When He wished, He gave it to them, and when He wished, He took it away from them and gave it to us

Parashat Dvarim is the first Torah portion in Deuteronomy. This is the first speech, in a series of speeches, Moses gives before his death. Interestingly, Moses chooses to name a long and varied list of nations who conquered sections of the land of Israel, but vanished through the ages: the Emim, Rephaim, Horites, Zamzummim, Avvim and Caphtorim. All these ancient nations ruled the land in the past.

If the masters of the past have gone away, and other nations (Moav, Amon and Edom, who were also promised portions of the land of Israel) conquered and banished them, what is the point of naming them in Moses’ speech?

In his interpretation of Genesis Rashi suggests:

Now for what reason did He commence with “In the beginning?” Because of [the verse] “The strength of His works He related to His people, to give them the inheritance of the nations” (Ps. 111:6). For if the nations of the world should say to Israel, “You are robbers, for you conquered by force the lands of the seven nations [of Canaan],” they will reply, “The entire earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it (this we learn from the story of the Creation) and gave it to whomever He deemed proper When He wished, He gave it to them, and when He wished, He took it away from them and gave it to us.

Following Rashi’s interpretation, Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz suggests that all the land, and in the wider sense, all the world, belongs to God, and every nation who inhabits a land does it by the will of God, without having a right or ownership on the land. Unlike other nations, the covenant between God and the Children of Israel is conditional: it depends on Israel’s adherence to the worship of God.

According to Prof. Leibowitz, the people of Israel has a special duty and responsibility to do good, because God judges Israel more harshly than other nations. In this sense, being “the chosen people” is a heavier responsibility rather than a permission to do what we want in the name of God.

Isaiah and the Worship of God

In Chazon (Vision) prophecy, the prophet Isaiah points out the meaning of “the worship of God.” Isaiah criticizes a social reality in which the rich and the powerful exploit the poor and the needy:

How is the faithful city become a harlot! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers. Thy silver is become dross, thy wine mixed with water. Thy princes are rebellious, and companions of thieves; every one loveth bribes, and followeth after rewards; they judge not the fatherless, neither doth the cause of the widow come unto them (Isaiah, 1, 22-23).

The destruction is not the result lack of worship, but rather the result of social exploitation and corruption:

And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide Mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings from before Mine eyes, cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow (Isaiah, 1, 15-17).

The story of the land of Israel is a story of conquest and destruction, return and reconstruction. We should ask ourselves what kind of future we wish for our sons and daughters: a perpetual cycle of war or a future of social justice and peace?

Image: Peter Paul Rubens, Consequences of War (1638-1639)

Rubens painted Consequences of War (also known as Horrors of War) between 1638 and 1639 in response to the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648). Other than being a master artist, Rubens also served as diplomat, trying to negotiate peace between England and Spain.

In a letter to Justus Sustermans, Rubens explains the symbolic figures he depicted in the painting. The figures on the left is “[a] grief-stricken woman clothed in black, with torn veil, robbed of all her jewels and other ornaments, [she] is the unfortunate Europe who, for so many years now, has suffered plunder, outrage, and misery, which are so injurious to everyone, that it is unnecessary to go into detail.” [1]

[1] Peter Paul Rubens to Justus Sustermans, March 12, 1638, in The Letters of Peter Paul Rubens, trans. and ed. Ruth Saunders Magurn (Cambridge, Mass, 1971), pp. 408-409.

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