Hard Shells 1
Sichon and Og loom as large today as they must have to the generation of Bnei Yisrael that encountered them. Thousands of years later, the attention lavished upon them by the Torah tells us that they represent something well beyond two much-feared leaders of antiquity.
This attention is confusing. Assume for the sake of argument that Sichon and Og are somehow symbols or representatives of a larger class of objects, and that this class includes members in all times an places. These assumptions would keep references to Sichon and Og fresh and vital, as pointers to people or things that are part of our immediate world as well.
They would not, however, explain Tehilim 136. “To Him Who smote great kings, for His kindness is forever. And slew mighty kings, for His kindness is forever.”2 Here, the psukim first speak of the larger, more inclusive class, and only then revert to the familiar exemplars: “Sichon, king of the Emori…and Og, king of Bashan.”3 Symbols help take us from the specific to the general; here we move from the general back to the specific. Somehow, Sichon and Og must represent something in excess of great and ominous powers.
The mystery spills over to our parshah as well.” After he had smitten Sichon, king of the Emori, who dwelled in Cheshbon, and Og…Moshe began explaining the Torah.”4 It was wise and prudent for Moshe to wait until his popularity crested before rebuking the community.5 If the sole or chief function of Devarim were rebuke, it is perfectly reasonable to link Moshe’s valedictory address with his recent victory over Sichon and Og that extended the borders of the future Israel. Why, however, present Sichon and Og as precursors to a different function of Devarim – Moshe’s fuller explanation of the Torah to the generation from which he was taking leave?
We have long come to associate kelipos with kedushah. Where kedushah might be found, kelipos block us, frustrate us, shrivel the hand that reaches out to touch it. In regard to the latent holiness of Eretz Yisrael, Sichon and Og represent the most formidable and compelling kelipos, the final barriers that would try to keep us from achieving our goal. (This is what Chazal meant in describing them as the two guardians positioned on the threshold of Israel, safeguarding the evil seven nations who dwelled within.) Being as strong as they were, these kelipos could not be surmounted by anyone other than Moshe. For this reason, it was Moshe himself who had to tame and subdue them. The Torah mentions them so often because of this special role; the gates to understanding Moshe’s explanation of the Torah were sealed by these kelipos, and therefore needed to be removed before he began.
The larger role of these kelipos is familiar to anyone who travels on a path towards greatness. So often we find ourselves poised to take the spiritual trophy, only to be blocked by a last, unexpected obstacle. (Our earliest national history parallels this. Shortly after we began to take the first steps in our spiritual journey, we rose to the level of singing shirah – but only after “Yisrael saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.”6Mitzrayim is also frequently seen as a powerful kelipah, preventing the connection of Klal Yisrael with its Maker. The kelipah had to be utterly destroyed before the spiritual forces with Bnei Yisrael could emerge unfettered and express themselves in the Song of the Sea.)
Just what is this kelipah of Sichon and Og? The Besht’s explanation of a related concept may help us understand it. “You shall cut away the orlah of your heart,” 7 Moshe instructs his people. Rashi renders this orlah as “that which stops up your heart and covers it.” The Besht observe that a stopper and a cover are far from synonymous. Rather, the orlah created by sin manifests itself in two ways. First, it introduces a kind of spiritual sludge, which stops up the heart. Every transgression causes a spiritual failing and fault which reduces the efficiency of our inner spiritual machinery.
The aftermath of sin also covers up the heart. It encases it with a shell that makes it impervious to the words of Torah and mussar that ordinarily penetrate deeply. These words would ordinarily be the greater part of the solution to the first problem. If the words cannot enter the heart, they are not there to unclog it. Not coincidentally do three signs of the elevation of the Jewish people appear in a single moment. The beginning of Devarim marks the point that, first and foremost, they have grown sufficiently to be able to utilize the holiness of Eretz Yisrael. At exactly the same time, they have also achieved sufficient stature to absorb two varieties of Torah content that were unknown to them earlier. One of them is rebuke. Moshe’s long monologue of leave-taking contains long passages of sustained tongue-lashing, something to which not all people are capable of listening. A second new element of Devarim is the emphasis on certain mitzvos of overarching importance. Recurring in this Chumash are two incredibly important mitzvos: love of Hashem, and reverence for Him. All of these developments are linked to the conquest of Sichon and Og. Once the obstacles that they represent were removed, Bnei Yisrael become the beneficiaries of a variety of spiritual rewards.
The territory of Sichon and Og turned out to be the threshold of Israel, the staging ground from which Bnei Yisrael would enter into a land of kedushah. It is analogous to the function of the courtyard in the Temple, through which a person could enter the Temple building, and from it – the Kodesh – he could enter the Kodesh Kodoshim, the Holy of Holies.
The Azarah courtyard distinguished itself through the large altar, host to a constant flame. This flame, then, can be taken as a prerequisite to further growth and elevation. It was a flame-that-consumed-flame. The different regions of the Temple correspond to the parts of a human being: his outer limbs, his heart, and his brain. The latter parts cannot be elevated without addressing the foibles of the former. The outer courtyard, corresponding to Man’s outer limbs, features the eternal fire on the altar. It suggests that our fiery passions serve as obstacles and barriers to our elevation, and that fire can only be opposed by fire. The only long-term antidote to the fire of our passions and desires is the reciprocal fire of kedushah. In our personal journey to greater spiritual significance, the first step is to get past the fire of our physical temptations. We remain stopped up, covered and blinded to the truth until this happens.
“Sichon, King of Cheshbon, was not willing to let us pass through, for Hashem…hardened his spirit and made his heart stubborn, in order to given him into your hand.”8 We sometimes prevail over the forces that oppose or constrain us. We free ourselves from their influence for the moment, but they live on for another day. This approach therefore fails in the long- term. We could have handed Sichon a terrible – but not necessarily fatal – blow. Hashem saw this as insufficient. He therefore hardened his heart, so that we could utterly destroy his kelipah, that it might never plague us again.
Such is the nature of the avodah He requires of us. It is good to prevail over the yetzer hora, but not good enough. We are to persist until we break our personal kelipos entirely.
The story of Rav Amram Chasida9 nicely illustrates this. Caught in the vise-grip of an upswelling of yetzer hora, Rav Amram found himself incapable of fleeing, yet unwilling to submit. Glued to a position in between, he could not one way or another without calling for help. Disregarding the embarrassment this would cause him, he shouted, “There is a fire in the house of Amram!” The townspeople extricated him from the temptation that presented itself.
This incident certainly speaks well of the saintliness of Rav Amram. Yet, it is not the end of the story. Rav Amram was not satisfied, despite the success of its outcome so far. He pushed further. He adjured the yetzer hora to exit. It complied, taking the form of a giant pillar of fire. Rav Amram recognized that our avodah demands a take-no-prisoners stance against our personal weaknesses and faults. We are charged to eradicate them, to destroy the kelipah.
Where should we look for our personal kelipah? Sichon and Og situated themselves like fortresses, blocking entry into the land of Israel. Each of us has our own fortresses, marking the path to greater elevation. The brain and heart are the gatekeepers to the performance of all mitzvos. Any kelipos surrounding them must not only be penetrated, but neutralized and carted away. These fortresses must be secured entirely for the service of Hashem. This is the essential avodah of every Jew.
1 Based on Nesivos Shalom pgs. 11-13
2 Tehilim 136:17-18
3 Ibid. 19-20
4 Devarim 1:4-5
5 See Rashi
6 Shemos 14:30
7 Devarim 10:16
8 Devarim 2:30
9 Kiddushin 81A
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein and Torah.org