“Neither an Amoni nor a Moavi can enter G-d’s congregation” (D’varim 23:4). Why not? “Because of the matter that they did not offer you bread and water on the way when you came out of Egypt, and because they hired Bilam the son of B’or to curse you” (23:5). There are several issues that can be raised regarding the reasons given for not allowing any (male) member of these two nations to convert to Judaism (even if this law no longer has any practical application; see B’rachos 28a). Let’s start with one raised by numerous commentators: How can it be said that Moav didn’t offer us bread and water, if included in the message sent to Sichone (D’varim 2:28-29) was that Moav sold us food and drink?
Among the answers suggested is distinguishing between selling us food and water and offering it to us as a measure of gratitude for what our ancestor (Avraham) did for theirs (Lot), which included raising him after his father died, rescuing him when he was captured in the war of the kings, and praying for him and thereby saving him (and his daughters) when Sodom was destroyed (see Chizkuni and S’fornu). Another widely given answer (see Ramban and Rosh) is that the two reasons given do not apply to both nations, but one to each, with Amon not allowed to convert because they didn’t offer food/drink and Moav not allowed to convert because they hired Bilam. If not offering food doesn’t apply to Moav, it doesn’t contradict the notion that they did sell us food. Nevertheless, there are other issues that these approaches do not address, and resolving them may help resolve this issue as well.
For one thing, the words “on the matter of,” which refer to devising a plan of action (see Torah T’mimah, D’varim 23:27), are usually associated with Bilam’s advice to Balak (see Rashi on Bamidbar 31:16), so, if anything, should be attached to the second part of the verse (hiring Bilam, which was also part of a “plan” to weaken or destroy the Children of Israel) rather than to the first. What kind of “plan” was necessary to not show gratitude towards the descendants of the person who saved their ancestor? [Kli Yakar suggests that the “plan” was not to offer food and drink for free, but make them come buy it from them, at which point they could try to seduce them to worship their deity. I’m not sure why, if they thought they had something worthwhile to sell, it would be less likely to get them to sin if it was offered to them for free rather than making them buy it. Did making them pay for it make it seem more valuable, and therefore more enticing? Additionally, it is only the males who cannot convert, not the females, because they weren’t responsible for either of these things. But if the verse is alluding to selling instead of giving because it was part of the enticement, since the females did the enticing, why are they excluded? (Although there are answers given for this question, or one similar to it, it is still awkward to refer to the enticement when it was done by the women and the prohibition doesn’t apply to them.)]
Another issue is the change from the plural (“they did not offer bread and water”) to the singular (“hired”). [This is one of the arguments presented to counter the suggestion that only Amon was taken to task for not offering food and drink.] The simplest, most straightforward explanation for this change is that Balak was only the king of Moav, not Amon, so the hiring of Bilam could only be attributed to Moav, whereas both nations were guilty of not offering food and drink. However, if this applied to both, and was reason enough to not allow them to convert, why even mention something that only applies to one?
Finally, the expression “on the way, when you left Egypt” is out of place if describing something that occurred in the 40th year in the desert. Although it does tell us why they should have considered offering us food (we were traveling, and hadn’t reached our new home yet), by then we didn’t need any food or drink, since G-d provided everything for us. [And this wasn’t a secret, as Moshe’s message to Edom (Bamidbar 20:17) included not needing any of their provisions, a message likely conveyed to Moav when the message was sent to them at the same time (see https://rabbidmk.wordpress.com/2010/06/24/parashas-balak-5770/). Yes, we offered to buy food if they wanted us to, but that was only to give them a financial incentive to let us travel through their land.]
This same exact expression appears only two other times in Tanach, both in this Parasha. We are told to “remember what Hashem, your G-d, did to Miriam on the way when you left Egypt” (24:9), and to “remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you left Egypt” (25:17). In both cases, the expression conveys the severity of what we are told to remember. G-d punished Miriam despite it causing us to wait an extra seven days before continuing our travels (Bamidbar 12:15), even though we were “on the road, having recently left Egypt,” and anxious to get to our destination, so her sin must have been one that needs to be taken seriously. And Amalek’s attack was more atrocious since it was done when we had just left Egypt, and were more vulnerable as we began our journey. It would follow, then, that the expression “on the way when you left Egypt” in the context of Amon and Moav has a similar implication, that it made the lack of offering us food and drink worse, and took place shortly after we left Egypt (as opposed to 40 years later, see Meshech Chuchmuh and Akeidas Yitzchak).
It was well known that we were slaves in Egypt, and also well known, including by the “mighty of Moav” (Sh’mos 15:15), when G-d took us out. [It should be noted that at that time, until Sichone conquered land from Moav, Amon and Moav weren’t separate countries, but one country for all of Lot’s descendants, with a province where those who came from “Ben-Ami,” the “B’nay Amon,” lived; see Malbim on D’varim 23:4.] Our leaving Egypt should have been of much significance to these cousins of ours, since Lot had been in Egypt with Avraham, and when he left with him became a man of great wealth (B’reishis 13:5). Hearing about our redemption must have had a profound impact on them (as the verse referenced above testifies), but knowing that we had just crossed the sea into the wilderness also had to make them wonder how we could survive. What should they do? Should they let us starve and wither away in the desert, or remember what our ancestor did for theirs and bring us provisions?
This was a major topic of discussion not only among the leaders of Amon/Moav, but among the general populace as well, as any individual so inclined could have brought us bread and water. But they didn’t. They decided that rather than showing gratitude towards Avraham and acknowledging what he did for Lot, which allowed them to become a nation (including living on Land given to them because of Avraham), they would stay home and let this new emerging nation suffer, and perhaps perish, in the harsh wilderness. Even though their country was very far away, it was an issue they grappled with, and made a decision about (both collectively and individually).
“Not offering us bread and water” is considered a “matter” because they made a conscious decision not to help us, a decision reached by all those who lived in what became (by the time Moshe addressed us at Arvos Moav) the lands of Amon and Moav, making the prohibition against accepting them as full converts apply to both (hence the plural form). It was a decision reached shortly after we left Egypt, during the same time frame as the other two “on the way when you left Egypt” verses. (As opposed to hiring Bilam, which was in the 40th year.) The hiring of Bilam proved that nothing had changed in the 40 years since that decision had been reached, and rather than accepting that we are G-d’s “treasured nation,” they hired a sorcerer to try to uproot us. True, it was only Moav (hence the singular form) that hired him, but not because Amon didn’t share the same sentiment; they had become separate countries and it was Balak, the king of Moav, who, as an agent of the people of his country, hired Bilam. But Amon hadn’t changed either (as evidenced by the grudge they still held generations later, see Shoftim 11:13), and never would, so G-d didn’t allow men from either nation to be accepted as full converts.
Once we have established that the “not offering bread and water” refers to shortly after we came out of Egypt, even if Moav did sell us food and drink 40 years later, it was the earlier decision that illustrated what kind of people they were, that they didn’t belong in “G-d’s congregation.”