Parashat Masei, recalling the marches of the Israelites who started out from the land of Egypt toward the border of the Holy Land, calls upon all Jews to consider how we read and interpret words of Torah. After describing the marches toward the land over 40 years of wandering, and before detailing the extent of the land’s borders and how it will be apportioned amongst the tribes, the Torah speaks of the necessity of conquest. Unfortunately, as will be made clear even more so in the book of Deuteronomy that follows, the Promised Land we will inherit is inhabited by seven other nations whom we must dispossess.
In a passage known in the tradition by its first word, “VeHorashtem”, we are commanded: “you shall dispossess all the inhabitants of the land; you shall destroy all their figured objects; you shall destroy all their molten images, and you shall demolish all their cult places. And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it”. For thousands of years, sages have commented upon this teaching, and to what extent it applies in our time. In the 11th century, Rashi, understanding the context of the verse, states that “You shall dispossess the land of its inhabitants and then you shall dwell in it, that is you will be able to remain in it; but if you do not dispossess it then you will not be able to remain in it”. That is unless we expelled the inhabitants of the
land, they would lead us into idolatry and away from the Torah and we would suffer exile. Indeed, this is the story that is told in the rest of our Bible, and the explanation given for the destruction of the Temple that we recall at this time.
The 13th century sage, Moses ben Nachman (Nachmanides) suggests that the primary teaching of this passage is not about conquest of the land, but rather a positive mitzvah incumbent upon each individual of Israel to dwell in the land and inherit it. Most rabbis and sages endorsed this teaching of the mitzvah to live in the land of Israel, although there remains debate as to what political means should be taken to support that move.
With the return in the 20th century of Jews in great numbers to the land of Israel, contemporary rabbis discussed the significance of these ancient teachings of Torah and their interpretations by the sages of the Medieval period. A general consensus of these rabbis, relying on Torah and received tradition, is that there exists a command to conquer and settle the land. The next significant group suggests that it is incumbent upon all Jews to settle all the land, but only in peaceful methods. Only a minority suggests that the mitzvah of saving life (or pursuing peace) overrides the mitzvah of settling all the land.
Thus, one can see how commandments of Torah, as applied by contemporary halakhic authorities, have tremendous impact on not only the relationship of Jews to the land of Israel, but also that of Jews to the nations of the world. First, are we commanded to settle not just the land of Israel, but the entire land of Israel from the Mediterranean to the Jordan? Second, are we commanded to expel the inhabitants of the land, or at least prevent them from having any form of sovereignty over the land? Third, can the mitzvah of saving life override potentially disastrous consequences flowing from an affirmative response to the first two questions? While Israel is officially a secular democracy, rabbis who teach Torah and the communities they teach have enormous influence on governmental decisions.
Just as our ancient sages understood how to contextualize Torah teachings to ameliorate their consequences, so too should we. Remembering an overarching principle of Torah, “Chai Bahem” — we should live by these teachings. Now, more than ever, we need to work with the other peoples of the land who have settled there, to live with justice, security and peace for all.