I was asked a very straight forward question this week: If the Israelites were guided through the desert with the Clouds of Glory, why did Moshe ask the Edomites if they could pass through their land on the way to Israel? (See this week’s Sedra 20:14) Surely they should have just followed where the Clouds went, which in this instance was down South in order to circumnavigate Edom and enter Israel from the East of the River Jordan. So who was leading the Israelites, Moshe or the Clouds of Glory?
The strange thing is, that in over 30 years of learning that Sedra, and repeating it every single year, I had never been struck by that thought. I read it and just took it for granted that Moshe asked the Edomites, who then refused to grant permission. I may have been blinded by this very early example of anti-Semitism, or possibly just not curious enough.
My questioner was much like Albert Einstein, who is rumoured to have credited his amazing plethora of scientific discoveries on the fact that he was a slow developer as a young child. Thus when he was introduced to complicated topics later on in life, he couldn’t fall back on the conventional wisdom that everyone else had absorbed as children, but instead had to analyse them from a fresh point and with a more mature brain. If one learns Chumash properly for the first time as an adult, then you look at it with a mature brain and ask those questions.
I now had to think; why indeed did Moshe ask for permission? I was forced to relearn the Sedra, to look at it with a critical eye and not just read the Hebrew as a story. Either we were led by the Clouds of Glory and were blindly following the directions set for us by Hashem, or we were being led by Moshe and relying on his navigational, and in this instance ambassadorial, skills.
I have not yet come across an answer in any of the Biblical commentators, (possibly because there is a simple explanation that I have just not considered!) but I would like to suggest my own answer, and one that struck me from the very fact that I had never been bothered by the question in the first place.
At this point the Israelites were literally on the border of the Promised Land, their 40 years of wandering were up and they were about to make the transition from the generation of the desert to the generation of Israel. It was time for them to grow up. For the last 40 years they had been led with the Clouds of Glory, much like little children (we were called the Children of Israel!) but now it was time to look at the situation as adults and use our own skills, in this case as showcased by Moshe. It was now our own responsibility to discover our path through life. How indeed do we enter into the Land of Israel? How do we deal when confronted by an intransigent adversary? Does every problem need to be cracked or are we sometimes better off detouring in order to avoid them?
Learning Chumash in Cheder and even in Yeshiva, I was being led by my teachers but now I am being led by my students – and lucky am I. For that forces me to look at the text once again and ask the questions, analyse it and come to a deeper understanding and appreciation. Much like everything else in life.