Sefer Devarim and Jewish sovereignty

Until the rise of international bodies like the League of Nations and the United Nations only a few generations ago, conquering someone else’s land was perfectly acceptable.

‘TO WHOM, however, did Eretz Yisrael belong?’ Pictured: The Elah Valley. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘TO WHOM, however, did Eretz Yisrael belong?’ Pictured: The Elah Valley.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Sefer Devarim, the last “book” of Torah, is also called Deuteronomy because it contains many laws* that were not presented earlier and are especially relevant to the conquering and settlement of Eretz Yisrael (Land of Israel). Commanded “lareshet” – to conquer and “take possession” – of Canaan, the Jewish people were apparently having doubts about whether this was possible, what it would cost in lives, if they would be successful, and what they should do with the Canaanites.
Contemporary Israelis ask similar questions. Although the words of Torah guide our lives, some have a political meaning today, and may be, for some, controversial. As divine commandments, however, they cannot be ignored. The idea of Jewish sovereignty presented in Deuteronomy, therefore, is critical to understanding the purpose of the Jewish people. It is at the heart of the question: why did we need a homeland and do we need one now?
Jewish sovereignty is not nationalism as a political entity, but the realization of a spiritual mission and ideal; it expresses the purpose of the Jewish people and it is the basis for the creation of a Jewish civilization.
Moving from wandering in the wilderness to establishing a homeland, from tribal encampments to cities and from nomadic exile to permanent settlement, the Jewish people had to fight wars. At least as important, moreover, they struggle to establish a Jewish identity in the midst of foreign inhabitants and idolatry. All of this requires inner fortitude and national unity.
Unsure of their mission and whether they were up to it, the Israelites were afraid. That’s why Deuteronomy is filled with exhortations to be strong and courageous, and promises that things will turn out well if they will observe the commandments and build in the land which God promised them a society that will reflect God’s presence.
Moses’ directive is clear: take possession of the land, your inheritance from God, the land that was promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, a land of blessings – and curses, depending on how one behaves. The Jewish people, unlike other conquerors, did not seek possession for its own sake, but sought to create a place which was dedicated to a spiritual purpose, a civilization focused on Shechina – God’s presence.
In order to accomplish its task, the Jewish people needed a country, a physical representation of a spiritual direction, a political entity with laws and institutions – Jewish sovereignty. The essence of Jewish sovereignty, therefore, is to demonstrate that Eretz Yisrael, like the whole world, belongs to God. God is sovereign and the sovereignty of the Jewish people derives from that Divine authority.
LARESHET, THE word in Torah used to describe the initial stages of this process, is from the root yud-resh-shin (inherit). Understanding the word depends on its use in context: conquest, taking control, possession, and establishing one’s authority – sovereignty – as a spiritual act mandated by God.
Lareshet appears many times in Deuteronomy, often in connection with nun-het-lamed-taf , which is also translated as inheritance. Although in Hebrew, the “roots” are of three letters, they come in “families” that have a common two-letter root with a common meaning. These cognates, sort of “brothers” or “cousins” of yud-resh-shin, include: yerusha/morasha (inheritance); rashut (authority, ownership) from the root resh-alef-shin; rashum (registered) from the root resh-shin-mem; reshut (permission) from the root resh-shin-heh; and rechush (property) and rachash (acquire) from the root resh-kaf-shin – expressions of one’s legal rights and relationship to property.
To whom, however, did Eretz Yisrael belong? The land that the Jews conquered and occupied was inhabited by various tribes, city-states and powerful kings, some native and others not, like Hittites from what is now Turkey and Philistines from what is now Greece. What right did Jews have to conquer this territory and occupy it? Even more problematic, why were they commanded to annihilate and/or expel those who would not accept Jewish sovereignty? And why only in Eretz Yisrael?
Perhaps anticipating this challenge, Torah emphasizes over and over the sanctity of this specific area and the purpose of Jewish conquest and sovereignty: the establishment of an earthly kingdom that would reflect the Kingdom of God.
The problem was not what others might say, since until the rise of international bodies like the League of Nations and the United Nations only a few generations ago, conquering someone else’s land was perfectly acceptable. Land and property were taken by the more powerful, often provoking wars, without objection – except by the victims. Who cared if the Jews conquered Canaan/Eretz Yisrael?
The Jewish people cared. Torah and Jewish law have much to say about these practical issues, and apply a unique set of principles and values. The commandment to take possession (lareshet) is not only a statement of power, but exercising the legitimate right of inheritance – a legitimacy grounded in God’s promise and in the purpose of the act. Establishing one’s ownership and responsibility (reshut) is the basis for Jewish sovereignty (ribonut).
Reshut implies law, the inherent right of taking control over one’s inherited property, the legitimacy of ownership and the exercise of authority. Lareshet, however, means carrying out the act practically, and thereby creating a new reality; it means not only taking possession of what belongs to you, but to be mindful of what you do with it.
UNLIKE MODERN concepts of political self-determination, Jewish sovereignty is unique because it represents the national and religious focus of the Jewish people as a political entity, a commonwealth and a civilization. Grounded in four millennia of history, Jewish sovereignty includes the institutions of statehood and Jewish identity with the destiny of the Jewish People. Both national and transnational, its form is specific, but its content is transcendent; it occupies space, but exists in the realm of time.
The sovereignty of the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael is not only a political act, but a moral and spiritual one. Jewish sovereignty, therefore, does not depend on what the international community decides, but on what Torah commands – redeeming Eretz Yisrael by returning it to the Jewish people,** enacting a system of justice and fair laws, hukkim u’mishpatim, which express the values of human dignity and the concept that God is One.
Jewish sovereignty in Eretz Yisrael, therefore, is the expression of the most basic concept in Judaism: Monotheism, and the ethics and values which it represents.
In reality, however, things get confused. Described in scripture and discovered in archeology, some (perhaps many) Israelites, apparently adopted Canaanite idol worship. The prophets, especially Jeremiah, railed against idolatry in the Temple and in the monarchy and warned of the consequences. As a result, Jewish civilization was destroyed by the Babylonians and the Jews were taken into exile. The Jewish people returned to Eretz Yisrael, rebuilt the Temple and reestablished Jewish sovereignty, but failed again to heed the words of Torah and the prophets; the Romans destroyed the Temple and Jewish civilization, and again took the Jews into exile.
Galut (exile) is still with us and Geula (redemption) awaits to awaken and inspire, to realize God’s presence. Now back in Eretz Yisrael, more than ever, the Jewish people need to understand the spiritual meaning of Lareshet – to wipe out paganism and via Jewish sovereignty, bring the awareness of One God.
*Judaism is filled with laws and values, not only as restrictions, but to provide the structure for a spiritual life. Talmudic discussions by rabbis of the meaning and interpretations of Torah law are meant as behavioral and cognitive guides, a step-by-step understanding of holiness and humanness.
**That is the meaning of what Maimonides (Rambam) (Hilchot Trumah) called yerusha hashlishit, the third epoch of Jewish inheritance and sovereignty.
The writer is a PhD historian, writer and journalist living in Jerusalem.