Masei (Numbers 33, 1 – 36, 13) – settling the land of Israel

In the Torah reading of Masei, there is a verse that stands out in importance in the Jewish tradition relating to the settling of the land of Israel (Numbers 33, 53) – “And you shall drive out the inhabitants of the land, and dwell (settle) in it; for unto you have I given the land to possess it”. The question that arises here in relation to the verse is whether or not this is a commandment to settle the land of Israel. Before addressing this question I want to give background regarding the nature of traditional Judaism as a religion.

 

There is no term Judaism in the Bible or in the Talmudic literature. In the Talmudic literature the term for Judaism is Torah, the central concept of the Jewish tradition. The term Torah appears in the Bible, and is from a Hebrew root meaning instruction or guidance. The term Torah can refer in a specific sense to the 5 Books of Moses, which constitute a constitution of the Jewish people (as a source of legal, moral and spiritual guidance), and in a broader sense the term Torah can refer to Judaism.

 

According to the Jewish tradition there are two aspects to Torah that represent two kinds of guidance and instruction – Halacha (law) and Aggadah (moral, spiritual and philosophic teachings). Halacha, which comes from a Hebrew root meaning to go or walk, is the external aspect of Torah – as to go or walk is an external behavior. Halacha is legal guidance of the Torah based upon the commandments (mitzvot) of the 5 Books of Moses as a legal constitution of the Jewish people, and relates to issues of permissible and forbidden regulating behavior. Aggadah, which means story, is the internal aspect of Torah – and a story is a source of ideas and ideals. Aggadah is moral, spiritual and philosophic guidance of the Torah that relates to issues of good and bad (right and wrong), and truth and falsehood. In the Talmudic literature Halacha is termed “bodies of Torah”, and Aggadah then is the soul of Torah.

 

In traditional Judaism, based upon the Hebrew Bible and the Talmudic literature, we do not live by the plain meaning of Scripture. That is, we live not by what is written in the Bible but by the Bible as interpreted by the Jewish rabbinic tradition – the foundation of which is the Talmudic literature.

 

The implications here are enormous – in principle, traditional rabbinic Judaism is not fundamentalist (in the sense of a literal understanding of Biblical texts). The verse “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Leviticus 24, 20) is not understood according to the Jewish tradition in its plain or literal meaning as actual bodily punishment, which would reflect a very primitive conception of justice – rather, the verse is understood midrashically (not according to the plain meaning) as requiring monetary compensation. The Talmudic method of midrash (commentary) was one of not being bound by the plain or literal meaning of Biblical texts, and the method of midrash allowed Judaism to evolve and develop. An important image of Torah (Judaism) in the Talmudic tradition is a tree of life – and, a tree is organic constantly growing and changing, while at the same time preserving its identity.

 

Jewish law (Halacha) is based upon the commandments (mitzvot) of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) as a legal constitution of the Jewish people. In any democratic society, there are authoritative lawmakers and authoritative interpreters of law. Democracy is not anarchy, and we do not make or interpret law for ourselves – and this is no different in the case of traditional Judaism. Rabbis are authoritative interpreters of law in the Jewish tradition who have power to interpret the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) as a legal constitution of the Jewish people.

 

According to a Talmudic tradition there are 613 commandments of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) binding upon the Jewish people as a basis of Jewish law, and not all are binding upon any individual Jew – for example, there are some commandments that apply only to men and others only to women. Regarding the Talmudic tradition of 613 commandments binding upon the Jewish people, aside from this being merely a tradition in terms of the number 613 that is not binding, there is great debate in the Jewish tradition as to what are the 613 commandments, and there are differing lists that were composed through the ages as to what are the 613 commandments.

 

If we return now to the verse from the Torah reading of Masei (Numbers 33, 53) relating to the settling of the land of Israel, there is debate in the Jewish tradition as to whether or not there is a commandment of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) as a legal constitution to settle the land of Israel.

 

The verse (Numbers 33, 53) literally says “And you shall drive out the land and dwell (settle) in it”. Rashi (the great Biblical commentator of the Jewish tradition, who lived in the 11th century) clarifies that the intention is to drive out the inhabitants of the land, as according to the previous verse (Numbers 33, 52), and he understands the settling of the land not as a commandment but as a result (or purpose) of driving out the inhabitants of the land: “’And you shall drive out the land’ – and, you shall drive out the inhabitants of the land, then ‘dwell in it’; to exist in it (the land), and if not (if you do not drive out the inhabitants) you will not be able to exist in it“. According to Rashi then the verse commands the Israelites to drive out the inhabitants of the land of Israel, and the settling of the land is not a commandment but a result (or purpose) of driving out the inhabitants of the land.

 

Indeed, from the Talmudic period until the 13 century no legal authorities in the Jewish tradition (as far as I am aware) codified a command to settle the land of Israel. Nachmanides (a great commentator and legal scholar) is the first to do so in the 13th century). Nachmanides presents his position as a criticism of Maimonides (the great legal scholar and philosopher of the Jewish tradition who lived in the 12th century) who did not codify a commandment to settle the land of Israel:

 

We have been commanded in the Torah to take possession of the land (to drive out the inhabitants of the land and settle the land)…and not to leave it in the hands of others or allow it to remain desolate as it is stated (Numbers 33, 53) “And you shall drive out the inhabitants of the land, and dwell (settle) in it; for unto you have I given the land to possess it”…The commandment applies for all time.

 

Nachmanides emphasizes that this commandment incumbent upon the Jewish people to settle the land of Israel applies not only during the ancient Biblical period after the exodus from Egypt when the Israelites entered the land of Israel – “the commandment applies for all time”. The question that arises here is – why no legal authorities prior to Nachmanides in the 13th century, such as Maimonides, codified such a commandment to settle the land of Israel?

 

There are commentaries that suggest that Maimonides did not codify a commandment to settle the land of Israel because it is not a commandment for all times – and, the commandment to settle the land (Numbers 33, 53) is only applicable in the ancient Biblical period until the exile of the Jewish people from the land of Israel. However, there are other commentaries that suggest that Maimonides did not codify a commandment to settle the land of Israel because the commandment is not a specific commandment as part of the framework of the 613 commandments but a general commandment, which includes many specific commandments that are a part of the framework of the 613 commandments such as agricultural laws applying to the land.

 

I want to suggest that in the plain meaning of Scripture there is no commandment incumbent upon the Jewish people to settle the land of Israel applying for all time. According to the verse (Numbers 33, 53), the settling of the land not only may be a result or purpose of conquering the land (as Rashi understood), but also the verse (and commandment to conquer the land in the verse) in the plain meaning of Scripture is directed to the Israelites upon entering the land of Israel after the exodus and wanderings of the Israelites in the wilderness (Numbers 33, 51-53). There is no hint in the plain meaning of Scripture that this verse is directed to the Jewish people for all times.

 

However, I also want to suggest that in the plain meaning of Scripture the land of Israel is clearly intended to be the national homeland of the Jewish people from the beginning of Jewish history and is a part of the covenant of Abraham. There are two important features characteristic of the covenant with Abraham – Abraham is to be the spiritual father of the people Israel (the Jewish people), and the Jewish people are to inherit the land of Israel.

 

Most significant, the land of Israel is an integral part of the Jewish religion and way of life. The covenant of Abraham symbolizing that Judaism is belonging to a people in a nationalistic sense (and not in a racial or ethnic sense as there have been Jews of differing racial and ethnic background from the beginning of Jewish history, and anyone regardless of racial or ethnic background can convert to the Jewish people) also includes the land of Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people, as a nation cannot generally exist without a national homeland (the survival of the Jewish people for over two thousand years without our national homeland is an exception to the general laws of history). The covenant of Moses and Sinai symbolizes that Judaism is a religion in the sense of a culture and way of life of the Jewish people, and not in the sense of a faith commitment – and, there are Jews who define themselves as secular and those who define themselves as religious. What unites all Jews, secular and religious, is not a faith commitment nor a life observant of law and ritual but a common history, a national homeland (Israel), a common language (Hebrew) and a shared culture and heritage. Judaism then is a religion in the sense of a way of life of the Jewish people that is intended to be lived in the land of Israel.

 

The Talmud makes a remarkable statement in regard to the importance of the land of Israel (Ketubot 110b):

 

Our rabbis taught: One should always live in the land of Israel, even in a town most of whose inhabitants are idolaters, but let no one live outside the land, even in a town most of whose inhabitants are Israelites; for whoever lives in the land of Israel may be considered to have a God, but whoever lives outside the land may be regarded as one who has no God. For it is said in Scripture, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God. Has he, then, who does not live in the land, no God? But, to tell you, that whoever lives outside the Land may be regarded as one who worships idols.

 

This is a truly remarkable Talmudic statement according to which it is preferable to live a secular lifestyle not observant of Jewish law and traditional ritual practice in the land of Israel than to live an observant lifestyle of law and traditional ritual practice outside the land of Israel – as, shockingly, one who lives outside the land of Israel is considered an idol worshipper clearly implying even if such a person lives an observant lifestyle (and believes in the existence of God). A traditional Jew observant of Jewish law and ritual practice who lives outside the land of Israel is living in two cultures with divided loyalties – by contrast, a secular Jew living in the land of Israel within a Jewish culture is not plagued by divided loyalties even if not observant of Jewish law and ritual practice.

 

There is also a midrash (commentary) of the Talmudic rabbis in which according to the midrash God says: “Even though I am about to exile you from the Land (of Israel) to a foreign land, you must continue to be marked there by the commandments, so that when you return they will not be new to you”. According to the midrash, the observance of commandments outside the land of Israel is not obligatory; and, is only for the sake of practice for when we return from exile to live as a nation in our homeland. I am reminded of a secular Israeli who I heard argue that living an observant lifestyle in Israel is unnecessary for her as her Jewish identity is expressed by living in the land of Israel where she is constantly aware of her Jewishness without the need to observe a traditional lifestyle – and that were she to live outside of Israel she would then perhaps feel a need to observe a traditional lifestyle as an expression of Jewish identity. The conception of the midrash is exactly the opposite – a traditional lifestyle is not obligatory outside the land of Israel and outside the land a traditional lifestyle is only a preparation for our returning to our homeland to establish our own Jewish culture and way of life in our homeland. Our Jewish identity in establishing our own Jewish culture as a nation in our homeland is, according to the midrash, most importantly expressed by our traditional lifestyle of law and ritual practice.

 

Judaism then cannot truly be practiced outside the land of Israel without distorting the very nature of Judaism – as the land of Israel is an integral part of Judaism as a culture and way of life of a particular people with a particular language, land and history. In the beginning of the 20th century when the Zionist movement had just arisen, which was in large part a secular movement, the British offered land in East Africa (the Uganda plan) as a refuge for the Jewish people from persecution and anti-Semitism. The offer was rejected even by secular Jews who understood that Judaism is a culture and way of life of the Jewish people. Could it really be imagined that there would be a Jewish state in East Africa? How could such a state function as a state of the Jewish people when the history and culture of the Jewish people has been so intimately linked to our ancestral homeland, the land of Israel (even when the great majority of the Jewish people were living in exile outside of our homeland following the Roman expulsion until the establishment of the modern state of Israel)? Christianity can be adopted as a religion outside the land of Israel, the birthplace of Christianity, without any problem because Christianity is a universal religion in the sense of a faith commitment, and such a faith commitment is not dependent in any way upon living in any particular land. However, Judaism is a religion in the sense of a way of life of the Jewish people and nation – a way of life that can truly only be lived in our ancestral and national homeland in which we speak our ancestral language.

 

Yet, shockingly, the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) ends with the Israelites in the plains of Moab outside the land of Israel raising the question as to why the Torah should not have been six books including the Book of Joshua recounting the entering of the land of Israel by the Israelites – especially considering that the land of Israel is such an integral part of Judaism as a religion in the sense of a culture of the Jewish people. In my view, the reason that the Torah is composed of only five books and ends prior to the people Israel entering the land of Israel is to teach us that in spite of the great importance of the land of Israel as our national homeland, the Jewish religion is nevertheless not dependent upon our possessing our homeland as a people – and, indeed, we managed to survive as a people for some two thousand years after the Roman expulsion until the establishment of the modern state of Israel. This is clearly not an ideal situation to be without our national homeland – but, it is possible for us to survive without possessing our homeland.

 

Whether or not there is a commandment to settle the land of Israel incumbent upon the Jewish people from a legal (Halachic) point of view is a matter of debate within the Jewish tradition. I want to suggest, though, that in the plain meaning of Scripture, there is a moral and spiritual (Aggadic) imperative for us as Jews, as a people, to settle the land of Israel – as the land of Israel is an integral part of Judaism as a religion and an integral part of the covenant of Abraham. In my view, this does not mean that all Jews must live in the land of Israel as the diaspora has been a part of Jewish history from the very beginning, especially with the tribes of Reuven and Gad being allowed to settle on the east side of the Jordan river outside the land of Israel (Numbers 32, 1-32) – but, it means that the land of Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people is to be a cultural and spiritual center for the Jewish people.

Jeffrey Radon

Author of orthopraxjudaism.com

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