After forty long years in the desert, the Jewish people stood poised
to conquer the Holy Land. But there were complications. Two of their
most formidable foes were untouchable. The Torah forbade the Jewish
people to attack the nations of Ammon and Moav; they had to circle
around to the north even though the direct path of invasion led through
the lands of these two nations. The Torah did, however, allow the
Jewish invaders to make threaten and intimidate Moav, as long as they
stopped short of actual combat.
Why was this special protection granted to these two implacable
foes of the Jewish people?
Our Sages find the answer in an incident that took place five
centuries earlier. During a period of famine, the Jewish patriarch
Abraham, his beautiful wife Sarah and his nephew Lot went to seek
food in Egypt. The pharaoh at that time had a roving eye. Whenever a
beautiful woman caught his fancy, he would kill her husband and take
her into his harem. Sarah caught his fancy, which led him to focus on
Abraham, who had escorted her to Egypt. Had he known Abraham was
her husband, he would have killed him on the spot, but Abraham
claimed he was her brother and was spared.
Lot was standing there when Abraham represented himself to the
pharaoh as Sarah’s brother. If Lot had said one word or made one
gesture to arouse the pharaoh’s suspicions, Abraham would have been
doomed. But Lot remained silent, and the pharaoh accepted Abraham’s
story. The Torah rewarded Lot by forbidding the Jewish people to attack
Lot’s descendants, the nations of Ammon and Moav.
The question arises: Why does the Torah protect Ammon and
Moav only from an actual assault? Why does the Torah permit threats
and other intimidating actions Moav? True, the Torah does forbid the
Jewish people to threaten and intimidate the nation of Ammon, but that
is not a reward for Lot’s actions. It is a reward for his daughter’s
to conceal the shameful paternity of her children (which is a subject for
a different discussion). Lot’s reward for his silence was limited to a
protection from assault against his descendants. Why was this so?
The commentators explain that the deficiencies in Lot’s reward
were measure for measure for the deficiencies in his act of kindness.
Lot was indeed silent when Abraham told the Egyptian pharaoh that he
was Sarah’s brother. But he did not have the sensitivity and
consideration to reassure Abraham that he could count on his silence.
He could have told Abraham, “Don’t worry. You can count on my
silence. I won’t give your secret away.” But he did not. And so,
Abraham’s heart must have been beating wildly throughout that tense
confrontation with the pharaoh. Therefore, the Torah only protects Lot’s
descendants from actual harm but not from threats and intimidation.
A rich man caught sight of a pauper sitting on a bench and decided
to invite him for dinner. But first he had some business to discuss with
an associate. A half-hour later, the business was settled. The rich man
offered the pauper a gracious invitation and brought him to his house.
He seated the pauper in a place of honor and wined and dined him like
Afterwards, the pauper thanked the rich man and prepared to
“Tell me, did I treat you kindly?” said the rich man,
“Oh, yes,” said the pauper.
“Could you have been any kinder to you than I was?”
The pauper fidgeted. “Do you want me to be honest?”
“Certainly,” said the rich man.
“Well, you could have invited me before you discussed business
with your friend. For that half hour I was afraid that I might have to go
sleep hungry tonight.”
In our own lives, we need to pay close attention not only to what we
do but also to how we do it. The full value and quality of a kind deed is
determined by considering it in its full context. Indeed, sometimes the
manner in which a kind deed is done is more important than the deed