אל תאמר בלבבך בהדוף ה’ אלוקיך אותם מלפניך לאמר: בצדקתי הביאני ה’ לרשת את הארץ הזאת, וברשעת הגויים האלה ה’ מורישם מפניך. לא בצדקתך וביושר לבבך אתה בא לרשת את ארצם, כי ברשעת הגויים האלה ה’ אלוקיך מורישם מפניך ולמען הקים את הדבר אשר נשבע ה’ לאבותיך, לאברהם ליצחק וליעקב. וידעת כי לא בצדקתך ה’ אלוקיך נותן לך את הארץ הטובה הזאת לרשתה, כי עם קשה עורף אתה.
(דברים ט’, ד’-ו’)
Our generation is the third generation living in the State of Israel, established 63 years ago. Most of us were born here. We take it for granted that this is our country and we have every right of ownership over it. Most religious Israelis will see this right as a divine birthright: the Land of Israel is ours because God promised it to the Jewish people, and nothing we or others say or do can change this promise. The Land is ours, period!
Given this widespread conviction, some verses in this week’s parasha may come as a surprise:
Speak not in your heart, after that the Lord your God has thrust them out from before you, saying: ‘For my righteousness God has brought me in to possess this land’; whereas for the wickedness of these nations God has driven them out from before you. Not for your righteousness, or for the uprightness of your heart, do you go in to possess their land; but for the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God has driven them out from before you, and that He may establish the word which God swore to your fathers, to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov. Know therefore that it is not for your righteousness that the Lord your God gives you this good land to possess it; for you are a stiffnecked people.
Three times the Torah tells us that it it not due to our good behaviour that the Land is ours. We are not entitled to take the Land from those who dwell on it, and we are not entitled to receive the Land (even if it is empty). There are two reasons why we got the Land: one, the bad behaviour of its previous dwellers (“for the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God has driven them out”); and two, because of the promise given to our forefathers (“the word which God swore to your fathers”). Were it not for these two reasons, the Land would not have been ours to take.
Some may interpret the verses above to mean that regardless of our behaviour, the Land is ours, for the two reasons given: we are better than its previous inhabitants and we have the promise given to our forefathers. But a close reading of the Torah teaches us that there is a difference between conquering the Land from its previous inhabitants and continuing to hold on to the Land. The promise and the birthright exist, but they relate to the conquering of the Land. After it is ours, whether or not we continue to live on it and hold on to it, depends on our behaviour. This is where many misinterpret the promise; there is no “birthright” to continue to live in Israel if we are not fulfilling God’s will.
This misinterpretation is not new. It existed also more than 2,500 years ago. After the first expulsion of the Jews from Israel by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar (in 597 BCE), the Jews that remained behind in Judea felt the Land was theirs by right:
… the inhabitants of Jerusalem have said: get you far from God! Unto us is this land given for a possession! (Yekhezkel 11, 15)
… they that inhabit those waste places in the land of Israel speak, saying: Abraham was one, and he inherited the land; but we are many, he land is given us for inheritance! (Yekhezkel 33, 24)
God responds to this attitude with two very fierce rhetorical questions that highlight the difference between inheriting the Land and continuing to live on it:
Therefore say to them: So said the Lord God: ‘You eat with the blood, and lift up your eyes unto your idols, and shed blood; and shall you possess the land? You stand upon your sword, you work abomination and you defile every one his neighbour’s wife; and shall you possess the land? (Yekhezkel 33, 25-26)
Those who remained behind in Judea feel omnipotent. They were not driven out by the Babylonians. In their eyes, the Land is theirs by right, a right that is even stronger that Avraham’s! God admonishes them and tells them they cannot possess the Land if their behaviour does not justify it. It is not an automatic right; one has to earn the right to live in the Land of Israel.
The references to Avraham both in our week’s parasha (the promise) and by the prophet Yekhezkel (the right), is not a mere coincidence. Avraham is the “father of all nations”, and God has chosen him for his behaviour and for how he taught his family:
For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of God, to do righteousness and justice; to the end that God may bring upon Avraham that which He has spoken of him. (Bereshit 18,19).
Righteousness and justice. This is the way of Avraham and this is why God promised him the Land of Israel. If we do not follow in the footsteps of Avraham and what is right and just in the eyes of God, we have no claim to the Land of Israel.
It is therefore not a surprise to find a reference to Avraham and righteousness also this week’s haftarah:
Hearken to Me, you that follow after righteousness, you that seek God; look unto the rock whence you were hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence you were digged. Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bore you; for when he was but one I called him, and I blessed him, and made him many. (Yishayahu 51, 1-2).