interpretation, the word נשים reinforces the word ונירם. Israel made Sichon a type of creditor on their behalf. The Amori went to war on behalf of Israel as a kind of messenger sent to do a task that Israel was forbidden to do. However one may analyze these words, both approaches paint Israel as a behind-the-scenes manipulator who was able to conquer Moav via the conquest of Emor. Chazal describe this phenomenon as עמון ומואב טיהרו בסיחון—"Amon and Moav were ‘purified’ by Sichon" (Babylonian Talmud, Chulin 60b ).

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.
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