World of the Sages: Our cousins Ammon and Moab

Our sages enumerate eight places where a blessing should be recited in recognition of a miracle that occurred at that site.

Our sages enumerate eight places where a blessing should be recited in recognition of a miracle that occurred at that site (B. Brachot 54a, b). At each of these places one must give thanks and praise to the Almighty with the blessing "Blessed are You, O God, our Lord, king of the universe, who performed miracles for our ancestors in this place." The Talmud queries the blessing over one site: the pillar of salt into which Lot's wife was transformed as they fled from Sodom. The Talmud asks why we praise God for the punishment visited on Sodom and specifically the demise of Lot's wife; it would be more appropriate to mourn the destruction rather than celebrate it. Conceding that the blessing over the "Lot's wife" salt pillar is indeed different than the other seven site specific blessings, the Talmud explains: At this location we do not celebrate, we acknowledge the Almighty's judgment, reciting the standard text that is said when receiving any bad news: "Blessed are You, O God, our Lord, king of the universe, the true judge" (M. Brachot 9:2). The Talmud is unsatisfied with this answer: If there is no thanks and praise in the blessing over Lot's wife, but only somber acknowledgment, why is it included in the list of sites where praise is given? Another source is quoted that solves this problem: In truth, two blessings are recited at Lot's wife; one referring to Lot and one alluding to the fate of his wife. Over the pillar of salt the blessing recognizing divine judgment is pronounced. At the same site, however, a second blessing of praise is recited: "Blessed are You, O God, our Lord, king of the universe, who remembers the righteous." This blessing is said after considering how Lot was saved from the destruction of Sodom and its neighboring cities: And so it was when God destroyed the cities of the plain, and God remembered Abraham, so He sent Lot from amidst the upheaval, as he overturned the cities where Lot dwelled (Genesis 19:29). Lot's rescue was thanks to Abraham, thus when we see Lot's wife, we praise God for remembering Abraham and saving his nephew Lot from the destruction. Thus a trip to Lot's wife evokes mixed emotions: a solemn acknowledgment of divine justice, with a joyous vote of praise for remembering the righteous. The directive to recite two different blessings was born from these contradictory themes. This duality appeared again in the wake of Lot's escape. Despite losing his wife, Lot's getaway is successful; together with two daughters he flees to a desolate cave. Suspecting that the destruction wrought went beyond the confines of the Sodom plain, the older daughter suggests that the two girls get their father drunk and lie with him on consecutive nights. From these incestuous unions two children were born: Moab, meaning "from father" and Ben-Ami, meaning "son of my people." These two children conceived in sin would grow into the nations Moab and Ammon (see Genesis 19:30-38). Once again our response may be ambivalent: We may admire the gall of the daughters who felt it incumbent to rebuild humanity, yet we are disgusted by the depraved manner which they set about this task. Such a duality appeared in a different form during the desert years. Balak, the king of Moab, conspired against the Jewish people engaging the services of Balaam to curse them and later employing devious methods to seduce them (see Numbers 22ff). As retribution for not offering bread and water to the Jewish people who had just left Egypt, it was decided that they could never join the congregation of God (Deuteronomy 23:4-7). Yet, in recognition of our ancient familial ties, the Almighty ruled out any attack against Ammon and Moab as the Jewish people approached the Land of Israel (Deut. 2:9, 19). Moreover, the familial ties would be strengthened with the acceptance of Ruth the Moabite who merited being the progenitor of the royal Davidic line (see M. Yevamot 8:3; B. Yevamot 76b-77a). Alas, despite this connection, our sages relate how Ammon and Moab were behind the Babylonian decision to attack King David's capital city, Jerusalem (B. Sanhedrin 96b). Ammon and Moab heard the prophets of Israel prophesying the destruction of Jerusalem. They sent a message to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon: "Leave and come!" indicating that the time was right for the conquest of the Land of Israel. Nebuchadnezzar tarried: "I am afraid, lest they do to me what they did to those who came before me," referring to the miracles that the Almighty had performed for the Jewish people. Ammon and Moab were not to be deterred: "For the man is not in his house" (Proverbs 7:19), metaphorically indicating that God's protective presence had departed. Nebuchadnezzar was unconvinced: "Perhaps He is near and He will come to protect them in a time of need." "He has gone on a distant journey" (ibid), they replied. "They have righteous people who will pray for mercy and bring Him back," worried Nebuchadnezzar. Referring to the righteous Ammon and Moab replied, "He has taken the bundle of silver with Him" (ibid). "The wicked may repent," suggested Nebuchadnezzar. Ammon and Moab reassured him that the chance for repentance had passed. But Nebuchadnezzar still tried to balk, "It is winter and I cannot come because of the snow and the rain." Ammon and Moab promptly suggested an alternative route. "If I come, I will have nowhere to stay," responded Nebuchadnezzar. "Their cave graves are better than your palaces!" that is, there is ample place to lodge your forces, explained Ammon and Moab. Nebuchadnezzar eventually acquiesced to their urgings and attacked the capital. Thus the legacy of the descendants of Lot, our cousins and neighbors, Ammon and Moab, echoes throughout our history, reverberating with duality: They displayed a devious and corrupt capability for facilitating destruction, yet this tendency has been coupled with a potential for brotherhood and ultimate salvation, for a messianic era of peace and tranquility. It is this familial tie that we so pine for. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.