Deuteronomy, the book of Jewish sovereignty

Jewish sovereignty is nationalism not as a political entity, but as a spiritual ideal.

Northen Negev 311 (photo credit: SPNI Open Landscape Institute)
Northen Negev 311
(photo credit: SPNI Open Landscape Institute)
The last “book” of Torah, Devarim (words), is also called Deuteronomy because it contains many laws especially relevant to the conquering and settlement of Eretz Yisrael (Land of Israel) that were not presented in the first four books.
It reflects the transition from the end of one period to the anticipation of another. Having been enslaved in Egypt for hundreds of years, having escaped and wandered the desert for 40 years, the Jewish people are about to experience a new leader and engage in “taking possession” of Canaan, Eretz Yisrael.
Although these words are politically loaded today, historically they are commonplace. Jewish sovereignty, however, is different. It is nationalism not as a political entity, but as a spiritual ideal.
Moving from wandering in wilderness to establishing a homeland, from tribal encampments to cities, from nomadic exile to permanent settlement, the Jewish people will have to fight wars. At least as important, moreover, they struggle to establish a Jewish civilization in the midst of foreign inhabitants and idolatry. All of this requires inner fortitude and national unity that had never been tested.
No doubt the Israelites were unsure of their mission and whether they were up to it. It is therefore no surprise that this section of Torah is filled with exhortations not to be afraid, 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 oneness and majesty.
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. Unlike other conquerors, the Jewish people did not seek power, but rather to create a place dedicated to a spiritual purpose, a civilization focused on Shechina – God’s presence.
The essence of Jewish sovereignty is that Eretz Yisrael belongs to God. God is sovereign, and the sovereignty of the Jewish people derives from that.
The right to rule does not depend on one’s ability to conquer, but on what one does afterwards.
To accomplish its task the Jewish people needs a country, a physical representation of a spiritual direction, a political entity with laws and institutions – Jewish sovereignty. The word that appears in Torah to describe the initial stages of this process is “lareshet,” from the root yud-reshshin (inherit). Understanding of the word depends on its context: conquest, taking control and establishing one’s authority – sovereignty – as a spiritual act mandated by God.
Translated as “taking possession,” lareshet appears many times, 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” which have a common two-letter root and 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-shinmem; reshut (permission) from the root resh-shin-heh; rechush (property) and rachash (acquire) from the root resh-kaf-shin – all expressions of concepts of legal rights and relationship to property. To whom, however, did the land belong? The land which 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 to them. 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 to taking control over one’s inherited property, the legitimacy of ownership and the exercise of authority. But lareshet means carrying out the act, thereby creating a new reality.
Unlike modern concepts of political self-determination, Jewish sovereignty is unique because it represents the national and religious focus of the Jewish people in an entity, a commonwealth and a civilization. Grounded in four millennia of history, Jewish sovereignty is both the institutions of statehood and the dimensions of 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.
Lareshet – taking possession of what belongs to you – means not only to occupy and extend authority, but to be mindful of what you do with that authority. As an expression of Jewish sovereignty, the State of Israel is consistent with this meaning.
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 just and fair laws, hukkim u’mishpatim, that express the values of human dignity and the concept that God is One.
The author is a PhD historian, writer and journalist living in Jerusalem.