We Are NOT the ‘Baalei HaBayit’!
The sentiment that “we are the baalei habayit” (rough translation- we’re the boss) was more than a campaign slogan on behalf of the “Jewish Power” party. It is an accurate expression of their fundamental ethos, which, to my mind, represents a complete inversion of the religious idea of what Zionism is about, as it is reflected in this week’s Torah portion, and indeed throughout the Torah, from beginning to end.
This is perfectly demonstrated in what the Rabbis saw as the first assertion of “Jewish power” since the land was promised to Avraham. In this week’s Parsha, Avraham and his entourage return to Canaan from Egypt laden with sheep and cattle. But there isn’t enough area available for both Avraham and Lot’s flocks to graze. The Torah tells us that a fight breaks out between their shepherds, but the Midrash explains this fight in a surprising and unexpected way. It wasn’t a straightforward fight about land. Rather, it was about the solution that Lot’s shepherds had adopted- to graze their flock in land owned by the locals. After all, they argued, the land has been promised to us by God. We are the baalei habayit! Avraham’s shepherds opposed their assertion of ownership, insisting that it was theft, because the land had not yet been taken from the Canaanites and given to Avraham.
This raises an interesting question- why not? Why had God only promised the land to Avraham, but not yet fulfilled His promise? God actually gives an explicit answer to this question in the Brit Bein HaBetarim later in our Parsha. “And they shall return in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Breishit 15:16). The Jewish people can only enter the land once its current inhabitants have rightfully lost their claim to it, based on their own actions, and not before.
The idea that control over the land of Israel is contingent on a nation’s behavior and righteousness in God’s eyes runs with absolute consistency throughout all of Tanach, and, at least as far as Rashi is concerned, it starts with the very first verse in the Torah.
“Rabbi Yitzchak said: The Torah should have started with ‘And this month is for you’, which is the first mitzvah that Israel was commanded. Why did it begin with ‘Breishit’? Because ‘He informed his nation of the power of his deeds, to give them a portion among the nations’, that should the nations of the world come to Israel and say- ‘You are thieves, because you conquered the lands of the seven nations’, they could respond ‘All of the land belongs to God. He created it, and gave it to the one who was righteous in His eyes. He wanted to give it to them, and he wanted to take it from them and give it to us.’” (Rashi Breishit 1:1)
The Torah’s wants to begin with this most critical lesson: God is the baal habayit. And it is He who decides to whom the land goes. There is a critical phrase in this Rashi that is too often glossed over. God gave the land to the one “who was righteous in his eyes.” Initially, he gave the land to the Canaanites. Only once they lost their rights to the land on account of their sins was God willing to allow Avraham’s children to have their chance. But the conditions were the very same, as the Torah incessantly repeats as the Jewish people prepare to enter the land (especially in Vayikra chapter 26, and in Devarim constantly), and as the prophets constantly warn. This is what the religious idea of Zionism is. It is a radical departure from standard political thinking based on power. The religious idea of Zionism claims that we are not the baalei habayit, and therefore, our control of this land is not ultimately dependent on our control and power, but on the way our behavior lives up to the expectation of the true Baal HaBayit.
Actually, the surest path to bad behavior is to mistakenly believe that we are the baalei habayit, and therefore, to think that what best ensures our survival here is our own Jewish power, and therefore, power is the ultimate value that trumps all others. When you are the baal habayit, it is not only that you can do whatever you want- you can and must do whatever needs to be done to maintain your power, no matter how violent or immoral. This misconception is the very essence of idol worship- “to the work of their own hands they bow” (Yeshayahu 2:8), and particularly, of the most popular idol worship of the nations of Canaan- the worship of the Baal.
For a Religious Zionist like myself, this – more than Iran, more than Hamas- poses the greatest existential threat to our presence on this land. Avraham is promised and receives the land precisely because he recognizes that he is not the baal habayit. We will merit this land only if we continue in his path, and only if that recognition leads us to actions that are righteous in God’s eyes.