After a forty-year journey in the desert, Bnei Yisrael arrive at the plains of Moav. Scarred by the suffering of Egyptian slavery and the tribulations of decades of wandering in the wilderness, they now stand at the gateway to the Promised Land, facing a painful and difficult reality: the land is not uninhabited. The region that was promised to their forefathers is full of inhabitants, none of whom want Bnei Yisrael to be there.
The Torah addresses this situation in our parsha.:
“If you say in your heart, “These nations are more numerous than I; how will I be able to drive them out?” (Devarim 7).
This is a serious demographic problem. The nations living in the land are more numerous than Bnei Yisrael, and there appears to be no military solution to the problem. What will Bnei Yisrael do in this land in which they are outnumbered?
The Torah’s answer is surprising:
“Do not fear them! Remember well what THE LORD YOUR GOD did to Paro and to all of Egypt; the great trials which your eyes saw, and the signs and wonders, and the strong hand and the outstretched arm with which THE LORD YOUR GOD took you out; so THE LORD YOUR GOD will do to all of the nations of which you are afraid. And THE LORD YOUR GOD will send the hornet among them, until those that are left and that have hidden from you, are destroyed.
You shall not be terrified of them! For THE LORD YOUR GOD is in your midst; a great and terrible God. And THE LORD YOUR GOD will take out those nations from before you, little by little; you shall not be able to consume them quickly, lest the beasts of the field increase upon you. But THE LORD YOUR GOD will deliver them before you, and shall destroy them with a great destruction, until they are annihilated.”
There are two commands here, and two reasons:
“You shall not fear them” – there is no room for anxiety and fear. Bnei Yisrael must remember the miracles of the Exodus from Egypt, and on that basis to know with certainty that God is strong enough to deliver them from any enemy.
“You shall not be terrified of them” – you must not despair and break down. Bnei Yisrael must know that God will drive out the nations from before them over the course of a long, drawn-out process; this process is for their own good, and they must be patient.
Both of the “answers” seem problematic. We are familiar with the principle that “one does not rely on miracles”. Bnei Yisrael’s fears and anxieties are based upon the immediate, real problem of great, numerous enemy nations living in the land – how are the miracles that they witnessed in Egyptgoing to solve the problem? Are we meant to ignore reality in this regard and indeed rely on a miracle?
A striking feature of these verses is the repeated use of God’s Name – “the Lord your God”. It is He Who performs all of the actions here. A reading of this parsha teaches us that this is not our land, but rather His land. It is God Who fights for it, He blesses the land, He provides its water. The Torah commands Israelto come and possess the land, but on the realistic level this campaign appear doomed from the start. What are the chances, in the long term, of achieving stability and taking possession of inheritance in the heart of this enemy territory? Bnei Yisrael may win a battle here and there, but how will they manage to hold out over time?
The Torah’s answer is based on two principles: faith, supported by the memory of the miracles in Egypt, and the Divine Presence (“the Lord your God is in your midst”), arising from the sanctity of the nation and its righteousness. No-one promises us that fulfillment of the commandments will integrate easily into our everyday lives, with no friction or contradictions. In many cases, observing halakha requires a Jew to invest super-human effort and to grapple with mighty trials and tribulations. What the Torah teaches us here is that the final accounting – the realistic teleology – does not match the reality “on the ground” in Eretz Yisrael. Am Yisrael is required to try, to fight with all its strength, to believe in God, and to preserve the sanctity of the camp. We are not required to rely on miracles, but rather to behave in accordance with halakha, with the commandments – even in a world where this is not politically correct. We do our part and God will do His – even if the process takes time.
The reckoning of reward and punishment in Eretz Yisrael is not conducted on a personal basis. “He shall shut up the heavens, and there will be no rain” – not only for the portion of land belonging to the wicked man. The reward and punishment here works on a national scale, and is determined by the spiritual state of the nation as a whole.
“He shall destroy them with a mighty destruction, until they are annihilated”. The Torah makes it quite clear that the sanctity of the land cannot tolerate transgressors. The Divine Presence that resides there brings confusion and delusion upon sinners, to the point where the destroy themselves. The Divine law that prevails in this land is a double-edged sword: the wickedness of these nations will cause them to destroy themselves. But if, heaven forefend, Israelalso sins, the same mechanism of self-destruction will come into effect – as the Torah promises in Devarim 28: “All these curses will come upon you and pursue you and overtake you, until you are annihilated”.
The redemption manifests itself slowly, and so does exile. Jewish settlement in the land lasted longer than four hundred years from the time of Yehoshua’s conquest until the kingdomof Davidand Shlomo. The exile also took place in stages over the course of hundreds of years: first there was the exile of the northern tribes, then the exile of the Kingdomof Israel, the exile of Yekhonia, the destruction of the FirstTemple, and then the exile to Egyptof the last remnant left in the land. In light of what we said above, it is clear why we should view the uprooting of the Gush Katif settlements as more than just “”evacuation of settlers”, but rather a small-scale exile – a part of Eretz Yisrael where the hand of the nations has prevailed over Israel. This exile belongs to all of us, just as “He will stop up the heavens” admittedly affects only the farmers directly, but woe to the inhabitants of the city if they view a drought as a problem that belongs only to the agricultural sector.
The readings from the Torah and from the Books of the prophets during the last few Shabbatot contain a detailed list of what is required in order for God to dwell in our midst and help us, rather than – God forbid – our enemies. “Tzion will be redeemed with justice, and her captives with righteousness” vs. “Your ministers are rebellious and are comrades of robbers”; “your camp shall be holy” vs. “the abominations of the Canaanites”, etc. Let us all invest effort and prayer in increasing faith and the sanctity of the camp, and let this be the last occasion of “your land is against you; strangers are consuming it”, and may God’s word be established forever.