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Parshat Devarim

A singular nation or a nation like all nations?

The story of how the People of Israel came to settle in the Land of Israel, as related in this week’s parsha, is part of a much greater story that involves movements of nations, the rise and fall of empires, and the disappearance of primal tribes from the stage of history. Esav’s descendants destroyed the Horites when they conquered Mount Seir. (2, 3; 2, 12) Lot’s children took the land of Moab from the Emim. (2, 9-11) The Ammonites, also descendants of Lot, conquered the Rephaim. (2, 19-20) The Caphtorim wiped out the Avvim and settled in their land in the area of Gaza. (2, 23)

In this context the People of Israel are commanded to rise up against Sihon the Ammorite, king of Heshbon, and conquer his land. (2, 24) Similarly, they defeat Og, the King of Bashan, and then two and a half tribes of Israel settle these lands. In these verses God is depicted as the Master of all of human history; as the decider of the fate of nations, not just that of Israel, He gives lands and takes them away. Like the well known quote from the first Rashi in the Torah, “With His will He gives to them, and with His will He took from them and gave to others.”

As Ramban explains here:    

“It is improper to steal that which God gave Esav, for God will get angry at anyone who steals from the portion the Blessed One gave him, just as He will get angry at anyone who steals the land of Israel after He gave it to them…” (Ramban, Devraim 2, 10-11)

Within this context it seems possible that the connection between the People of Israel and the Land of Israel is not one of segulah- the Chosen People and the Chosen Land, a story unparalleled in the history of humankind. This parsha allows for an entirely different narrative- that of one nation among nations, subject to the same rules they are; one nation among many whom God has gifted, willed, with a portion of land, an inheritance for generations, and a chance for self-determination.

Echoes of both accounts reverberate through generations of Jewish thought. The sources that relate the virtue of the Land of Israel, that which makes it unique among all lands and explains the singular relationship of the Chosen People of Israel with the Chosen Land of Israel, are well known. Rav Avraham Yirzchak HaCohen Kook, one of the most prominent champions of this approach in recent generations, writes in Orot Yisrael:

The Land of Israel is not something external, an external acquisition that belongs to the People of Israel, a medium to achieve the goal of uniting the people and supporting their material, or even spiritual, existence. The Land of Israel is a powerful unit that is vitally bound to the nation, inexorably and inherently tied with internal bonds of segulah to her existence.

 Rav Kook emphasizes the difference between the political and geographic relationship that other nations have with their land, and the physical and spiritual relationship that the People of Israel have with their land, the source of their vitality. The latter is comparable to the relationship between different limbs of the same body. According to this point of view, even if they look similar the nationalist revivals that shaped countries in the modern age is extrinsically different from the parallel process of Zionism that led to the return of the People of Israel to their land. The root of this approach can be traced back to Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi in the Kuzari who explains that “The People of Israel among the nations is like the heart among the organs.”

In contrast, other sources build upon the idea found in this week’s parsha. The Maharal writes:

 “There is no doubt that exile is a change and deviation from the [natural] order. For God, blessed be He, ordered every nation in its proper place and ordered Israel in the place that is appropriate for them, which is the Land of Israel. And exile from their place is a complete change and deviation. As is with all things, when they leave their natural place.” (Netzach Yisrael, I)

While Maharal himself raises the contrasting approach in a number of places, it is important to note that in this source he compares the concept that each nation has its own natural place to the concept that the Land of Israel is the natural place of the People of Israel. Clearly, this is not something unique to Israel; every nation possesses their own cultural vitality along with an essential connection to their land. “Man is but an imprint of his homeland’s landscape.” Other nations also draw from the climate, geographic environment, topographical features, type of agriculture, length of the day and night, and the seasons that typify their home. All these things influence the shared atmosphere, society, relationships, folklore, and ethos of a culture. And a nation that naturally has certain characteristics will strive to make their home in a place that allows them to achieve the exact internal balance that is right for them.

Both of the prevalent images used to describe the relationship between Israel and the other nations of the world are reflected in this discussion. One image is that of the seed and the shell. The People of Israel are the foundation of the throne of God in this world, and this is expressed by the special attention and chosen status Israel received. Israel is placed in the chosen land, singled out among all other nations and positioned at the center of a historic event, greater and more spiritual than all else.

The second image is that of one nation among the many others that make up humankind; Israel stands beside all other nations. While the Torah focuses on Israel and the image of a chosen people it also hints at the world beyond, an entire expanse of humanity, a multi-cultural world, based on the concept that every nation has the right to be different and develop their own national or tribal culture and ethos. These two images go hand in hand with the aspiration to draw from the other nations and the challenge of incorporating into our tradition meaningful insights which the boundaries and heights of the Land of Israel make unattainable. Hence the need for an extended exile scattered amongst the nations of the world.

The tension between these two descriptions is the tension between the description that “you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” and the depiction of “a nation like all nations.” This tension is an inherent component of our sources and a source of vitality for the complex outlook of our people. The ability to compare our right to the Land of Israel to the right that other nations have for self-determination exists alongside the certitude of our moral and spiritual superiority over other nations.

We acknowledge that a Jew is preferable to a gentile, yet maintain that all of humanity shares the same origin and every person was created in the image of God. This tension is not meant to be resolved. It is what allows us to examine ourselves from two perspectives, both externally and internally, at the same time. It is an expression of our obligation to constant, reflexive self-evaluation. We need to be able to see our actions from both points of view, and show mercy and kindness while pursuing security and justice. This is the unique essence of the People of Israel, as it has been for generation upon generation.

Sun, February 25 2024 16 Adar I 5784