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Mas'ei: borders and land

All week I've been wrestling with this upcoming Shabbat's Torah portion, and wrestling also with the question of whether and how to blog about it. I'm reading from Parashat Mas'ei, Numbers 34:1-12, in which God instructs Moses to speak to the Israelites about the borders of the land of Canaan they're about to enter and inhabit. Which means that there's pretty much no way to blog this Torah portion without blogging about Israel.

I normally don't blog about Israel, for three reasons. 1) The last thing the internet needs is another American Jew spouting off about a country where I've spent a grand total of ten days, especially a country everyone else talks about so much. 2) On a related note, I think American Judaism fixates on Israel; I do my small part to shift our focus to some of the many other facets of Judaism by posting about them. And 3) my opinions on Israel are reasonably unpopular in mainstream American Judaism, and I get tired of fighting about it.

But I searched the Jewish blogosphere high and low, looking for someone interpreting these verses of Mas'ei in some way other than Rashi's traditional reading (that God gave us the land and therefore it is ours in perpetuity, end of story) -- or at least someone acknowledging that the traditional reading is problematic for liberal Jews today. I found nothing. Somebody has to point out that there are other ways of approaching these verses of Torah; I guess that somebody is going to be me.


Some weeks, as I prepare the Torah discussion plan for Shabbat morning, I wish the text were obviously relevant to today's world. When we get verses about ritual sacrifice, about the construction of the tabernacle, or about outdated punitive or ritual practices, it can be a challenge to make the text come alive in a way that resonates for us today. That's not my problem this week. With the disengagement from Gaza at the top of the news, who could doubt that the borders of the Land of Israel are relevant?

Of course, that very relevance makes this a difficult portion to discuss cleanly. People have opinions about the disengagement. Some think it's a bad idea. Others think it's the first sign of hope we've had in a while. Some of us on the Jewish Left think it's too little, too late, but better than nothing. And most of us feel strongly, one way or another.

On the most basic level, this Torah portion prompts questions about the borders of the land. "The Negev border will be for you from the edge of the Sea of Salt, on the east; the border will turn for you from the Negev-side of Scorpion's Pass, crossing on to Tzyn," goes verse 4 in the Fox translation. Verse 7, "And this will be for you the northern border: from the Great Sea you are to mark yourselves (a line) to Hill's Hill." These aren't exactly GPS coordinates. They're surprisingly vague descriptors (not to mention how landscapes change -- the "sea of salt" is shrinking fast...)

Beneath the practical question there lurks a deeper one, though: what is the nature of God's promise to give land to the children of Israel? What would a non-literalist reading of this passage look like, and what can we find in this portion of Torah if we turn it and turn it as the proverb demands? Can we distinguish, as we read, between the metaphorical/ideal Israel (the promised land; the place where our forebears, through Temple sacrifice, learned to connect and communicate with God) and the literal/physical Israel (today's troubled nation-state wrestling with questions of borders and peace)?

This commentary by Nehama Leibowitz outlines the traditional perspective on this portion: to wit, that God gave the Land of Israel to the Israelites, and that the children of Israel have a moral imperative to settle the land of Israel which supercedes any human or historical claim anyone else might believe themselves to have. For me that position is simply not tenable. My view much more closely matches the one Rabbi Michael Lerner articulates here; like Rabbi Lerner, I disavow the current situation, and mourn for the way it has twisted and deformed my religious tradition, which I believe at its heart is one of transformation and redemption, not violence and oppression.

How we read this text -- and the other places in Torah where reference is made to the land God gives to the descendants of Abraham -- impacts how we approach the modern-day state of Israel. Our hermeneutics shape our politics. So in order for an alternative political voice be heard (I applaud Rabbis for Human Rights and B'Tselem, and urge every Jew to step up to the moral obligation I believe we have to face the tragic lives of Palestinian refugees and our culpability in allowing their situation to persist), an alternative exegetical voice must be heard. But I can't ignore the traditional reading of passages like this one; it's what normative Jewish thought has held for the last thousand years.

What to do? One solution is to probe the traditional viewpoint for places where it offers hints of an alternative reading. Perhaps the way to close the conversation is with this paragraph from the end of Nehama's commentary:

The picture is however not complete without referring to its other side. Just as the former inhabitants of the land had been expelled for their misdeeds so would "God's own country" vomit the Israelites, should they contaminate it with their practices. The divine gift of the land was not unconditional but, as stated at the end of our sidra (35, 33-34): So shall ye not pollute the land wherein ye are, defile not therefore the land which ye shall inhabit, wherein I dwell; for I, the Lord dwell among the children of Israel.

Even the traditional viewpoint acknowledges that the land was not given unconditionally. The gift is contingent on right behavior, on living ethically in accordance with God's will. Is it possible that acting unethically towards the Palestinians pollutes the land, in the spiritual sense to which Nehama alludes -- that if the Israeli government does not bring the Jewish prophetic drive for equality and justice to bear on being in power, then it defiles the land it claims to serve? Maybe instead of arguing about the borders of the land we should focus on the question of how to live righteously, in the land and outside it.

My Torah study hinges on the supposition that the Torah is a timeless text which speaks to us in every age. For centuries these verses of Mas'ei have been interpreted literally. I believe that today the verses need to speak to us differently -- we need to hear something new echoing in the Hebrew phrases. Rashi and Nachmanides interpreted these verses in the Middle Ages when Jews were powerless, but today we are not powerless, and we must reevaluate our relationship with the land of Israel and with the other people with whom we must learn to share it. Clinging to (or hiding behind) the argument that God gave the land to us is not productive. We need to learn to read the Torah in ways that carry us forward into the peace our prayers seek.

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