This week’s Torah reading is, without question, the most Zionist of all the weekly portions of the year. We hear about the weather, crops and natural resources of this ‘very good land’. We learn that it’s not ‘like Egypt’; it’s a land which requires rainfall, and has no Nile River. It makes humans and livestock more fertile. Here we discover the seven agricultural species which distinguish the Land. On the other hand, ‘if you don’t heed the mitzvot, it will drive you out’. Almost everything the Torah tells us about Eretz Yisrael is in our parsha; its greatness and its dangers. However, this year I’d like to discuss another aspect of Zionism, namely our right to the Land.
Our parsha informs us, ‘Do not say to yourself, when the Lord, your God, has repelled them from before you, saying, “Because of my righteousness, the Lord has brought me to possess this land,” and that because of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord drives them out from before you. Not because of your righteousness or because of the honesty of your heart, do you come to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord your God drives them out from before you, and in order to establish the matter that the Lord swore to your forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. You shall know that, not because of your righteousness, the Lord, your God, gives you this good land to possess it; for you are a stiff-necked people (Devarim 9:4-6).’
Remarkable. We’re informed that we don’t have Eretz Yisrael because of our righteousness (thrice). Instead we have the Land because of the evil of the inhabitants (twice), and God’s faithfulness to the promise for our Patriarchs (once).
Moshe is apparently telling the Jews to never assume that we won the Land because we beat the other contenders in a ‘Goodness Pageant’. The other nations suffered because they deserved that punishment. On the other hand, we also angered God, and only merited the Land through God’s relationship with our ancestors.
Many commentaries assume, reasonably, that Moshe is addressing those who are preparing to enter the Land, and standing before him. The Netziv disagrees. Rav Berlin explains that Moshe’s words are meant for every future generation. Initially, the counsel was for those living in the Land, and was meant to remind them to never take the Jewish control of the Holy Land for granted. Sadly, his warnings were prescient, because we got complacent.
The verses seem redundant. But there’s a reason for the repetition, because there are two parts to the warning. The first is to not be over confident in your ability to resist idolatry, as our Sages have taught ‘Never have too great faith in yourself (Pirkei Avot 2:4).’ The second mistake is to beware of reliance on the fact that God will permanently sustain the Jewish presence in Eretz Yisrael, no matter what we may do.
Rav Berlin, then explains the third verse (v. 6), which contains the third reminder that Eretz Yisrael isn’t ours because of our righteousness. Here the great Rosh Yeshiva pushes the agenda that we Jews are just plain difficult. He quotes the Talmud that Jews are very hard and difficult (Beitza 25b), and this obstinance is necessary for us to preserve the Torah in the face of great opposition throughout our long history. On the other hand, being ‘stiff necked’ means that we are difficult to hold in check. Later in this chapter (v. 25), the Netziv will explain that God needed to take the Jews out of Egypt with a YAD CHAZAKAH (strong hand), because we’re unruly.
Truly this stiff-necked character is a double-edged sword. We needed it to survive the vicissitudes of our journey through time. However, we also need to be flexible in the face of changing historical realities.
What kind of religion would we have if we ignored progress and scientific innovations? I’m very happy that we’re not like the Amish. We, generally, have embraced scientific breakthroughs. BARUCH HASHEM!
We, generally, don’t do as well with geopolitical progress. In Egypt, we accepted Egyptian progress, but had to be forced to leave when God overturned the power structure. In Babylonia, we adopted their letters and science, but only about 20% went home when the Persians took control and told us we could go to Zion. Today, Jews throughout the world are leaders in the newest technologies, but in western democracies aren’t willing to embrace the new reality of our Homeland.
Now, we can understand why Moshe told us that we’re stiff-necked in conjunction with the promise of Eretz Yisrael. It’s good that we’re stiff-necked, but we don’t always get the application right.
Bottom line: Moshe is telling us, ‘Don’t be stiff-necked about the Promise! Come home when it’s available!’ That’s now. History won’t be kind to those who miss the opportunity.