Starting in 1984, the ArtScroll Siddur conquered the prayer book market for Orthodox shuls and Jews. Its attractive design and helpful annotation were very well received. But no one version of our prayerbook can be universally accepted. For various reasons of sociology and economics, this Siddur didn’t have the Prayer for the Welfare of the State of Israel. A compromise was reached and a variant edition came out under the aegis of the RCA (now it’s called the ‘Synagogue Edition’). In this prayer, a verse is quoted from Devarim (30:5) describing the Jews’ dwelling in the Holy Land. This verse features the word V’RISHTA, which can be translated ‘possess it’, as Koren does, but ArtScroll went with ‘and you shall occupy it’. In light of the Arab condemnations of Israel that’s a very unfortunate word choice, indeed.
In ArtScroll’s defense, it’s not an easy word to translate. That problem comes up in this week’s Torah reading. After the long list of all the journeys of the Jews through the desert, we have two verses about the Jews settling into Eretz Yisrael, both of them begin with the word V’HORASHTEM, and it would be very convenient to translate them differently in each instance, as Targum Onkelos actually does. Here are the two verses:
You shall drive out (V’HORASHTEM) all the inhabitants of the land from before you, destroy all their temples, destroy their molten idols, and demolish their high places. You shall clear out (V’HORASHTEM) the Land and settle in it, for I have given you the Land to possess (LARESHET) it (Bamidbar 33:53 &54).
Notice that the Chabad.org translation also renders the two appearances of the same word differently. I assume that this is because in the first instance the Jews are interacting with the local human inhabitants, while in the second case the Jews interface with the inanimate land itself. Here’s the problem, the term is clearly stating that the Jews are to become the new landlords of the Holy Land, but how to do that while interacting with different entities.
I think that Robert Alter handled it very elegantly by saying ‘you shall dispossess the inhabitants’ in the first instance, and ‘you shall take possession of the land’ in the second. We took the place of the former residents in verse 52, but worked the land diligently to make it ours in verse 53. Translation is never easy.
Finally, we can ask the central question: What command is God presenting to our brave ancestors who conquered the Land with this verb?
The Ramban famously states: In my opinion this is a positive commandment, in which He is commanding them to dwell in the Land and inherit it, because He has given it to them and they should not reject it…And that which our Rabbis have emphasized, the significance of the commandment of settling in the Land of Israel, and that it is forbidden to leave it… Rashi, however, explained: “And ye shall drive out the inhabitants of the Land — if you dispossess it of its inhabitants, then ye will be able to dwell therein, and to remain there, but if not, you will not be able to remain in it.” But our interpretation is the principal one.
The Ramban is adamant that it is always a mitzva to live in Eretz Yisrael. However, he recognizes that there are others who disagree, like Rashi, who only recognized this obligation when we Jews actually have control over the land, like now.
But why is this term V’HORASTEM used to express this obligation. Why not just V’SHAVTEM BAH or V’GARTEM BAH, ‘dwell there’? I believe that this word carries a special connotation, because it’s the word for inheriting and bequeathing. The taking hold of the land, both in terms of superseding the previous inhabitants and in working the land, is not the ultimate goal or purpose. The ultimate intention is to see the Land passed down to the next generation. It’s not about possession; it’s about continuity and legacy.
Now there’s another famous Hebrew term with a similar connotation, and that’s NACHALA. This word is used to describe the tribal portions, again in our parsha, also implies bequest. It’s actually a beautifully picturesque word. The meaning of the root term is NACHAL, which means a stream. In other words, a NACHALA is a possession which flows from one generation to the next. The difference is L’HORISH implies an action by the possessor; the word L’HANCHIL describes an automatic, passive occurrence, no action necessary.
Our two verses are describing vigorous activity on the part of the Jewish nation to become the rightful owners of ERETZ YISRAEL. The first actions are vis a vis the previous inhabitants; the next efforts are to develop the land itself to make it fruitful and productive. However, the ultimate objective is to maintain the connection to Eretz Yisrael forever.