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Vayetze 5772

Adapted from a talk I gave at the opening of the Human Rights Beit Midrash at Hebrew University.

And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie, to you will I give it, and to your seed; And your seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south; and in you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.  …Genesis 28:13-14

This week’s Torah portion contains a three part promise from God to Jacob: 

  1. To give to him and his descendants the land on which he is laying
  2. That his descendants will be as “the dust of the earth”
  3. That through him and his descendants all the families of the earth will be blessed. 


Regarding the first part of the promise, what does it mean that God is giving him “the land on which you lay?”

The Radak (12th c. Francy) said it is “as if” Israel were folded up under Jacob, and thus the land is set aside for Jacob, that the land will be in his domain, and all of it will be a gift from now on, and his sons will inherit it, and dwell there.

Thus the Radak seem to support the “Greater Israel” movement, those who say the entire land of Israel is given to davka the Jewish people VIA Jacob. After all, the Muslims can (and some do) argue that the promise to Abraham was fulfilled through Ishmael, and it’s the Jews who are the interlopers.

Using the Radak’s approach, and many other verses and teachings about the covenant giving the land to the Jewish people, it’s not too big a surprise that in 2002 former chief rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu said it’s OK to steal olives from Palestinians.  My translation of an article that appeared in YNET follows:

“It is written in the verse ‘And he gave them the lands of the nations; and they seized the labor of the people’ (Psalm 105:44). What’s the meaning of this verse? When a person has a field, or he has land, and someone comes and plants a tree without permission from the owner of the field, and the owner of the land doesn’t see it, he wasn’t paying attention, or he wasn’t able to stop him. After this, the owner of the field comes with force, and he says to the owner of the tree: ‘Your planting was unauthorized, the tree remains here, the fruit is mine, and you, get lost.’ Thus if the non-Jews planted trees in our territory, if they planted fruit, even if they “planted” houses, and this also applies to houses that they didn’t build (that were there before), and fruit they didn’t plant (fruit trees that they had simply claimed), they lose it. Why? The land is ours, and you built a house in my place, you planted a tree in my place, and the fruit is mine”

It’s unbelievable that rabbi could say such a thing.  And not just any old rabbi, but a former chief rabbi. 

But, thank God, that’s not the only way to interpret God’s promise to Jacob.  Bringing those other interpretations to light, and putting them into action, is the reason why I choose to be so active with Rabbis for Human Rights.

The medieval commentator Sforno (16th c. Italy) says that when God says “I will give it to you,” we should understand this as meaning that God is telling Jacob you will be “a Prince of God” among the inhabitants, as were Abraham and Isaac—in other words, it’s not that you will physically take possession of all the land, or even the spot that was your pillow, but rather you will have a special status in the land. Sort of like being given the “keys to the city.”  

The final part of God’s promise to Jacob says “All the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your descendants.”  Do you think the Palestinians living in the West Bank feel blessed through us??  What kind of blessing are we if we say it is OK to steal their olives?

I’m astounded that a rabbi could say it’s permissible to steal olives from Palestinians as a matter of halacha.  One does not need to be a deep scholar to know that is sheer foolishness, for at least two reasons: 

  1. Palestinians – as Muslims and Christians – worship the same God we do. They are not idol worshippers. They meet the requirements of b’nei Noach, which in essence is to be an ethical monotheist. Thus they quality as “gerei toshav,” residents, which the Torah frequently refers to as the stranger that it is within your gates. In fact that Va’ad Halakha, the law committee, of the Conservative movement in Israel has unanimously passed an opinion that says all non-Jewish residents of Israel qualify as ger toshav. Regarding garei toshav Rambam says:

    “We are to treat the ger toshav with derekh eretz, with courtesy, and with gemilut Chasidim, with lovingkindness, k’yisrael, like a Jew, because it is written in the Torah that you shall feed and be gracious to the stranger that is within your gates.”  

  2. Even if the residents were considered idol worshipers, the Shulhan Arukh, the most important law code in Judaism, is explicit that it is forbidden to steal, even from an idol worshipper, because it is a desecration of God’s name (hillul Hashem). 


I have had the opportunity to meet with many Palestinians living in the West Bank.  Certainly they have their radicals, and sadly their terrorists.  But I can also say with confidence that most of them feel there is plenty of room for both of us.  See my piece from a few weeks ago on “Cave Dwellers, Solar Panels, and Don’t Be Mean” — it’s outrageous that the Israeli government would destroy the exceedingly humble homes of Palestinians and refuse to give them building permits, while allowing settlers to build luxurious homes with tile roofs and swimming pools, all in an attempt to “Judaize” Area C of the West Bank.

Let us instead conduct ourselves fairly, with integrity, and truly be a blessing to all the people of the land.

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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