Peace, not war, is the path Moses pursued with the Amorites


In this week’s Torah portion the Jewish people reach the east side of the Jordan River and must pass through the land of Sichon, king of the Amorites, in order to enter Israel.

Moses sends Sichon a message asking that the Amorites let the Jewish people peacefully pass through their lands and the Jews promise not to consume any of their water or trample any of their fields. Not only do the Amorites refuse the Jewish people’s request of passage but go out to war against them.


Moses recalls the incident later in Deuteronomy, chapter two: “God said to me…I have given into your hand Sichon the Amorite, and his land; possess it, and fight him in battle….I (Moses) sent messengers out of the wilderness of Kedemoth to King Sichon with words of peace, saying, “let me pass through your land; I will go on the highway, I will neither turn to the right hand nor to the left.”

Though God commanded Moses to battle Sichon, one of the first of the Canaanite nations encountered by the Jewish people, Moses chose instead to offer peace, seemingly violating God’s command and an additional explicit command recorded later in chapter 20 of Deuteronomy: “When you come to a city to make war with it, and you shall call out peace toward it….so shall you do with the cities which are far from you. But of the cities of the peoples whom God has given to you as an inheritance (the Canaanite nations) you shall not let any soul live. You shall utterly destroy the … Amorites …. in order that you not learn to follow their corrupt ways.”

The Midrash, bothered by Moses’ apparent flouting of these Divine commands, says the following:

“Turn aside from evil and do good, seek peace and chase after it, (Psalms 34).” The Torah does not ask us to run after the commandments. If they come to our hand we must fulfill them, such as shooing away the mother bird before taking its eggs, or when we see the donkey of our enemy faltering we must help him. But with regard to peace, we must seek peace where we are and run after it in other places. For, the Jewish people did this. Even though God commanded them to make war with the Amorites they instead pursued peace with the Amorites, as it says, “And Israel sent messengers to Sichon.” (Bamidbar Rabbah, 19:27)”

The Midrash states that God even learns to pursue peace from Moses: “God commanded Moses to make war with Sichon…but Moses did not do so. Instead Moses sent messengers to offer peace. Said God to Moses, “I will nullify my words and fulfill yours.” As is says, “When you come to a city to make war with it, and you shall call out peace to it.” (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:4, Divarim Rabbah 5:13)”

We do not live in a time of peace; but Judaism here teaches us that chasing after peace is even more important than chasing after the commandments. That we must pursue peace at home in our own community and far from home in the wider world. This is what God wants and is willing to learn from humans and even change a Divine command for peace.

Shabbat Shalom, a Shabbat of peace to all.

Rabbi Hyim Shafner of Bais Abraham Congregation is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.