Devarim 5767 – go up and possess the land; but what about the inhabitants?

"Behold, the Lord your God has set the land before you; go up and possess it, as the Lord God of your fathers has said to you; fear not, nor be discouraged."  …Deuteronomy 1:21

God commands the Jewish people to "alah," to make aliyah, to "go up" to the land of Israel – and to possess it.   Last year I gave a d’var Torah on parshat Behar where I weighed in with my opinion that it is indeed one of the 613 commandments to make aliyah – to move to Israel (click here to read it).

This week’s Torah portion, Devarim, contains one of many references to the subject in the Torah.  In the introductory section of Moses’ final discourse to the people we are told "Behold, the Lord your God has set the land before you; go up and possess it, as the Lord God of your fathers has said to you; fear not, nor be discouraged."  Don’t be afraid, don’t worry about those strong people living there, just go up to Israel, have faith in God, and everything will be OK.  God’s on your side.

Devarim has several verses which are, shall we say, somewhat troubling to those of us who favor living in peace with the Palestinians. There are variety of verses which in no uncertain terms record how God delivered many of the kings of the region into our hands:

"Rise, take your journey, and pass over the brook Arnon; behold, I have given into your hand Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon, and his land; begin to possess it, and contend with him in battle." …Deuteronomy 2:24

"From Aroer, which is by the edge of the brook of Arnon, and from the city that is by the brook, as far as Gilead, there was not one city too strong for us; the Lord our God delivered all to us." …Deuteronomy 2:36

"So the Lord our God delivered into our hands Og also, the king of Bashan, and all his people; and we struck him until none was left remaining. And we took all his cities at that time, there was not a city which we took not from them, sixty cities, all the region of Argob, the kingdom of Og in Bashan. All these cities were fortified with high walls, gates, and bars; beside unwalled towns a great many. And we completely destroyed them, as we did to Sihon king of Heshbon, completely destroying the men, women, and children, of every city." …Deuteronomy 3:3

And last but not least, just in case there was any concern remaining – "You shall not fear them; for the Lord your God shall fight for you." …Deuteronomy 3:22

Wow. Seems like a pretty compelling argument that what God is telling us to do is to drive out or kill all the inhabitants. Doesn’t sit very well with the idea of establishing a modern liberal democracy that lives at peace with minorities and neighbors.

But I would suggest that we can read this week’s Torah portion differently. In fact, I read it as seeing God commanding us to find a "2-state solution" with the Palestinians.

Yes, God tells us to go out and conquer stuff. But in this week’s Torah reading, God also tells us to stay away from certain places. Chapter 2 verse 9 tells us "And the Lord said to me, Distress not the Moabites, neither contend with them in battle; for I will not give you of their land for a possession; because I have given Ar to the sons of Lot for a possession."

We have our land; God gave other land to other people. Why? Perhaps because a single bi-national state in this part of the world was as difficult to create over 3000 years ago as it would be to create today. There are some serious differences between the peoples living in this part of the world. We are perhaps not quite ready to be forced together into a single state. We each need our own space.

Now all the people our ancestors were commanded to kick out were evil idol worshippers. At least that’s how they are presented. Pretty much all rabbinic authorities agree that the Muslims are not idol worshipers. Some may say they rebel against God because of their struggle against the Jews, but personally, I find that somewhat a stretch. And they are definitely NOT one of the seven Canaanite nations that we are commanded to remove from the land – the rabbis again are relatively unanimous on this point, that the seven nations no longer exist.

But if it’s a commandment to make aliyah, to move to Israel, how do we determine what that means? Do we have to try and keep every inch God promised our ancestors? Or do we compromise on the territory?

There have always been compromises on the territory of Israel. The Book of Kings tells us "And Hiram the king of Tyre had furnished Solomon with cedar trees and cypress trees, and with gold, according to all his desire, that then king Solomon gave Hiram twenty cities in the land of Galilee." King Solomon, the wisest king ever to rule over Israel, traded away land in the Galilee for materials to build the Temple—and presumably for peace with Lebanon.

But how much to give away and how much to keep? This week is Shabbat Chazon, the "Shabbat of the Vision." The vision for the week is a very negative vision : the prophet Isaiah’s vision of the destruction of Jerusalem, the punishment we recall next week on Tisha b’Av, the ninth of Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. Isaiah’s vision – and the subsequent reality – remind us of the dangers of hubris, of being so convinced God is on our side that we can do no wrong. We don’t have prophets anymore – God is forcing us to figure it out on our own.

We could certainly use some good prophets right now—not necessarily ones that will go around foretelling our destruction, we have enough of those—but rather prophets who will be leaders of the nation, prophets who have not just a vision for peace, but some real solid ideas on how to make it happen, as well as the strength, the courage, and the political savvy to bring it all about.

Alas, such visionaries seem to be in short supply on both sides of the ocean…that’s why we need to keep praying!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rav Baruch

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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