In this week’s parsha (23:5), we are given two reasons for not ever marrying Ammonites or Moabites: That they (plural) did not proffer bread and water to the Israelites when they were on the journey from Egypt, and that it (singular, and hence presumably only Moav) hired Bilaam to curse them.
Many commentators wonder why not proffering bread and water is considered such a great crime (especially if – as most commentators, based on 2:29, understand it – the Moabites did give food and drink, but required payment). To strengthen the question, the order makes it sound as if this is a bigger crime than hiring Bilaam. Moreover, what we would expect to be Moav’s biggest crime – using their women to ensnare the Jews to worship their god – does not even make the list.
Hence Rashi explains that included in the proffering of bread and water was the plan with the women. Kli Yakar understands Rashi to be saying that this was in order to get the Israelites more hungry so that they would be easier prey when offered idolatrous sacrifices as food. While this answers our main concern, it does not answer a question Kli Yakar himself asks and yet does not seem to notice remaining unexplained. That is what is called “haikar chaser min ha’sefer” – which means that this is too big a part of the story to transmit only by way of a hint, given that it is completely lacking in the words.
Yet if we only work with the words, we are likely to come up with an approach that is not without its own weaknesses. For example, in order to build up the case of not giving food as something very bad, Ramban has to say that it was so specifically so for these two nations. This, because of the help that the Israelites’ ancestor Avraham had given to their ancestor Lot.
In line with Ramban, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 103b) also accepts the simple reading that the main sin was not giving bread and water. However as opposed to Ramban, there is no attempt to contextualize it and say it was the circumstances that made it so bad. Rather, the Talmud says our surprise is because we fail to appreciate the importance of this act. It reinforces this assertion by giving a counterexample and saying that just as not offering food distanced kerovim (the close) – meaning the Israelites from Ammon and Moav – in the case of Yitro offering Moshe food when they first met, it also brought rechokim (the far) close. The counterexample notwithstanding, we are still left lacking comprehension of what makes giving food so important.
However if we look closer at this passage, we may note something particularly revealing. While many understand kerovim and rechokim as referring to relatives and strangers, Rashi (on Sanhedrin) points out that Yitro was a closer relative to Moshe than the peoples of Ammon and Moav were to Israel. Hence he suggests that these two words refer to geographical proximity to, or distance from, the Land of Israel – Ammon and Moav were neighbors whereas Midian was not – rather than familial closeness. Based on this insight, I would like to suggest another way to contextualize the issue in a possibly more convincing fashion:
According to this, the problem is not because of familial debts of Ammon and Moav to Avraham, but rather because of the nature of neighborliness. Whereas people living far from each other can truly be neutral towards each other, this is simply not an option with neighbors. I am either good to my neighbor or I am automatically bad.
Just like Israel could not make a legal or familial claim to demand food from Ammon and Moav, a new neighbor cannot demand help from his neighbors in settling in. Yet it is clear to all that such help is required. That being the case, it is up to the neighbors to do what they can. Hence turning away goes from being a sign of neutrality to being an act of hostility.
As the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas correctly observed, seeing someone else creates an ethical demand that would not exist if that person were not in front of me. And I would add that the more one sees that person, the greater that demand. The neighbor is the one that puts all of our theoretical virtues to the test. Not a relative, he has no claim of kinship that predisposes us to act favorably towards him. He is simply another human being that I happen to see all the time. Hence how I treat him is ultimately how I really treat other human beings. And how I really treat human beings is one of the central measures of my loyalty to the Jewish mission in the world.