What Would Moshe Have Done? Part One
In the year 427 B.C.E., a ship sailed from Athens for the Greek island of Mytilene, a region that had revolted against Athenian rule and lost. They had colluded with Athens’s greatest rival, Sparta. The soldiers on the warship were instructed to kill every Mytilenian and enslave every woman and child. However, back home in Athens a great debate raged whether such a harsh response was the proper strategy. Cleon, son of Cleaenetus, argued that to show mercy is to show weakness, and being perceived as weak would only invite further rebellion. Cleon insisted that Athens must project strength and determination. Diodotus, son of Eucrates, argued that the intended slaughter will only incite more desperate rebellion and convince others to fight to the bitter end rather than surrender since they would be annihilated even if they surrendered. Future conflicts would almost certainly last longer and be more costly in both lives and treasure. A vote was taken and Diodotus won the day. A quicker ship was sent to stop the warship.
We can hear echoes of Cleon and Diodotus in the commentaries reading of two stories in Parashat Chukat: Moshe backed down from a conflict with Edom, He requested permission from Edom’s king for Israel to pass through his territory and was refused. Moshe would not battle Edom, the rightful heir of Esau in the land Jacob’s brother received as his inheritance. (Numbers 20:14-21) Moshe avoided conflict with Edom only to face Sihon, king of the Amorite, a short while later. Moshe sent a similar request to Sihon: “Allow us to pass through your land.” Sihon refused and gathered his armies believing that he would successfully intimidate Israel and stop the traveling nation at his borders. Sihon was wrong. Israel fought and Sihon was destroyed. (21:21-24)
Did Sihon perceive Moshe and Israel as weak willed because of their detour around Edom and their unwillingness to fight? Would Sihon have avoided battle if Israel had warred and won against Edom?
The Cleons argue that Moshe was responsible for the conflict with Sihon because he did not project strength and determination. Diodotus and his followers supported Moshe’s actions.
We continue to debate the arguments of Cleon and Diodotus: The 2006 war in Lebanon against Hezbollah, and the recent war in Gaza against Hamas, were intended to project Israel’s unbending will and determination. What would Moshe have done? Would we have seen the Moshe who avoided battle with Edom? Or, would the Moshe who destroyed Sihon have led us into battle?
There are times when we forget that the stories of the Torah continue to resonate in practical ways on the world stage and in our lives.
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