We read in Parashat Chukat of the request Moshe presented to the king of Edom, requesting that Benei Yisrael be allowed to pass through the kingdom’s territory on their way to the Land of Israel. The king of Edom resoundingly rejected Moshe’s request, and even mobilized an army that went out to confront Benei Yisrael, whereupon Benei Yisrael turned away and circumvented Edom’s territory (20:14-21).
Later in the Torah, in Sefer Devarim (23:8), the Torah commands, “Do not despise an Edomite, for he is your brother.” Rashi explains that one might have thought it legitimate to hold Edom in contempt for the kingdom’s fierce rejection of Benei Yisrael’s legitimate request of passage and threat of war, and so the Torah issues a specific command forbidding such contempt. Since Edomites are the descendants of Esav, the brother of Benei Yisrael’s ancestor, Yaakov, we are commanded not to treat Edom with hostility.
There is a certain irony in the fact that the Torah commands us to treat Edom as our “brothers,” despite the kingdom’s harsh treatment of our ancestors as they sought to journey through Edom’s territory. In presenting his request to the king of Edom, Moshe built upon the “brotherly” relationship between the two nations, introducing his message with the words, “So does your brother, Israel, say…” (20:14). Moshe emphasized the kinship between Israel and Edom, indicating that this relationship warranted Edom’s granting Benei Yisrael passage through its land. But Edom rejected Moshe’s plea, giving no consideration at all to the “fraternal” bond between it and Benei Yisrael. And yet (as noted by Rabbi Jonathan Ziring), despite Edom’s “non-brotherly” treatment of Benei Yisrael, the Torah commands Benei Yisrael to treat Edom in a “brotherly” fashion. The Torah here teaches us that we are to transcend the petty “tit-for-tat” response to hostility, and to uphold high ethical standards even when we feel that we ourselves are not treated at those standards. Of course, we are fully entitled and expected to defend ourselves from abusive or criminal behavior. However, we must carefully distinguish between legitimate self-defense and spiteful vindictiveness. We are to show “brotherly” concern even when it is not reciprocated, to proudly adhere to our high standards even towards those who do not appear to follow the same standards in their dealings towards us.