Prior in Time: Prioritized in Value

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

Moses sought safe passage through Cheshbon en route to Israel. Deuteronomy 2:26 recalls Moses sending to Sichon king of Cheshbon a peaceful message from the “Wilderness of Kidaymos.” Rashi comments:

“From the Desert of Kidaymos”: [Moses said] “Even though God did not command me to call peacefully to Sichon, I learned from the Desert of Sinai, from the Torah that preceded (kidamta) the world. For when God came to give the Torah to the Jews [in Desert Sinai], He [first] approached Esav and Ishmael [that they accept Torah]. Despite knowing they would not accept it, God still entered a conversation with them peaceably. So too, I initiated (kadima) a peaceful entreaty to Sichon.”

Another explanation of “From the Desert of Kidaymos”: [Moses said] “From You [God] Who preceded (kidamta) the world, I learned. You could have consumed Egypt with a single bolt of lightning. Rather, in a gentler manner, you sent me from the desert to Pharaoh that he free the Jews.”

What is Moses’ message of “Kadima,” that the Torah and God “preceded” the world? Without the Torah and God “preceding" the world, Moshe could have understood from God’s actions alone with Esav and Ishmael, and with Pharaoh, that lenience is proper, and thus, Moses should be lenient with Sichon. But Moshe makes “Kadimos” essential, explaining why he referred to the desert by that name. What is the lesson of  “Kadima,” of Torah and God preceding the world, and how does this guide Moses’ lenience with Sichon?

Moses understood a fundamental lesson: That which is prior, gives purpose for what is subsequent. 

What is prior in time, is so as it is prior in importance. This lesson is so important, Moses referred to the desert by this euphemism. Let’s better grasp his message… 

Air preceded the lung, thereby giving purpose to God’s creation of the lung: without air, a lung has no purpose, so the lung’s purpose is to oxygenate man’s body. Water preceded fish, giving purpose to God’s creation of gills. Torah preceded man, giving purpose to man. Had God created man and then created Torah, this would imply that man has purpose independent of Torah, which is false. The rabbis teach “He gazed at the Torah and created the world.” Meaning, Torah is the world’s blueprint. All that God created was for man to approach God and His wisdom. Torah facilitates this. Rashi teaches (Avos 2:8) that without the Jew learning Torah, God would revert the world to chaos. Talmud Avoda Zara 5a mirrors this: “The Holy One, Blessed be He, established a condition with the acts of Creation, and He said: ‘If the Jewish people accept the Torah at the revelation at Sinai, all is well and the world will continue to exist. But if they do not accept it, I will return you to the primordial state of chaos and disorder.’” 

Earth exists with the single purpose of man discovering God and following His Torah. While Moses could have derived and taught God’s ways through His acts alone towards Esav, Ishmael and Pharaoh, we would be missing the lesson that, “what is prior gives purpose.” Moses referred to the “Wilderness of “Kidaymos; Desert of Priorities” as he felt this so important that man reflects on how God ordered His creation: God and Torah preceded the universe and man. This order is revealing.  During his final days, Moses instructed the Jews that vital principles can be deduced from God’s actions, that should forge our values and our actions. God’s acts intend to teach man optimum values.

There were two eras: one before Torah and one after it. Rashi’s first explanation above addresses the world after Torah existed. Moses taught the Jews that as Torah preceded the world, it is God’s will is that man follow Torah, and therefore, “I treated Sichon in a manner to allow him to recognize Torah through the Jewish people.” The second part of Rashi explains how even prior to Torah, Moses learned from God’s “prior” existence that man who comes after God, exists only to recognize God. Thus, obliterating Pharaoh and Egypt is only a last recourse. Therefore, God applied patience and gave Pharaoh a chance to recognize Him. Despite God’s foreknowledge that Pharaoh would not acquiesce, God’s lesson was also for the world: “Nevertheless I have spared you for this purpose: in order to show you My power, and in order that My fame may resound throughout the world” (Exod. 9:16). 

“Desert of Priorities” was not the desert’s name. Moses coined this name to teach that events in the desert offer great instruction: what came prior in time, is prior in importance. Torah preceded the world, so Torah is man’s purpose. And even before Torah was given, as God preceded the world, God is the purpose of the world. Even without Torah, Man is to observe how God operates. This fundamental lesson is that reality unfolded in an order, and this meaningful order teaches values which man must embody.