By Rabbi Mordechai Greenberg
Rosh Yeshiva, Kerem B'Yavneh
"And Moshe sent messengers from Kadesh to the King of Edom, saying: 'This is what your brother Yisrael says – You know of all the hardships which befell us. Our fathers descended to Egypt... And the Egyptians were evil to us.'" [Bamidbar 20:14-15].
There are two questions we can ask about this. (1) Why did Moshe see fit to list the problems of the past to the King of Edom? (2) Moshe describes the nation as "your brother Yisrael." Why does he use the phrase "your brother" in this case?
Here is how the sages replied to these questions. "Moshe said, 'you know.' When G-d said to Avraham, 'You should know that your offspring will be strangers' [Bereishit 15:13], we were enslaved and you remained free. To what can this be compared? It is like two brothers, and when financial obligation appeared in their father's name one of the brothers paid it. Later, he began to make demands of his brother. He said, you know that we were both obligated for the debt but that I paid it. Therefore, do not refuse me when I come to you with requests." [Tanchuma].
Avraham was promised, "I have given the land to your offspring" [Bereishit 15:18], but exactly who is the favored offspring was not clear. Was it Yitzchak or Yishmael? Yaacov or Eisav? The answer is clear, since in the covenant with Avraham it is written, "Your offspring will be strangers in a land that is not theirs and they will be forced to work for them and they will be tortured. And the fourth generation will return here. And on that day G-d made a covenant with Avraham, saying, 'I have given this land to your offspring." [15:13-18]. And thus it is clear that the offspring who went through the melting pot of Egypt are the ones who are meant to receive a heritage in the land.
"And Eisav took his wives and his children... and he moved to a different land because of his brother Yaacov" [Bereishit 36:6]. Rashi notes, "See the Midrash Agadda: This is because of the obligation, 'your offspring will be strangers' which was relevant for the children of Yitzchak. Eisav said, I will go away from here, and I will have no part in the gift of the land which he received or in paying off the obligation."
The following is written at the end of the Torah portion of Vayishlach: "These are the chiefs of Edom, according to their dwelling places, in the lands of their heritage" [36:43]. And the next verse is the beginning of the portion of Vayeishev, "Yaacov settled in the land where his father lived." [37:1]. At this point, the saga of the descent to Egypt begins, and the decree of exile involved only Yaacov and not his brother. And that is why the promise, "I have given the land to your offspring," specifically refers only to Yaacov and not Eisav.
This explains why Moshe tells the King of Edom, "This is what your brother Yisrael says." Rashi explains that the two brothers might have been required to pay the debt of living in exile, but in the end your father – Edom – left and did not want to participate in the obligation. Therefore, "Let us pass through your land" [20:17]. You have no heritage in Eretz Yisrael, just as you did not take part in fulfilling the prior obligation.
Only the "melting pot" of suffering, enslavement, and the tribulations of exile can give a people the privilege to take possession of Eretz Yisrael. As the sages wrote, the Holy One, Blessed be He, gave Yisrael three precious gifts which are obtained only through suffering – the Torah, Eretz Yisrael, and the World to Come.