Frederick L. Klein

Parashat B’Chukotei: Laying Claim to the Land of Israel

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What does it mean to have ownership in this world,  to lay claim to so-called rights?  How does a nation- a sociological category- claim a ‘natural right’ to a land?  In the case of the Land of Israel, many appeal to God.  God owns the world as a function of God creating the world, and therefore can give the land to whomever God pleases.

The first Rashi on the Torah quotes a ‘Rabbi Yitzchak’, possibly Rashi’s father[1], who asks an interesting question.  If the Torah is a legal code, the Torah should begin with Exodus 12, where the first commandment is given to the people (the sanctification of the new month).  Why does the Torah begin with creation?  Many answers can be given, but the answer of the 11 century French rabbi is instructive:

For should the peoples of the world say to Israel, “You are robbers, because you took by force the lands of the seven nations of Canaan”, Israel may reply to them, “All the earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it and gave it to whom He pleased. When He willed He gave it to them, and when He willed He took it from them and gave it to us”[2]

Of course, the claims of the ‘peoples of the world’ are particularly resonant at our moment but consider the context in which the 11th century French rabbi is writing.  Rashi is writing in a time of great religious battles between Christians and Muslims for the Land of Israel; the Crusades were battles to liberate the Holy Land from the infidels. The Jews were the victims of the marauding crusaders on their way to Europe, with entire Jewish communities massacred (most notably, the communities of Speyer, Worms, and Mainz in 1096).

Many invoke this text to claim that God gave the Land to the Jewish people, plain and simple.  Regardless of whether the Christians or Muslims were victorious, the land belongs to God and God gave this Land to the Jewish people.  The first Rashi on the Torah can be read as a subtle act of religious polemic emanating from a powerless and oppressed people.  Essentially, history is not relevant.  The Jewish people are the only true claimants to the land, and ultimately history will bear this out.

However, those who read the text this way I believe would be wrong. The point made by Rashi is more subtle, and our last two parshiyot of Leviticus bear this out.  In analyzing the last two parshiyot, the sensitive reader is confronted with a complex theology, concerning the relationship between the Jewish people of Israel and the Land of Israel.  In a time in which many in the world deny our historic rights, or incredibly deny there has ever been a presence in the Land, it behooves us to understand the theological underpinnings of our claims, independent of the claims that others make.

Our two parshiyot are clearly one literary unit.  Last week we are introduced to the mitzvah of the Sabbatical Year and the Jubilee years.  In our section, God invokes collective blessing to the people if they fulfill the covenant, and curses to those who do not, culminating in collective exile of the people.  From the context, the Torah seems to imply that the exile is a direct result of the people failing to observe these sabbatical years.  ‘Then shall the land make up for its sabbath years throughout the time that it is desolate and you are in the land of your enemies; then shall the land rest and make up for its sabbath years’ (Lev. 26:34).[3]  In a sense, the duration of the exile is meant for the people to repent for the sin of neglecting the Land itself and treating the land ‘indiscriminately’, what the Torah calls keri.  They feel no moral responsibility to the land, breaking the covenant and despising God’s laws. This leitmotif  word keri only appears here and is mentioned seven times, three with Israel’s behavior and four in connection with God’s corresponding response.  The number seven itself alludes to the Sabbath.  Each of these times, God states he will treat the people ‘indiscriminately’ for their ‘indiscriminate behavior’, visiting ‘sevenfold upon their iniquity’, a clear allusion to the Sabbatical year.[4]

From the verses it is clear that the possession of the land of Israel is dependent upon the observance of Sabbaths, but conceptually why is this concept so important, so significant that its failure of observance would incur the punishment of exile? What is it about the notion of the Sabbath, whether the Sabbath of days or years which is so critical?  When we answer this question we will have a more nuanced theology regarding the relationship between the Land of Israel and the People of Israel.  In the theology of our parashah, the relationship between the people and the Land is mediated through the covenantal obligation to observe the Shabbat.

In the fourth commandment of the Decalogue, we are commanded to remember to sanctify the Sabbath, through abstaining from constructive labor.  However, it is not merely we who rest, but “your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements” (Ex. 20:10).   In other words, we are enjoined to make Shabbat a day of abstention for those who come into contact with us, even our animals.  The next verse provides the reason for this commandment.  God created the world and everything in it.   In abstaining from imposing  labor upon others, I testify that in truth I do not own them.  They are not utilitarian means to my end but ends in their own rights.  In the act of rest, we testify that we are not ultimately sacred being by what we do, but who we are.  This message is decidedly political, and in Moses’ recounting of the Decalogue in Deuteronomy, Moses provides a more historical reason for the Sabbath.  All rest because God redeemed the people from slavery (Ex. 5:15).  Indeed, Egypt embodies an extreme utilitarian notion of human worth, that human beings can be reduced to their economic value.  To abstain from labor is to proclaim to all around you that you have inherent worth as a creature of God.  Thus, the act of proclaiming the Sabbath and its observance is both  a theological declaration that we are all creatures of the Divine and a simultaneous humanistic statement that we all reside together in our mutual humanity.

Now we transition to the Sabbatical year, the Sabbath of years.  Land, which people might see as purely an object, an inanimate entity to be used as needed, assumes the same persona as “your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements.”  The land is afforded its own rights; thus, the exile in our section is poetically determined by the years that the people failed to provide the land rest. The land is not ultimately yours but belongs to God.  Everything in this world- people, animals, land- are all afforded inherent integrity independent of their economic value.

If everything ultimately belongs to God, then what does it mean to take possession at all.  In truth, the last two parshiyot make it abundantly clear that in essence what God grants is not the land in perpetuity, but the usage of the land.  In other words, we are not the owners of the land, but the stewards of the land.  As stewards, we have a moral responsibility of care, represented by the notion of the Sabbatical year, just as we have a social responsibility to those who live in our midst on a weekly basis.

This point is made most strikingly by the term ger, stranger, invoked in both the context of the Sabbath of Days and Sabbath of Years (Ex.20:10, Lev. 25:23).   Unlike your brother or sister, the stranger is not specifically your kin, and one might think therefore they are not part of your circle of concern.   The obligation to allow the stranger in your midst to rest is a radical statement, commanding us to afford the same dignity and concern to those beyond our inner circle.  Moses in his recap of the Sabbath commandment reminds us that we were gerim– strangers in the land of Egypt, and for this reason the Egyptians saw us as ‘less than,’ turning us into economic assets.  We were completely robbed of our Divine image.

By extension, Moses tells us we need to carry the name of ger with us at all times, even when entering the land of Israel! Remarkably, our relationship to the stranger among us is extended in our parashah to our own status in the land itself!  In the context of selling the land permanently (beyond the Jubilee year), the Torah tells us  “the land is Mine; you are but strangers and residents (gerim v’toshavim) with Me.”  We cannot sell that which is not ours to sell.  While we might believe we own the land, vis-à-vis God we are strangers, merely settling on the land.  This consciousness that even while possessing the land we remain strangers is articulated by none other than the King of Israel, David, who prays for mercy during a time of trouble in Psalm 39.  The King of Israel, the leader of the people, the most powerful man of Israel approaches the Divine saying, “do  not disregard my tears; for like all my forebearers I am an alien resident with You” (Ps. 39:13).  On the one hand he is a resident of the land.  Indeed, if anyone is a resident of the land it would be the king!  And yet, even as he settles the land like all those who came before him, he remains a stranger.  A stranger vis-à-vis who?  God.  The land of Israel is God’s patrimony, and we are invited to settle on it.

This is the intention of Rashi’s statement in the beginning of the Torah.  Nations may lay claim to land, but their claims have no theological basis.  The Canaanites had been given the land, but because of their corrupt ways they lost whatever rights or claims they had.  By extension, in the medieval context, the Christians and Muslim may battle for a claim to the land of Israel, but neither can claim it.  God will take it from them, as God took it from the Canaanites, because they were not morally upright.  However,

For this reason, we cannot emulate the corrupt ways of the native Canaanites nor the Egyptians.  We are forbidden to be like the people from where we came or like the people who we encounter in the land.

You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws.  My rules alone shall you observe, and faithfully follow My laws: I the Lord am your God (Lev.18:3).

The society we create in the Land of Israel must be qualitatively different.  Our claim to Israel is not one of mere power, but one of assuming responsibility for the people who live in the land, and even the land itself.  The disposition is that of a servant, a steward caring for the land.  Shabbat more than any other mitzvah represents our faithfulness to this vision, a world that celebrates the sacred in each of us.

The Israeli public intellectual Micah Goodman underscores this point in his extended meditation on the political implications of the book of Deuteronomy:

The history of political philosophy is the history of the theories of power. Human curiosity in this phenomenon has created many questions. What is the source of those who claim power? How does one amass power? What is the proper way to divide it? What is the mechanism of its use? The book of Deuteronomy considers the impact of power on those who assume it. When people become powerful, they change. In the famous adage of Lord Akton: power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. In other words, there is a direct relation between the amount of power amassed to a person to the level of moral rot that spreads in his soul. As a person becomes more powerful, they become less moral. Or, as Moses hints, power has the potential to transform even those who came out of Egypt, into Egypt! [5]

For this reason, the stranger consciousness and memory of our humble beginning is imprinted again and again in Jewish memory and ritual.  We never forget we are ‘strangers.’

Given this, questions of values and morality are core to who we are as Jews.  The barbarism of the heinous crimes of October 7, and those apologists who would excuse the inexcusable, are proof enough that their claims to the Land are as legitimate as the Crusaders descending on Jerusalem.  It is not that we deny others ‘indigenous’ rights and claim we are indigenous.  In the theology of the parasha, no nation truly has indigenous rights, for the Land belongs to God.  The right to the Land depends on our righteousness and the society we build.   To build a society like this requires collective moral introspection.  Moral introspection reflects a healthy society, and these moral questions are especially important in the times in which we find ourselves.

While we must certainly assume our legitimate right to power to defend those who would destroy us, this is not ultimately the reason we returned home.  The message of this part of the Torah is challenging to some of us, but critical. (Again, other parts of the Torah have different messages.)  We do not have inalienable claims to the Land of Israel, but they are dependent on our faithfulness to our professed sacred historic values.  The nexus of these values are expressed by our faithfulness to the Shabbat, theological principles with deep humanistic implications.

May we soon see better times ahead and may the words of Isaiah be realized.

Thus said God:
Observe what is right and do what is just;
For soon My salvation shall come,
And my deliverance be revealed.

Happy is the mortal who does this,
The one who holds fast to it:
Who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it,
And holds back from doing any evil (Is. 56:1-2).

Shabbat shalom



[1] The source of this attribution is debated and may be a later interpolation into the Rashi manuscript.

[2] Rashi, Genesis 1:1

[3] See Rashbam 26:46, and Blessings and Curses – Over Which Commandments/2 –  for a list of literary parallels that make this point.

[4] To be clear, this section continues invoking the Abrahamic covenant, and that the people would be brought back to the land at a later point, for this covenant underscores an absolute obligation to the future generations of Abraham’s offspring independent of the actions of Abraham’s progeny.

[5] Neum Ha’Acharon shel Moshe [Moses’ final Oration], Maggid, 2014 [my translation].

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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