The Talmud manages to do what few legal systems even attempt: it integrates psychological and moral issues seamlessly with normative legal guidelines. But to appreciate the full extent of this integration, it’s important to pay attention to something that is too often left out of today’s Gemara classes: the aggadah.
This week’s Torah reading, parashat Mattot-Masai, rounds off Sefer BaMidbar (Numbers). Among the narratives of battles, conquests, and politics, we can also discern a subtle shift in divine-human relations: only in the last few parshiot do human beings begin bringing questions and requests to change the law. What brought about this change?
The Torah calls attention to two dangers facing the Israelites in their encounter with Moav. The first is the danger of cultural assimilation. A clash of cultures need not involve active enmity; it is possible for a culture to succumb to too much love just as surely as of repression. But there is a second danger as well: that of moral degradation. Israel’s encounter with Moav involved both of these pitfalls and resulted in a rift between the two nations that would not be healed for generations.