As the Israelites wind their way towards the Promised Land, they need to travel through the neighboring kingdoms. Hoping to avoid conflict, they send advance messengers to the kingdom of Edom, with a request to pass through peacefully:
“Allow us, then, to cross your country. We will not pass through fields or vineyards, and we will not drink water from your wells. We will follow the king’s highway, turning off neither to the right nor to the left until we have crossed your territory” (Numbers 20:17, NJPS translation).
A large number of people could use a lot of resources, and the Israelites take pains to promise not to do so in Edom. For medieval commentators living in France, however, the promise not to drink water from the wells confused them. They did not live in a water-scarce society. So they come up with other explanations.
Rashi (1040-1105): This was what Moses meant to say: Although we have manna to eat, and a well of which to drink, (that which followed them through the wilderness), we will not drink of it, but we will buy food and water from you to your advantage.
Yosef Bechor Shor (1100s): …we will not do even the slightest injury, not even to drink from your water.
Chizkuni (1200s): Moses reassures the Edomites that the Israelites will not deprive them of water they had had to dig for, but would only drink from water which flowed in the streams coursing through their territory, water that would not be used by them anyways. These waters are not owned by anyone. (Eliyahu Monk’s translation)
Rashbam (c.1085-c.1158) also finds it necessary to help us understand why water is such a big deal: “Water was a precious commodity for nations who lived in that country” (Martin Lockshin’s translation).
Of course it seems like it should be obvious that a desert country would prize water! But sometimes our perspective is deeply rooted in our local environment.
I often wonder what the original meaning of Torah was to those who first heard or created it. Sometimes we can still figure that out, and many times the “original” meaning is lost to us because we are coming from a different place, literally or metaphorically.
But perhaps we claim our part of tradition precisely when we find ourselves stretching our imaginations to understand something that might have been perfectly obvious to the originators – that is when we too become creators of Torah, bringing new perspectives and insights to the ongoing revelation of tradition.
For more about Rashbam, see my introduction.