In this week’s Torah portion we are told to reject Moabites and Amonites from intermarrying into the Jewish faith even were they to convert. Hashem (G-d) provides two causes for this prohibition. When the Israelites were wandering through the desert and passed near Amon and Moav they did not display the courtesy of greeting them with food and drink which was a lack of gratitude for our ancestor saving the life of their ancestor. Furthermore, they hired Balaam to destroy the Jews with his supernatural power of curse!
The Commentaries asked the obvious question. If someone were to attempt mass murder, would he also be cited for not saying “please” and “thank you”?! He is guilty of a far more heinous offense and his lack of manners would not even be mentioned! Why, then, does Hashem offer the reason for the rejection of Amon and Moav, “On account of the fact that they did not greet you with food and water en route from Egypt?”
One of the answers is as follows. No man is born a criminal or mass murderer. Rather, it begins with a sense of entitlement, lack of respect for the dignity of man or a lack of understanding the importance of another individual. This may directly lead to playing practical jokes, petty thievery and eventually to wholesale genocide! It started off as a mere character flaw and snowballed into something much bigger.
The Torah is coming to portray the seriousness of a character flaw. Amon and Moav displayed a lack of gratitude and generosity which ultimately led them to attempting to wipe out an entire nation.
There was a certain rabbi who upon visiting his teacher, a great sage, would bring along his most prized disciples in order to engage in study with the sage. Once, he brought a student who was renowned as a great genius. After their meeting he privately asked his teacher, “What do you think of my great prodigy?”
The sage answered to the shock of his student, “Unfortunately, nothing will become of this boy! When he was served tea and finished drinking, I observed him sticking his fingers into the sugar on his plate and then licking his fingers. Someone with such a lack of respect and dignity will not become great.”
(To be clear, this was considered a gross lack of manners in that time and place, especially while seated before a great Torah scholar. In another culture, this might not indicate a character flaw).
The student eventually left his studies and was put in jail for committing major acts of fraud.
Of course, we all have negative traits to some extent but we must recognize the problems and strive to overcome them as a gardener uproots weeds in order for the garden to flourish.
By Rabbi Sharaga Thav