This is one of the more ambivalent parshiyot (portions) in the Torah. The Israelites cannot find equal emotional footing on which to stand. This is exacerbated by the deaths of both of Moshe’s siblings – Aharon and Miriam – and the negative encounters with nations neighboring Cana’an. While Moshe does his best to be patient with the people, Hashem shows no patience at all by this point in the narrative, and strikes the Israelites with a deadly plague of snakes (Bamidbar/Numbers 21:6). After this harrowing event, the people are so moved that they sing a song (21:17), showing that they understand their error, and will exhibit a more restrained composure during the remainder of their journey to Cana’an. I think that, in addition to the song, this transformation – however brief – is exhibited by the switching of one word in the text. When the Israelites approached the kingdom of Emor, we learn that Moshe sent emissaries to ask for safe passage through the land (20:14). However, after the transformation of the people, we see that, upon approaching Sichon, it is the people that send the emissaries (21:21). This is striking both because it seems unlikely that the 1-2 million people comprising the Israelites at the time came to a democratic decision (and therefore the meaning of the concept of ‘an entire people’ sending emissaries is unclear), but also because, in dealing with other nations, it would be properly assumed that the head of one nation would send emissaries to his counterpart. Unlike all the discord witnessed in the last few parshiyot, I think that the Israelites are making a strong statement that they will move forward as one cohesive unit, even in the face of potential war. It is no surprise, then, that Hashem favours the Israelites and they conquer Sichon handily (21:24-26).
United, as one
People can overcome