Shabbat Parashat Chukat| 5764
The Song of the MoshlimHarav Yosef Carmel
Toward the end of the parasha, we find a difficult, poetic portion, which talks about the destruction that occurred in Moavite territory (Bamidbar 21:27-30). The “song” begins with the words, “About this the moshlim said.” We need to understand who these moshlim were and what they were singing about. What connection did it have to Bnei Yisrael (it seems to just talk about the nations of Sichon the Emorite and Moav)? Is it connected to another song mentioned soon before, the Song of the Well (ibid. 17-20) and, if so, how?
The gemara (Bava Batra 78b) learns homileticly (drash), that the word moshlim refers to those who have dominion (one meaning of the word) over their evil inclinations. While this does not appear to be the simple explanation (pshat), we will see that there is a connection between the drash and pshat.
Rashi, Rashbam, and Ramban explain that the moshlim were prophets, such as Bilam, who spoke in parable form. They referred to the period of the wars of Sichon against the Moavites and Ammonites, when our forefathers were enslaved in Egypt. These wars had significant impact on Bnei Yisrael, who were forbidden to attack or take land from these nations of “cousins” (the sons of Lot). The Torah reports that Bnei Yisrael took hold of the cities east of the Jordan, which they captured from Sichon, king of the Emorites. The p’sukim go on to explain that much of this area was “purified” by Sichon when he, not we, took the lands from Moav and Ammon (Gittin 38a).
Yeshaya 15, 16 contain a prophecy, known as “Masa Moav,” which describes Moav’s conquest at the hands of a ruthless attacker. The deep state of mourning over their losses, which overcame the Moavites, is described at length. Yeshaya sums it up with the words, “These are the words that Hashem spoke to Moav from then” (ibid. 16:13). Continuing on to Yirmiya, one sees a further, more elaborate description of the same set of events. They conclude with words that mirror the Torah’s words in our parasha.
So the same song of the moshlim seems to appear three times in Tanach, with the most succinct version being, appropriately, in the Torah. It tells of a ruthless attack, which took the lives of women and children and did not spare the landscape of the Land of Moav, which became a wasteland. When Bnei Yisrael entered the region, they, as sons of the merciful Avraham, did not employ such ruthlessness. In the context of these events, Bnei Yisrael sang not of destruction but of the well which came with them. This well of water, on all the different levels implied, turned a land of desolation into one fit for inhabitation. The message that they brought was of development and causing the desert to blossom, both on the ecological and the spiritual plane.
So both the literal and homiletic approaches are correct and complement each other. The songs are a tribute to those who control their evil inclinations with values and ethics even in the face of a struggle to survive against the 70 wolves and when taking hold of their Land. This, too, is one of the important messages of the period after the exodus from Egypt to future generations.
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