The Commandment to Settle the Land

  • Rav Michael Hattin








In memory of our beloved father and grandfather,
Fred Stone, Ya'acov Ben Yitzchak,
whose yahrzeit is Sunday 25 Tammuz, July 15th.
Ellen, Stanley, Jacob Chaya, Zack, Yael, Ezra, Yoni, Eliana, and Gabi Stone.



The Commandment to Settle the Land


By Rav Michael Hattin





The double Parasha of Matot-Masei concludes the Book of Bemidbar.  The first section of Matot begins with a detailed description of laws relating to vows, and then continues with an account of the battle against Midian and its aftermath.   It concludes with the unexpected request of the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe to remain east of the Jordan in order to settle the recently conquered territory of the Amorite kings.  The parasha of Masei opens with a listing of the people's journeys through the wilderness, and goes on to delineate the territory of the Land of Israel.  It then describes the institution of Levitical cities, introduces the legislation concerning the cities of refuge, and concludes with an account of the daughters of Zelofchad marrying within their own tribe.  As in the last few parashiyot, much of this lengthy double section's attention pivots around the point of the people's imminent entry into the Land.


The Vision of the Land


In many ways, it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that the entire thrust of the Torah's trajectory is directed towards the Land of Canaan.  Recall that the Patriarchal accounts began with God's sudden charge to Avraham to leave his Mesopotamian birthplace and to journey westwards to 'the land that I will show you.'  The backdrop against which the narratives of the Book of Bereishit subsequently unfold is that land.  The protagonists, the founders of the people of Israel, live their lives on its soil and, when forced to leave it, longingly dream of their return.


The oppressiveness of exile and the promise of redemption that colors much of the Book of Shemot is again bound up with the concept of the land.  God's oath to redeem His people, His revelation to them of His law at Sinai, and the providential care with which He guides them as they take their first halting steps as a free, conscious nation are in order to soon bring them to the land, a 'land flowing with milk and honey.'


The people remain at Sinai for some time.  There they learn the precious lessons of faith, of trust, and of attentiveness to a higher moral law and a more exalted calling.  But the intent of their wilderness stay, described in the Book of Vayikra, is to prepare them for a new life as a sovereign nation in their own land.  The Torah was never meant to be studied as a merely conceptual exercise, but rather to be experienced and lived out as a comprehensive and concrete reality.


Finally, with the Book of Bemidbar, the tangible preparations necessary in order for the people to travel towards the land and to enter it are undertaken.  The people are counted and organized and the journey begins.  Although terribly delayed by the episode of the Spies, that initial goal remains fixed on the horizon, to be attempted again some thirty-eight years later.  As the Book concludes, the people stand at the very gates of the land, patiently encamped at the Plains of Moav and awaiting the directive to go forwards.


The Book of Devarim, constituting Moshe's final words of instruction, exhortation and encouragement, expresses a striking series of admonitions and warnings to the people.  The Torah's general polemic against idolatry is spelled out in this Book with unusual forcefulness, as the blandishments of the Canaanites are roundly and repeatedly condemned.  At the same time, the praise of the land, its beauty and fertility, are frequently described.  Again and again, Moshe's personal and poignant desire to cross the Jordan is seamlessly linked with his loftier vision of Israel's national destiny that is soon to unfold.


The Commandment to Settle the Land


This week, we shall look at the Torah's command to settle the land, particularly as expressed in the eloquent words of the Ramban (13th century, Spain).  It is indeed instructive to note that the Ramban himself, in a move highly unusual for his time and place, settled in Israel towards the end of his life, taking up residence in Jerusalem.  After successfully defending his faith and his people at the celebrated dispute with the Dominican Friars held before King James of Aragon at Barcelona in 1263, Ramban was forced into exile from Spain and arrived in Israel in 1267.  There he remained until his death in 1270.


"God spoke to Moshe at the Plains of Moav, at the Jordan across from Yericho saying: 'Speak to Bnei Yisrael and say to them: you are passing over the Jordan and entering the land of Canaan.  You shall drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all of their shrines.  Demolish their idolatrous images and obliterate their high places of worship.  Drive out the inhabitants of the land and settle it, for I have given the land to you to as an inheritance.  Divide the land by lot according to your families, so that the numerous receive a larger portion and the few receive less.  It shall be theirs according to the lot, by their tribes they shall inherit it.  If you fail to drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those that you allow to remain shall be as thorns in your eyes and thistles in your sides, for they shall pain you in the land upon which you shall dwell.  That which I contemplated to do to them, I shall do to you instead…'" (Bemidbar 33:50-56).


The Peril of Succumbing to Idolatry


Although the above passage seems unduly harsh, its tone of wariness must be understood against the background of Canaanite culture.  Israel was the ONLY nation of antiquity to espouse a vision of a Single, Absolute God Whose primary will was to guide humanity towards moral and ethical behavior.  The conflict with the Canaanites was not a clash over territory, resources, or trade routes, but rather over values.  The corrupt and corrosive effects of idolatry had to be extirpated in order for the nation of Israel to have any hope of fulfilling its more exalted mission in the world.  Indeed, the Five Books of Moses were about the ongoing internal struggle of Israel to live by the word of God, and to embrace His commands.  The remainder of the Tanakh, however, the flurry of books composed after the entry into the land, were almost without exception about the external struggle of the people to resist the siren call of idolatry, to reject the attractiveness of serving many gods who made no moral or ethical demands and who could be appeased by empty rituals and murderous rites.  We moderns, living in a world that has largely abandoned polytheism and its moral equivocation, can scarcely imagine the national struggle waged by ancient Israel - often reluctantly and always alone! - against every other surrounding people. 


The Torah's warning concerning the 'remaining' inhabitants is a foreshadowing of what may transpire, for the eyes blinded by thorns "cannot see nor understand, so that you will be easily taught to follow their abominations and to serve their gods…straying from Me…" (commentary of the Ramban, 33:53).  God's admonition, 'that which I contemplated to do to them, I shall do to you instead…,' is a veiled reference to exile, for if the people of Israel fail to supplant Canaanite civilization with a more just and upright society, then their God-given rights to the land will be forfeit, and their fate will be no different than that of the inhabitants that they are commanded to drive out.  Again, this constitutes a clear indication that Israel's deed to Canaan is not a function of genetic superiority or of military dominance, but is rather a conditional form of ownership that can only be guaranteed by ongoing adherence to God's word.


The Commentary of the Ramban


Bearing the above in mind, we shall now turn to the Ramban's comments concerning the Torah's injunction to settle the land. "Drive out the inhabitants of the land and settle it, for I have given the land to you to as an inheritance":  'In my opinion, these words constitute a positive commandment, for they are enjoined to dwell in the land and to inherit it, for He has given it to them, and they must not reject God's inheritance.  If they would instead go to conquer the land of Shinar or the land of Assyria with intent to settle there, they would abrogate God's command.  The hyperbolic expressions of our Sages concerning the mitzva to dwell in the Land of Israel and not to leave it…are derived from here, for this verse constitutes a positive command that the Torah repeats elsewhere' (commentary to 33:53).


Here, the Ramban explains that the people of Israel are commanded to dwell in their land and not to leave it, for doing so would constitute an act of rejection.  Apparently, the directive to found a nation loyal to God's laws involves more than simply being sovereign over a particular territory.  The Land of Israel itself is necessary in order to accomplish the goal.  Ramban uses even more emphatic language in his critical remarks on Maimonide's 'Book of the Commandments,' where he attacks the latter's failure to include the mitzva of settling the Land in his tally of the 613 commands:


"The fourth (omission of the Rambam) is the command to inherit the land that God gave to our ancestors Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaacov, and not to allow it to be in the possession of another nation, nor to allow it to remain desolate…and it is a mitzva for all generations.  Our Sages speak in astonishing tones concerning this commandment, for they say that 'whosoever leaves the land to dwell outside of it ought be regarded as one who worships idols' (Talmud Ketubot 110b)…therefore, this is a positive commandment forever that obligates each individual, even during the time of Exile…the Sifre adds: 'when Rabbi Yehuda ben Betayra, Rabbi Matya ben Cheresh, Rabbi Chananya nephew of Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Natan had to leave Eretz Yisrael, they journeyed as far as Palatia.  They remembered Eretz Yisrael and began to cry, rending their garments.  They recalled the verse 'you shall inherit it and dwell in it and observe the laws.'  They concluded 'dwelling in Eretz Yisrael is equivalent to all of the other mitzvot!'" (Hasagot HaRamban, Mitzvat Asei 4).


As the Ramban suggests, dwelling in the land is, in his view, a prerequisite for Bnei Yisrael being successful in their task of nation building.  Autonomy over another land is insufficient.  This implies that the Torah is not only a comprehensive way of life that ideally encompasses the national framework, in addition to impacting upon the individual and the community.  If that were so, then there should be no objection to the people of Israel exercising national rule over a different land, and there instituting the Torah's directives.  Rather, the unique quality of the land, its special spiritual status as a vertex in material space imbued with the experience of the Divine, is that which defines its centrality in the Torah's perspective.


The 'Holiness Code' of Sefer Vayikra


Support for the Ramban's thesis can be found in the Book of Vayikra, in the lengthy sections that call upon Israel to be holy and to refrain from immoral and immodest sexual practices.  After an exhaustive list of forbidden relationships, the Torah concludes: "Do not become defiled (tiTaMU) by all these things, for the nations that I am driving out before you became defiled by them.  The land became defiled, and I was cognizant of its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants.  Therefore, you shall keep my decrees and laws and not perform any of these abominations…for such did the people of the land before you and the land became defiled.  Let not the land vomit you out should you defile it, as if vomited out the people before you…" (Vayikra 18:24-28).


The recurring use of the root 'TaMAi' in this passage, always associated with some sort of spiritual infirmity, coupled with the bold metaphor of the land 'vomiting out' its inhabitants, highlights the unique spiritual characteristics of the land.  Those who dwell in it, be they Canaanite or Israelite, must live up to its more stringent demands or else invite exile from it.  The driving out of the Canaanites that the Torah invariably connects with the command to settle the land is thus recast as the natural consequence of their incorrigible corruption, rather than implying a harsh directive to expel indigenous peoples in order to repossess their land.  With unparalleled boldness, the Torah announces in our Parasha that the fate of the Israelites, God's own, will too be a function of their conduct, and that the privilege of dwelling in the land can be withdrawn! 


Ramban's Commentary on Vayikra


In a lengthy essay on the above verses, the Ramban explores the unique attributes of the land, suggesting that God exercises a more profound and intimate degree of providence over its borders.  Concluding his remarks, he states that the 'people of Canaan were not the only ones guilty of these crimes, for the passage explicitly charges the Egyptians with similar conduct!  Nevertheless, the land of Egypt was not expected to vomit out its people, nor any other land to expel its inhabitants, for the matter is completely a function of the exalted state and sanctity of Eretz Yisrael…" (commentary to Vayikra 18:25, end).


For the Ramban, dwelling in the land of Israel is a special privilege as well as a great responsibility.  Securing its borders is a Divine command, but it is a command that must be associated with a commitment to live an exemplary national and individual life.  The promise of redemption that has sustained us for so long is predicated upon a vision of a better world, a more just and moral society, and a sensitivity to God's presence.  The land of Israel is the linchpin of this vision, the necessary environment for it to unfold, but is not an end unto itself.  Physical redemption must be followed by spiritual redemption, or else it remains a hollow illusion.


Shabbat Shalom