After the wandering
“Hashem spoke to Moshe in the plains of Moab, by the Jordan at Jericho, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you cross the Jordan into the Land of Canaan, you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the Land before you; and you shall destroy all their houses of worship, and all their metal idols shall you destroy; and all their high altars shall you demolish. And you will inherit the Land and will dwell in it; because it is to you that I have given the Land to inherit. And you will settle the Land as an inheritance, dividing it up by lot among your families – to the greater you will give a greater inheritance, and to the smaller you will give a smaller inheritance. Wherever it turns out for him, there will his lot be; you will settle your inheritance by your fathers’ tribes. But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the Land before you, then those of them whom you leave will become thistles in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they will harass you on the Land wherein you dwell. And it will happen that what I planned to do to them, I will do to you” (Numbers 33:50-56).
Our Parashah opens by recapping the entire desert trek from Egypt to the threshold of Israel: “They journeyed from Rameses in the first month, on the fifteenth of the first month; the day after the Pesach-sacrifice, the Children of Israel left” (33:3). The subsequent forty-seven verses detail the forty-two journeys (or stages of the journey) to this site, on the banks of the River Jordan, facing Jericho. Now, in the final few weeks before returning to the Land of Israel, in the final few weeks before the forty-year long desert trek is over, in the final few weeks of Moshe’s life, the Torah sees fit to recount all forty-two stations along the way. As the Midrash so movingly allegorises, “Throughout those forty years that you were in the desert, I ensured that you had nothing to flee from; rather, I cast down all your enemies before you just by being with you. And more than this – the place was full of snakes and fiery serpents and scorpions, as the Torah (Deuteronomy 8:15) says, ‘snakes and fiery serpents and scorpions’; yet I did not allow any of these to harm you. And thus G-d told Moshe: Write down the journeys that Israel made in the desert, so that they may know what miracles I wrought for them… This is like a king whose son was ill; he took him to a distant place to cure him, and on their return journey, the father started recounting all their journeys, saying: Here we slept, here we cooled ourselves, here you felt pains in your head. Thus did G-d tell Moshe: Recount for them all the places wherein they angered Me” (Numbers Rabbah 23:1-3; Tanchuma, Mas’ei 1-3).
And immediately following this, G-d commands us how to behave when we enter the Land, barely more than a month in the future: “When you cross the Jordan into the Land of Canaan, you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the Land before you; and you shall destroy all their houses of worship, and all their metal idols shall you destroy; and all their high altars shall you demolish”. At this juncture – on the threshold of redemption – the preciousness of the Land of Israel, and how we are to live in it, had to be instilled in this generation that had been born and brought up in the desert. And commensurate with this comes the stark warning: “But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the Land before you, then those of them whom you leave will become thistles in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they will harass you on the Land wherein you dwell”.
The Ohr ha-Chayyim (Rabbi Chayyim ben Attar, Morocco and Jerusalem 1696-1743), gives a crucial insight, chilling in its incisiveness. On the words “…you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the Land before you,” he expounds: “Since the Torah (Deuteronomy 20:16) commands, concerning the seven Canaanite nations, that ‘you shall not allow any soul to remain alive,’ it is apparent that here the Torah speaks of other nations than those seven Canaanite nations who were here then. So the Torah is precise in its wording, specifying that we are to ‘drive out all the inhabitants of the Land’ – saying that this applies even to those inhabitants who are not of the seven Canaanite nations”.
And he gives the reason for expelling all the inhabitants when commenting on the words “they will harass you on the Land wherein you dwell”: “Not only will they cling to that part of the Land that you did not merit to conquer; but even in those parts of the Land that you did merit to conquer and wherein you dwell they will harass you, saying: Get up, get out from our midst”. Little wonder that the Ohr ha-Chayyim is reputed to have written his commentary with Ruach ha-Kodesh (“divine inspiration”)! Two and a half centuries ago, he already warned us of precisely what is happening in Israel today. You may live in part of the Land of Israel – but if you allow the inhabitants to remain in Shechem, their suicide terrorists will blow you apart at the hitch-hiking station in Jewish-inhabited French Hill in Jerusalem; if you allow them to remain in Tulkarem, they will massacre you in the Park Hotel in the Jewish city of Netanya; if you allow them to live in Jebel Mukhabber, they will crush you to death in Jaffa Street in the heart of Jerusalem.
And this is a particularly grim example of the principle of measure-for-measure: our disloyalty to the Land inevitably brings the Land’s disloyalty upon us. The Ohr ha-Chayyim continues: “the word al (‘on,’ in the phrase ‘they will harass you on the Land’) means ‘because of,’ as in the verse ‘because (“al”) you did not sanctify Me’ (Deuteronomy 32:51)”. That is to say, the Ohr ha-Chayyim renders this verse: “If you do not drive out the inhabitants of the Land before you, then those of them whom you leave will become thistles in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they will harass you because of the Land”. We will be harassed, massacred, blown apart, because of the Land to which we are disloyal.
Or, in the telegraphically brief, but oh-so-insightful comment of Rashi: “‘And you will settle the Land as an inheritance’ – you will disinherit it from its inhabitants, and then you will dwell in it, you will be able to exist in it. And if not, you will not be able to exist in it”.
All this gives a particularly poignant understanding to the Ramban’s commentary: “‘You will inherit the Land and will dwell in it,’ because to you have I given the Land to inherit. In my opinion, this is a positive commandment – He commands them to dwell in the Land and to inherit it, because He gave it to them, and they are not to despise G-d’s portion. And those who consider going to conquer Shinar [modern day Iraq] or Assyria [modern-day Iran/northern Turkey] or any other countries and living there are transgressing G-d’s command” (Commentary to verse 53).
Central to this is the command that “you shall destroy all their houses of worship, and all their metal idols shall you destroy; and all their high altars shall you demolish” (Numbers 33:52). For “houses of worship,” the Torah here uses the word maskiyotam. There are slightly differing opinions regarding the precise meaning of the word maskit (though all agree that it is something used in idol worship). Both the Targum Onkelos and the Targum Yonatan render “their houses of worship,” using the Aramaic phrase beit sig’dat’hon, from the root seged (“to bow in worship”). (The parallel Arabic root is sajid [“to bow in worship”], giving the Arabic word masjid [“place of worship,” hence “mosque”].)
Rashi amplifies that the word maskiyotam is to be understood “according to the Targum – their houses of worship, which are given this name because [the idolaters] would cover [sakhakh, the root of maskit] the ground with a floor of marble stones, upon which they would bow down with hands and feet outstretched”.
This is the most fundamental issue of the struggle between the Nation of Israel and all other nations who occupy the Land of Israel: it is the conflict between the G-d of Israel and the false gods of those nations, and as such it is the essence of Kiddush Hashem (“sanctification of the Name of G-d”). For the houses of worship of the inhabitants of the Land to remain – even when they themselves have been vanquished – entails their false gods to remain; the destruction of their houses of worship by the people of Israel at the command of the G-d of Israel is the essence of the might and the supremacy of the G-d of Israel.
Immediately following this command, the Torah defines the borders of Israel (34:1-12), and then how to apportion the Land among the twelve tribes (34:13-35:15) including the six cities of refuge, leading very naturally to the definition of how the cities of refuge are to be governed (35:16-32). The reason that the Torah defines Israel’s borders is, as Rashi (commentary to 34:2, based on Gittin 8a-b) explains: “Because many of the Mitzvot apply within the Land and do not apply outside of the Land, it was necessary to write the borders of the surrounding edge, telling you that from inside these borders these Mitzvot apply”.
But even before knowing the precise borders of the Land, the Torah had to give us this most fundamental of precepts – more fundamental even than the other Mitzvot which are dependent upon the Land of Israel. Because as long as we allow the hostile inhabitants to remain in the Land, not only is our observance of all the Mitzvot inherently defective; our very existence throughout the Land is precarious.
And to understand this, we do not need the explanations and commentaries of Rashi, Ramban, or the Ohr ha-Chayyim; we need look no further than tomorrow morning’s newspaper headlines.
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