“Now and Forever” Parashat Masa’ei 5776

Back in high school, we all took a test that was meant to help us choose a career that would best mesh with our interests. The test determined that I should become a cartographer. It turns out that my entire class received the very same helpful suggestion. Needless to say, none of us became cartographers, but I admittedly love playing around with Google Maps and Google Earth. Similarly, I am especially fond Parashat Masa’ei, in which the borders of the Land of Israel are described in intricate detail. Probably the greatest difficulty with the description of the borders is that the locations used as markers are unclear. while most authorities concur that the southern border runs from the southern tip of the Dead Sea to El Arish, crossing slightly south of Modern Beer Sheba, the northern border has been placed anywhere from the Litani River in Southern Lebanon all the way up to the Lebanese-Turkish border.

The location of these borders is more than just a line on a map. These borders have hard Halachic ramifications. For instance, only produce grown within the borders of the Land of Israel must be tithed by taking terumot and ma’asrot. Shemitta – the seventh year in which fields must remain fallow – is observed only in Israel. In addition, communities located on the “other” side of the border, lying only a few meters from Israel, must hold two days of Yom Tov while just over the border they observe only one day, and as a result two neighbouring communities end up reading two different Torah portions[1].

Rav Menachem Liebtag notices a discrepancy in the borders as they appear in Parashat Masa’ei as compared to how they appear in other locations in the Torah. For instance, at the Covenant of the Pieces (Brit bein Ha’Betarim) Avraham is promised that his descendants will inherit [Bereishit 15:18] “from the river of Egypt (i.e. the Nile) until the great river, the Euphrates River”. These borders run from Modern Egypt to Iraq and are significantly larger than the ones described in Parashat Masa’ei. So what are Israel’s true borders – the smaller ones or the larger ones?

Rav Liebtag reconciles this discrepancy by suggesting that the Land of Israel actually has two sets of borders: it has a “minimal border” and a “maximal border”. Israel’s minimal border is defined in Parashat Masa’ei. This is the land that Am Yisrael, led by Yehoshua, were commanded to conquer. After conquering this land, any land that they conquered afterwards would attain the same level of holiness as the “Core Israel” as long as it lay within the maximal borders. This means that even if the IDF were to one day conquer Tokyo[2], it would not be any holier than it was when it was under Japanese control.

This reminds me of a vignette: When my wife’s family came on aliya, her brother, who was in Grade One, bid his class farewell. All of his classmates had to write him letters. One of his classmates wrote him “We’ll meet again when the Moshiach comes!” But then this classmate reconsidered his position. He corrected himself and wrote, “When the Moshiach comes the whole world will have the holiness of Israel, and so we won’t have to leave Toronto!” Rav Liebtag would disagree with this classmate’s theory.

It is worth noting that the maximal borders of Israel are currently irrelevant because Am Yisrael never actually conquered the entire minimal borders of Israel – not when they crossed the Jordan with Yehoshua, not when they returned from the Babylonian exile, and not today. When King David conquered territory in Aram Tzova, known as “Surya”, it attained an inferior Halachic status compared to the rest of the Land of Israel because it was captured before the “baseline mission” was completed. As a result, any place that lies outside of the minimal border today cannot be considered “in Israel”.

All that we have discussed until this point is background. While looking over the Parasha last week I saw a comment by the Ohr HaChayim HaKadosh that simply blew me away. After delineating the borders of the Land of Israel, Moshe tells Am Yisrael [Bemidbar 34:13-15] “This is the Land that you are to apportion for inheritance through lottery, which Hashem has commanded to give to the nine and a half tribes. For the tribe of Reuven’s descendants according to their fathers’ house, and the tribe of Gad’s descendants according to their fathers’ house, and half the tribe of Manasseh have already received their inheritance… on [the east] bank of the Jordan, near Jericho in the east”. Recall that the tribes of Reuven and Gad asked Moshe to give them their inheritance in Modern Jordan, from the lands that had been captured in the war with the Amorites.

The Torah doesn’t seem to be giving us any new information here. We already know that two and a half tribes inherited land on the east bank of the Jordan leaving nine and a half tribes on the west bank. The Or HaChayim sees things differently. According to the Or HaChayim, the Torah is offering justification for Hashem’s choice of borders: Hashem chose borders that were large enough to ensure that each and every one of its inhabitants had sufficient land[3]. Had the Tribes of Reuven and Gad taken their inheritance along with all the other tribes, it is entirely possible that Hashem would have enlarged the borders of Israel in order to accommodate them.

Think about this for a second: Had the tribes of Gad and Reuven not insisted on remaining on the east bank of the Jordan, it is all too possible that the core borders of the Land of Israel would have been expanded, perhaps in a way that would have encompassed the east bank of the Jordan! Subsequently, as part of the minimal borders of Israel, the holiness of the east bank would have been identical to the holiness of the west bank. But due to the impetuousness of Gad and Reuven, the east bank will, at least for the near foreseeable future, remain from a Halachic standpoint less holy than the west bank.

Let’s continue a little bit further down this path. The delineation of the minimal borders of Israel is preceded by the words [Bemidbar 34:2] “Command the Children of Israel and say to them…” This preface is not commonly used in the Torah. The first time that it is used is in Parashat Tzav [Vayikra 6:2], where Rashi brings the Midrash in Torat Kohanim that explains that “This expression always denotes urging (ziruz) [to promptly and meticulously fulfil a particular commandment] for the present and also for future generations”. Rav Baruch HaLevi Epstein, writing in the “Torah Temima”, explains that this urging is especially pertinent in Parashat Tzav, as the topic at hand is the Korban Tamid – the daily sacrifice offered once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Judaism is all about being consistent. Catharsis is a wonderful thing, but it will only carry a person so far. It is more important to do “the little things”, each and every day. But what about the borders of the Land of Israel? Rav Mordechai Eliyahu explains that as the borders are integrally related to a plethora of halachot, it is clear that these instructions are equally relevant “for future generations”. But what is the urgency “for the present”?

I suggest that the Torah is telling us that the tribes of Reuven and Gad erred precisely because they lived “for the present”. They owned copious livestock, they saw rolling green pastures, and they put two and two together. They coveted short-term gains, but they ended up with long-term losses. Not only did they lose out – they were the first tribes sent into exile at the destruction of the first Beit HaMikdash – but all of creation lost out. By crossing the Jordan River Reuven and Gad could have expanded the borders of Israel. They could have created holiness. They chose not to, not because they were corrupt but because they did not understand the gravity of their actions. They chose the present over the future and by doing so they conceded the maximum for the minimum.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka and Adi bat Ravit.

[1] Welcome back, Diasporans! After more than three months of reading a different Parasha, you have finally caught up with us this week. We’ve missed you.

[2] Or Teheran, for that matter.

[3] Apparently this is about half a dunam (500 m2). That’s the maximal size of a lot in Israel today.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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