During the last year that the Jews traveled through the desert, they began advancing towards the Land of Israel. To reach their goal they had to pass through occupied lands.
The most direct option was to travel through the land of Seir, which was ruled by the King of Edom.
The Torah relates that at first Moshe sent messengers to the king of Edom with the following communication and peaceful request. “So says your brother Israel…we have gone through much hardship…our forefathers dwelled in Egypt and for many years they tormented us. We cried out to the Almighty and He sent an emissary and took us out of Egypt. We find ourselves at your border; please let us peacefully pass through; we will even stimulate your economy by purchasing your products.”
The King of Edom refused by stating, “If you pass through, my people will come up against you by the sword.”
In fact, when the people of Edom got wind that the Jews were approaching they mobilized at their border and prevented the Jews from entering. The Jews then turned to a different direction.
Let’s explore a bit of the background between the Jews and Edom. The Jewish nation’s forefather was Yaacov and his brother Aisav was the progenitor of the nation of Edom. In negotiating with the King of Edom, Moshe mentions this brotherhood.
Of course we know that Aisav hated Yaacov, so why did Moshe evoke the brotherhood?
G-d told our forefather Avraham that his descendants would be enslaved for many years and as a result they would get the Land of Israel. A prerequisite for attaining the Land of Israel was being enslaved. Moshe was telling Edom, that the Jews, not the Edomites, were entitled to Israel because they experienced the suffering, while Edom settled in Seir without such challenges.
The king of Edom did not refute that entitlement; he was concerned that his nation, due to their inborn hatred of the Jews, would not be able to hold back from attacking the Jews by the sword.
In fact, our forefather Yitzchok before conferring the patriarchal blessing to Yaacov proclaimed, ‘The voice is the voice of Yaacov’– which refers to their power of prayer and study of Torah, ‘but the hands are the hands of Aisav’ – Aisav lives by his hands, by aggression, through the means of the mighty sword.
Both of these ideas were expressed during this communication between Moshe and Edom. Moshe tells him of how the Jews cried out to G-d, and Edom states his concern that his people will come out with the sword.
Immediately after this event, the Torah speaks of the death of Aaron. Our great commentator Rashi explains that the reason Aaron died at this point is because the Jews expressed interest in connecting to Aisav’s descendants in a brotherly fashion. This weakened their spiritual protective shield and as a result Aaron succumbed.
Asks the Shem Mishmuel, G-d Himself commanded us not to reject a convert from the nation of Edom, “because Edom is your brother.” If so, what was wrong with the Jews expressing their brotherhood to Edom?
Explains the Shem Mishmuel: There are two names that our forefather had, Yaacov and Yisroel. Yaacov was the name he was given at birth, and the name Yisroel, which connotes superiority, was the name he earned due to his righteous actions and posture.
Aisav is only considered a biological brother to Yaacov in association with his birth name Yaacov. However, when the name Yisroel, which he earned due to his sterling character and righteous conduct, is used, Aisav has absolutely no connection to him or his descendants.
You will notice when the Jews communicated with Edom, they mentioned, “So said your brother Yisroel.” Since they expressed their brotherhood with Edom when using the name Yisroel – an association which does not exist – they became spiritually weakened and Aaron passed away as a result.
It is no wonder why we as a people are called ‘Bnei Yisroel,’ because through our forefather’s name, ‘Yisroel’ we were given the tools and drive to become the best we can.
We are all given a name at birth and that name certainly has an impact on our personality and Mazal. However, the name that we earn for ourselves during the course of our lives as a result of our good deeds and behavior, goodness, kindness, endeavors and spiritual accomplishments is the ultimate crown we bear, and it defines our life’s legacy!
Rabbi Dovid Saks
Director, Jewish Heritage Connection, Scranton, PA