Making peace with former enemies is never an easy thing. And among its most difficult components is for nations to put aside past grievances. As until nations are prepared to do this, any agreement established by its leaders will remain fragile.
Being Esav’s descendants, the nation of Edom is naturally ill-favored towards Israel. Though Ya’akov and Esav come to some sort of reconciliation when Yaakov comes back from Lavan, it does not settle all their outstanding disagreements. Nor does it seem to erase all the bad memories. And these bad memories almost certainly went both ways. While Esav’s anger over Yaakov taking his birthright and blessing is more explicit, Yaakov must certainly have borne strong ill feelings about the past. One can easily imagine that with every additional suffering inflicted upon Yaakov in the house of Lavan, the brother responsible for this exile became the subject of additional and more intense resentment.
The story of Israel’s negotiations with Edom to pass through its land (Bemidbar 20:14-21) is the first explicit interaction between the descendants of the two brothers. And if you read carefully, several unusual details will help you understand what actually happened. One such detail is that the parties to the negotiations appear to change midway: Moshe first sends official messengers to the king of Edom with the proposal that the Jews go through his country with as little disruption as possible. This will be done by taking the King’s Road. When this is rejected, however, we read that it is the Children of Israel who bring a different proposal. Their offer entails payment for whatever water they should consume along the way. Together with this suggestion is the stipulation that Israel will travel along the messilah, understood by many to be a more isolated backroad. (Moreover, the Torah only tells us that Edom responded, not the king of Edom. While it can be explained otherwise, this may be indicating a similar change on the other side of the negotiating table as well.)
Why did Israel change its negotiating team? Seforno posits that the second proposal implies that the problem with the first one was the proximity the Jews would have to the many Edomites living and working near the King’s Road. This would bring about an almost infinite number of minor interactions, any of which could sour and easily lead to a major conflagration. I believe this explains why it is the Children of Israel who respond. A popular delegation meets the king of Edom to show that Moshe’s goodwill is matched by that of his people. Like Moshe, they see the Esav’s descendants as their brothers, Hence they try to convince Edom that are highly unlikely to pick any sort of fight with Edomites they might encounter on the road. Yet to be on the safe side, they indicate their willingness to take a more isolated route that will minimize contact between the two nations. Nonetheless, if popular sentiment in Israel had become conducive for friendly relations, the same could not be said about the Edomites; and so they found even the limited contact of a back road to be too risky.
It should be noted that the Jewish people did not have to engage Edom at all. Just as they found an alternative route when negotiations failed, they could have taken such a route to begin with. Granted, it was less convenient. But anyone who flies El Al to the Far East knows that inconvenient and more expensive detours are a reality that comes with the impossibility of being on good terms with everyone. Yet in spite of the fact that it was not a given, Israel took the more courageous and constructive option of confronting its former enemy with an offer of brotherhood.
It is true that Israel had more to gain in the immediate future. Still, being on good terms with an ascendant Israel that seemed to inspire fear among everybody else in the region would likely be in Edom’s interests as well. Of course, trust is always an issue: Edom would only benefit from such an alliance if it could know that Israel would not stab it in the back. But these type of fears are always the flipside of negotiations with a former enemy.
Though Edom’s entrenched and counterproductive belligerence prevents the negotiations from going anywhere, there are at least two valuable lessons modeled by Moshe and the Jewish people. The first is the more obvious need to put old resentments behind and find a way to work together with those with which we have some common ground (in this case, the family relationship). The second lesson, however, is more subtle, and only seen in the details. And that is that peace can only be secured and finalized when it takes root on the popular level. Seforno’s astute insight into Edom’s reaction brings home the point that governments can only begin the move towards better relations. For them to be finalized – such that not every minor incident has the potential to bring back a state of conflict or war – requires efforts to be made by the respective peoples as well.