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by Mordecai Kornfeld
of Har Nof, Jerusalem
Founder of the Dafyomi Advancement Forum

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Dedicated by Shifra Bemis on the occasion of her son Menachem reaching the age of Mitzvos, which was celebrated in Israel.

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King Sichon (the Emorite) gathered all of his people and... made war with the Jewish nation, but the Jewish nation conquered him by sword and took rule of his land.... The Jews settled in all the cities of the Emorites, in Cheshbon and all of its daughter cities.

Of this, the parable-sayers ["Moshlim"] metaphorically said, "Come (attacking armies,) to Cheshbon, the city of Sichon will be built and established (by the attacking armies); for a fire has gone forth from Cheshbon, a flame from the county of Sichon, it has eaten Or of Moav (Cheshbon was in the Or region, and was ruled by Moav at one point)... (Bamidbar 21:23-28)

What does the verse mean, "Of this, the Moshlim said, 'Come to Cheshbon...'"?

"The Moshlim" refers those who rule ("Moshlim") over their own spirits. "Come to Cheshbon": Come and make a calculation [Cheshbon] of the way of this world; weigh the loss incurred by performing a Mitzvah against its ultimate gain, and the gain accrued from performing a misdeed against its ultimate loss. "Will be built and established": If you do this you will be built on this world, and established in the world to come.

"The city [Ir] of Sichon": But if a person makes himself like a young ass [Ayir] who follows sweet talk [*Sichah* *Na*'eh], what will then be? "For a fire has gone out from Cheshbon": A fire will come out from those who make the calculation [Cheshbon] and will devour those who do not make the calculation. "A flame from the county of Sichon": from the county of the righteous, who are called trees [Sichin]. (Bava Batra 78b -- the Gemara continues to explain the following verses along a similar line of approach)

What prompted the Gemara to suggest such a brazenly unconventional translation of the above verses? Even if one could overcome the grammatical obstacles, how could such an interpretation be resolved in the context of the verses? What could the Moshlim have seen in the war of the Jews against Sichon and the Emorites that prompted them to offer such general advice about sinning and performing Mitzvot? Sichon was certainly not the first sinner that was punished in the Torah!

The Torah Temimah (Bamidbar 21:18) was so astonished by this Gemara that he proposed that there is, in fact, absolutely no connection between these words of reproof and the verses in the Torah upon which they were based. Chazal (the Sages of the Talmud and Midrash) simply had a profound insight, so they chose a verse to read it into as a mnemonic. (The Torah Temimah himself points out a problem with this approach, for which he does not offer a satisfactory solution.)

A thorough analysis of many such seemingly irreconcilable Agaddic explanations, however, reveals the following pattern. Chazal do not attach an "unnatural" meaning to a verse unless they actually learned from that verse the general message that they were trying to convey. Their *theme* is always consistent with the context of the surrounding verses in the Torah, even if their reading is not the *literal* meaning of the verse.

In the case at hand, this approach can be clearly demonstrated.


In their most literal sense, the words of the Moshlim would seem to read as an evaluation of the Jewish nation's lightning conquest of Sichon's territory. This war, it should be noted, was much more than a war against a foreign oppressor. This war represented the Jewish nation's first conquest of Eretz Yisrael.

The Mishnah tells us that Ever Hayarden (the Eastern TransJordan) is considered to be part and parcel of Eretz Yisrael. The farming laws that are unique to Eretz Yisrael, such as Shemitah, apply there as well (Shevi'it 9:2). The land of Sichon was considered part of Ever Hayarden, and upon its capture it was sanctified as Eretz Yisrael (Rashi and Tosefot Yevamot 16a -- see also Rashi Devarim 3:23, "Ba'et"). The defeat of Sichon, then, was indeed a historic moment, one for which the Jewish nation had been waiting for the last forty years.

In truth, the Jewish nation should have entered Eretz Yisrael immediately after leaving Har Sinai (Rashi, Devarim 1:2). What delayed them up was only the sin of the spies. The spies swayed the faith of the Jewish nation and persuaded them that they couldn't overcome the mighty natives of Eretz Yisael and their heavily fortified cities. Those "mighty natives," included the fearsome Sichon, king of the Emorites, who lived in one of the most strongly fortified cities, Chesbon (Rashi, Bamidbar 21:23, "Vayetze"). The Jewish nation suffered dearly for their lack of trust in Hashem and in Moshe. Rather than earn them security, their mistrust caused the demise of the entire generation and forty years of wandering in the barren desert.

On the other hand, Yehoshua, Kalev, and the younger generation showed undaunting trust in Hashem. Instead of considering the possible damage that Sichon and his mighty army could inflict upon them, they preferred to trust Hashem and depend on the ultimate gain of the one who follows His will. The benefits of their decision stand in sharp contrast to the fate of the spies. The powerful Shichon fell helpless before the Jewish nation as they entered the land of Israel, and the indigenous population offered no serious resistance to them at all!


This contrast may have inspired Chazal in their instructive words. From the results of this war, we can learn the importance of weighing the temporary gain of a misdeed, such as avoiding a confrontation with the enemy when Hashem commanded to go and fight him, against its ultimate loss -- the temporary loss incurred by a Mitzvah, such as facing Sichon and the population of Israel, against its tremendous reward. The "losses" we see in performing Mitzvot are all imaginary; ultimately, we will only gain by following the divine will. This is why the Gemara warned us at this point to make "a calculation of the way of the world."

This would also explain the reference in this Gemara to the punishment of those who follow "sweet talk." The sin of the spies, in the eyes of Chazal, was one of slander (Erchin 15a). Those who were persuaded by the spies to fear the inhabitants of Israel let themselves become drawn after the spies' hearsay. Of them, if can be said, "If a person makes himself like a young ass, who follows sweet talk...."

"A fire will come forth from those who made the calculation and will devour those who did not make the calculation." The portion that the spies and their generation would have had in Eretz Yisrael was enjoyed instead by the new generation. They inherited their portions from their fathers who were never were able to enjoy them. (Those who left Egypt were considered the rightful owners of plots in Eretz Yisrael although they never actually benefited from the portions themselves -- see Gemara Bava Batra 117a, Rashi Devarim 26:55.). Yehoshua and Kalev, too, received more than their own rightful portions. They took over the portions of the ten sinful spies besides (Rashi, Bamidbar 14:38; Bava Batra 118b). This may be what is reflected in the metaphor of "the fire of the righteous devouring the wicked." Our Rabbis were struck by the absolute futility of the spies' concerns, as reflected in Sichon's defeat. The ease with which the Jewish nation entered Eretz Yisrael stood in sharp contrast to the difficulty of the task in the eyes of the spies. This is what prompted them to deliver their strong words of admonition on these verses. The verse upon which our Sages chose to base their discourse is much more than a simple mnemonic. It is indeed a basis for their lesson!

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