Most countries are unsure of their borders, which often leads to fights with their neighbors. In the Middle East, there are territorial disputes with virtually every country. Where do you draw a line in the desert? What are the signposts of your frontier?
Often, people don’t know the names of locations in their own country. There is a place in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula called “Ma Baaref,” delineated by a British officer who traveled through the area with a Bedouin guide. When asked the name of a desert oasis, the guide replied “Ma Baaref,” Arabic for “I don’t know.”
The Torah, however, knows. In this week’s portion, G-d tells Moses the exact borders of the Land of Canaan. Each frontier is detailed, along with that of their neighbors — whether Edom in the south or Egypt in the west. Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, known as Rashi, abandons his style of brevity to provide a tour of the new Jewish homeland. Sounding like a cartographer, the 11th Century sage then shows the route the children of Israel took from Egypt through the desert. His tone is enthusiastic.
“Because,” Rashi explains, “many of the commandments are performed in the Land and not outside the Land, it was necessary to write the surrounding borders, to tell you that from these borders and within the commandments are performed.”
In a few words, Rashi provides more than an explanation: He gives us the reason for a Jewish homeland — to perform G-d’s commandments. He also indicates the corollary — where the Jews do not perform G-d’s will, there is no need for a homeland.
Virtually all of the commentators agree with Rashi. They see a direct line from observance and faith to Jewish destiny. When the Jews were loyal to G-d, they moved forward. When they weren’t, the only way was back to Egypt.
Jewish history has not betrayed this axiom. During the Second Temple, the Hasmoneans conquered large tracts of land north and east of the Jewish kingdom. The king and his generals made feasts and invited the sages to participate. Some of the rabbis remained reserved: The Hasmoneans were not following the Torah. As Levites, they were not the legitimate rulers. The House of David was. These rabbis understood that the days of the Hasmonean were numbered.
As a yeshiva student, Shimon Gershon Rosenberg was an enthusiastic believer in the State of Israel. Like many of his teachers and colleagues, he saw the state as holy, the highest priority for any G-d-fearing Jew. He urged yeshiva students to put aside their Talmud and join the army. During the Yom Kippur War of 1973, he saw his tank blown up by the Syrians. Two of his colleagues burned to death. He survived serious injuries.
Rosenberg was most angered by the chilly attitude of the Haredim toward the state and military. Once, he arrived with his colleagues to the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak and demanded to see its principal, Rabbi Elazar Schach. The elderly rabbi was reported to have disparaged the government, and Rosenberg demanded an explanation. Rabbi Schach told the group he had been misquoted and advised them not to believe everything they hear in the media.
At that point, Rosenberg, who later became known as Rav Shagar, asked the rabbi a question that had long bothered him. What did he think of the State of Israel?
Rabbi Schach responded with one word: “Poland.” The meeting was over.
Rosenberg and his friends walked away puzzled. What does Poland have to do with anything?
But the rabbi, born in 1899 and who lived for more than 100 years, was giving his visitors a lesson in history. For the first 42 years of his life, he had moved through Belarus, Lithuania and Poland as a student and then teacher. He remembered the creation of Poland after World War I, envisioned by the League of Nations as a liberal democracy that respected minorities.
The reality was the opposite: Poland became a hellhole for the Jews, persecuted by the government, impoverished by huge taxes. The rabbi saw the collapse of the Jewish community amid infighting, particularly between the Orthodox and the Zionists.
And then World War II came and Poland was no more.
Rav Shagar never forgot his meeting with the principal of Ponevezh. He became plagued by doubts over how a state that preaches atheism can be reconciled with G-d’s will. Toward the end of his life, cut down by pancreatic cancer, Rav Shagar eschewed politics and its labels: “I don’t define myself as right or left, rather everything according to the issue.”
The Hasmonean kingdom lasted about 100 years. Afterwards, the Land of Israel became a vassal of Rome, which appointed its kings, most of them unworthy of the crown. Corruption and bribery were rampant; restrictions were imposed on Torah observance. A new group, which later called themselves Christians, would come to the Temple to provoke the Jews and proselytize to their children.
Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum was regarded as one of the biggest opponents of the Zionist movement before World War II. He fought what he regarded as the Zionist missionary work in his native Hungary: How the secular apparatchiks used religious youngsters from the Mizrahi to infiltrate the Talmudical seminaries and draw the students away from their learning. As the Germans began the Final Solution, he tried three times to enter the Land of Israel and even received a British entry certificate. The Jewish Agency refused to honor the document and demanded that the rabbi pledge to recognize Zionist rule in Palestine. Teitelbaum refused.
After the establishment of Israel, the rabbi was asked whether his tens of thousands of hasidim should work for the destruction of the secular state. He said no — the Jews would suffer.
Perhaps the leadership today should a learn a lesson from this.