We read in Parashat Chukat of Benei Yisrael’s request to pass through the territory of the Edomite kingdom to reach the Land of Israel, and the kingdom’s adamant refusal to grant them passage. After Edom’s initial refusal, Benei Yisrael pledged to travel only on paved roads and to pay for any water they draw from wells along the way, assuring the king that no harm would be caused. But the king of Edom still refused, and responded by mobilizing a large army and confronting Benei Yisrael (20:20). The Torah then writes, “Edom refused to allow Yisrael to pass through its territory, so Yisrael turned away from it” (20:21).
Maharil Diskin raises the question of why the Torah needed to reiterate that Edom refused to grant Benei Yisrael passage. After all, we have already been informed that Edom rejected Benei Yisrael’s request and even threatened to wage war. Why do we need to be told again that “Edom refused to allow Yisrael to pass through its territory”?
This question led Maharil Diskin to suggest a novel reading of this verse. The simple understanding is that “Yisrael turned away” from Edom upon seeing the formidable army that came to confront them. Maharil Diskin, however, explains this verse differently. He writes that the Torah specifically seeks to emphasize that Benei Yisrael journeyed away from the Edomite border immediately upon hearing of the king’s rejection of their request. Presumably, it took some time for Edom to mobilize the large army it is described as having dispatched to threaten Benei Yisrael. In truth, this time-consuming and costly process was unnecessary, because Benei Yisrael left the area immediately after “Edom refused to allow Yisrael to pass through its territory.” The kingdom Edom embarrassed itself, Maharil Diskin writes, by going through the trouble of sending a large military force to confront Benei Yisrael, because by the time the army was dispatched, Benei Yisrael were already gone. The Torah emphasizes that Benei Yisrael left the border immediately upon hearing the king’s refusal, well before they saw the Edomite soldiers, and this was a source of embarrassment to the Edomite kingdom.
It occasionally happens that we make the same mistake as Edom, wrongly misinterpreting innocent statements and actions as threats which require a hostile response. Just as the king of Edom treated Benei Yisrael’s request of passage as a provocation that necessitated strong military action, we, too, sometimes wrongly ascribe acrimonious motives to people who never intended any harm or offense. And then, like Edom, we wastefully expend valuable resources, a great deal of emotional energy, in our response. The Torah tells us of Edom’s folly to instruct that before we choose a confrontational response, we should ensure that such a response is warranted, and that we are not misinterpreting innocence as provocation.