You are reading the Devarim Dvar Torah from 2013/5773. You can also visit the current Dvar Torah for Parshat Devarim

Dvar Torah on Parshat Devarim

Parashat Hashavua Devarim 2013 / 5773 - Who's Country is It? And Who Needs Countries? The Torah's View on Nations and Their Homelands

08.07.2013 by

In recent years, existing western notions of nationhood, ownership of land, and national identity have been questioned. It is fashionable, in some quarters, to see the very idea of the nation-state as a not very old or respectable idea whose usefulness, if it ever had any, is certainly over, and we are on the way to a brave new world world in which the EU, the UN, and Google/Facebook will be the models of government for the future - a world without nation states, without borders, and without the "horrors" of nationalism. Often, the State of Israel seems to be the first country expected to bear the brunt of this new thinking, and renounce its status as the homeland and nation-state of the Jewish people, as the narrowness and specificity of that definition and identity is unacceptable to this approach. This week's parsha contains some material which, I think, sees these subjects a bit differently.

This week we begin the Book of Devarim - Deuteronomy - the last of the five books of the Chumash. It is radically different from the first four books, in that it consists of the speeches Moshe made to the people of Israel during the last days of his life, prior to his death and the appointment of Yehoshua as his successor. Much of the book, and of this week's parsha, consists of a review of what the people have gone through, physically and spiritually. This week, Moshe recalls some of the difficulties he had with the nation, including, crucially, the sin of the spies. He describes that tragedy, and what happened afterwards, focusing on the various interactions the nation had with peoples living in the area which the Israelites had to traverse to get to promised land.

As we were originally told back in Bamidbar, when it all happened in real time, some of these nations engaged militarily with the Israelites. First, the Emori defeated the group which, immediately after the sin of the spies, went against God's instructions and tried to go up to the Land of Israel on their own. After that, the nation travelled northward, to the land inhabited by the decendants of Yaakov's brother Esav, the land of Seir. God told the Israelites that the inhabitants of Seir were to be treated peacefully, as, Moshe explains, we had no designs on their land, which was rightfully theirs. We were also instructed to buy any water or food we might need from them, and not to simply take it.

Moshe goes on to remind the Israelites that the same approach was mandated for the people of Moav and Amon, decendants of Lot, Avraham's nephew. We are meant to understand that we do not have the right to conquer their land, it is historically theirs, all we ask is to peacefully pass through it.  In actual fact, it  seems that these three nations all refused to allow the Israelites to pass through their land, nor are we sure that they agreed to sell them water and food. Nonetheless, the Israelites, though meant to remember the fact that the Amonites and Moavites failed to supply them with food and water, and hold that against them and not allow them to marry into the Jewish people (see Devarim, 23; 4-7, for the details), were not allowed to engage them in battle. (Why the Edomites are remembered somewhat more positively, though they seem to have acted in the same way, is a matter of some speculation. For more, see the Ramban on Devarim 23, verse 5.)  At this stage Moshe goes on a fairly long digression, explaining in much detail ("...Refaim lived there in the past, and the Amonites call them Zamzumim...and God destroyed them ...and they took their land and dwelt there in their stead...") how the Amonites and Moavites came to posess the land we are now politely asking to pass through.

Moshe goes on to recall that  a very different approach was taken, however, when the Israelites approach the land of Sichon, King of Cheshbon, the Emori. Here the Jews were told to conquer the land, and take it and their possessions as spoils of war. This, they are told, will strike fear in the hearts of the other nations, and will mark the start of the Israelite conquest. What happens next is interesting. The Jews send emissaries to Sichon, with a message of peace. They request permission to travel through their land and purchase food and drink, promising to peacefully pass through and "not deviate to the right or left". The Israelites remind Sichon that this is the same offer they made to the sons of Esav and the Amonites and Moavites, and that they would stick to this arrangement with them as well. Moshe tells us, though, that Sichon did not agree to this proposal, "for the Lord your God hardened his spirit and made strong his heart, so as to give him over into your hand...". And, in fact, Sichon comes out to war against the Jews and is defeated, his land conquered and his people destroyed. The same happened next, Moshe goes on to recall, with Og, king of Bashan, who comes to do battle with the Israelites and whose lands are taken by them as well.

Why is this list of military and non-military interactions gone over again and again? Why, after having read the original story back in Bamidbar, is it recalled again here, in such detail, and referred to again in parshat Ki Tetse (chapter 23)? As to the details of the story, what are we meant to make of the distinctions between these various nations, and why are we given their histories in such detail? What is the importance of the recurring element of passing through the land and purchasing supplies? And why, if these offers are refused, do we simply accept the refusal and move on? Why don't we demand these things, rather than just moving on and bearing a grudge against Amon and Moav for their refusal? And why is Sichon and his people, the Emori, offered the same deal, but not really given the chance to say yes, as God hardens his heart and he goes right to battle, which God says he is destined to lose?

It would seem that these stories need to be told at this juncture, just as the Israelites are getting ready to cross the Jordan, enter the land of Israel, and begin a diplomatic and military campaign to take the land. These stories, taken together, form a sort of Genva Convention, the rules of war for the Jewish people to follow as they enter the most important military canmpaign in our people's history - the conquest of the promised land - and then become a fully functioning free country, with an army, a government, and a state department. 

The first principal of statecraft and warfare that these stories seem to teach us is that nations have rights to their territory. There is a history that must be respected, ancient claims which are valid. So valid, that other nations do not even have the right to peacefully pass through the land belonging to another people, nor to take their resources, without permission. As justified as the Israelites are in their desire to get to the land which God promised them, and in which their forefathers dwelt, this does not give them the right to pass through the lands of other nations. All we have the right to do is to ask them to pass through and to pay a fair price for supplies, and they have the right to say no! And all we can do, if they do refuse us, is be mad at them, as we are with the Amonites and Moavites, and detour peacefully around their lands. 

I can not overstate how radical, in a world where might makes right and kings defined themselves by their military conquests, this is. The Torah "wastes" quite a few verses detailing the complicated histories of these lands and peoples, mentioning otherwise unheard of ancient nations (Refaim, Chorim, Eimim, Avim, Kaftorim, Zamzumim) in order to explain that there are nations with land that they can legitimately claim as theirs, and we  have no right to take them away from them, or even use them without permission. An interesting aspect of this is that, though the lands do historically belong to them, we still do have an expectation that it would be right of them to allow us to pass through when we need to, and buy food and water from them, which is a nod in the opposite direction, towards a notion of universal, shared rights to the earth and its resources, but it is only a nod. Basically, nations exist, they have histories in certain places, and those histories grant them rights to the lands in which they live. As the Torah shows us in its explanation of how Seir, Amon, and Moav got to their homelands, these histories are usually complicated, but they can be unravelled (they must be, if we are to identify legitimate owners), and they must be respected. It is the Land of Israel we have rights to, because of our specific historical relationship to it. Just as we want others to recognize and respect that, we are taught here to recognize and respect the claims of others on their homelands. 

The story of Sichon, in which God hardens his heart against accepting the Israelite's offer, would seem to indicate that some nations, for whatever reasons, do NOT have these rights. The Jewish tradition consistently sees Sichon, and the subsequent victim of Israel's military prowess, Og, King of Bashan, who also attacked Israel and lost, as extraordinarily warlike and aggressive. Perhaps their specific history and behavior caused them to lose their natural rights, and made it appropriate or neccessary for God to rid the area of their presence, by encouraging them to suicidally challenge the Israelites. The fact that, at least pro forma, the offer of a peaceful interaction was made to Sichon by Israel indicates that, in some theoretical way at least, he did deserve the same treatment, it was his behavior that caused his people to lose that right. 

Crucially, the Torah here shows us that the concept of the nation-state, and its connection to historical territory, and personal identity, is indeed a primordial one - no matter when you believe the Torah was written, it is certainly not the product of 19th century European thinking. The Torah tells us that in the ancient world people had histories that were known, which connected them to specific territory, and that that connection deserves to be respected. Our connection is to the Land of Israel, and we see it as God-given. Other nations feel the same way about their homelands, and they are right.

As an Israeli, I feel quite confident that we live up to the standards set here by the Torah, in terms of our connection to the land of our forefathers, and in our attempts to deal with the nations around us, who also have histories and connections to this and other lands. I certainly feel better about our behavior than an American should feel about Iraq, Afghanistan, or, for that matter, the southwestern US. Come to think of it, better than all Canadians and Americans should feel about their recently created homelands, taken, as they were, from their aboriginal owners. We here in Israel bear the brunt of anti-colonial thinking, when we are the exact opposites of colonialists; with a minimum of unravelling it becomes clear that we are indigenous.  Ironically, those charges of colonialism are coming from people in Manhattan, San Francisco, Massachusetts, and other places whose very names indicate who actually stole whose land.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Shimon Felix

The first principal of statecraft and warfare that these stories seem to teach us is that nations have rights to their territory.Rabbi Shimon

Torah Portion Summary - Devarim


The Book of Devarim, the last book of the Chumash, begins with the parsha of Devarim - Words - in which Moshe begins his long, final, farewell address - actually series of addresses - to the Jewish people before he dies. Moshe reviews various incidents which took place during the forty years in the desert, stressing the difficulty he had in leading the people. He reminds the Israelites of their sins during their sojourn in the desert, particularly the sin of the spies. He also reviews the military and diplomatic interactions they have had with the nations near the land of Canaan, as they approach the promised land.

Previous Divrei Torah For Parsha Devarim
Get inspired by Devarim Divrei Torah from previous years

About Us

Every week, brings you a rich selection of material on parshat hashavua, the weekly portion traditionally read in synagogues all over the world. Using both classic and contemporary material, we take a look at these portions in a fresh way, relating them to both ancient Jewish concerns as well as cutting-edge modern issues and topics. We also bring you material on the Jewish holidays, as well as insights into life cycle rituals and events...

Read more on Parsha of the Week