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From Conquest to Sovereignty

Parshat Massei’s travelogue record of the children of Israel’s desert trek is but a prelude to its ultimate purpose, namely, the conquest of the land promised to the children of Israel by God. This mission and its accompanying responsibilities are encapsulated in two particular verses, one which follows immediately after the desert travelogue and one towards the end of the parshah. These two verses, when read through the eyes of the Ramban (Nahmanides – Spain, 13th century), the foremost advocate for seeing the settlement of Eretz Yisrael as a commandment, provide a powerful message regarding the religious responsibility incumbent upon sovereign nations.

The Torah concludes its vision of the conquest of the land of Canaan in vivid military terms, culminating with the following sentence: “And you shall take possession of the land and dwell in it, for to you I have given the land to take hold of it.” (Numbers 33:53) Rashi views this sentence as a description of the consequences of conquest: “When you take possession of the land [from its inhabitants], then you will [truly] possess it.” Ramban, on the other hand, reads this verse as a religious obligation: “In my opinion, this is a positive commandment. [God] commanded them that they shall settle the land and possess it for He gave it to them, and they shall not loathe the inheritance of God…”

While the Torah’s vision of the conquest is comprehensive in scope, in reality, the conquest of the land, as described in the Prophetic books, was much more gradual. Still, it is clear that the conquest, like all conquests was not a pretty affair. [Just as a note to all those who raise objections to the biblical description of the conquest or, for that matter, the events surrounding the founding of the modern state of Israel, I have yet to read of the founding of any nation that is less disquieting. Witness the settlement and founding of the United States.]

The Torah, however, distinguished between conquest and sovereignty, noting that God could not dwell in a land rife with violence: “And you shall not pollute the land in which you are, for blood will pollute the land… and you shall not defile the land in which you dwell, in the midst of which I abide, for I am the Lord, abiding in the midst of the children of Israel.” (Numbers 35:33-34) Here, too, Ramban chimes in: “Since it said earlier that these laws should be observed by you throughout your generations in all of your habitations, implying that these laws also apply outside of the land, the Torah returned to the subject even more stringently when settling the land, out of honor for God’s presence which dwells there, warning not to pollute the land and impurify it [so that God might sever His relationship with it]…” (adapted translation)

The events of the conquest did not represent the ideal nor the norm. The expectation was the establishment of a nation with high moral standards, one which would eschew violence and pursue peace. Only then would the land be worthy of God’s dwelling therein. Unfortunately, rarely has this goal been achieved, but as Ramban reminds us, it is an imperative to never forget to strive to achieve it.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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