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The True Borders of Israel

Most people living today don’t realize that not only are Judea and Shomron, aka the “West Bank,” part of the biblical land of Israel; but the land that is now the modern country of Jordan was also officially earmarked by the League of Nations in 1922 to be part of the planned homeland for the Jews. Why was that land, previously part of the former Ottoman Empire, deemed appropriate by the League of Nations to be incorporated into the envisioned post WWI homeland for the Jews? What did the member nations of the League know about the Jews and their historical homeland that they thought to include this territory in their Palestine Mandate resolution? In its official document, “The Mandate for Palestine, July 24, 1922,” the League of Nations recognized, “the historical connection of the Jewish people to Palestine,” and the “grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.” (Google: “Map of Palestine Mandate League of Nations, 1920”. You can also view maps at jewishvirtuallibrary.org.)
It is truly unfortunate that today even many of our fellow Jews remain ignorant of the location of historical Israel and the land that is rightfully ours. You might think that with all of the sophisticated means of communication and easy access to historical documents and maps there would be no doubt about the facts. This week’s double Torah portion, מטות-מסעי, spells out in detail the borders of the land of Israel.
The Torah is one of the world’s oldest documents. It records how, in an unprovoked and defensive war (“nothing new under the sun”), the generation of Jews living in the desert, under the leadership of Moses, came to possess of the land of two powerful kings, Sichon and Og. This land comprised a vast area located on the east side of the Jordan River. It was not part of the original land of Canaan promised by God to Avraham that was later to be divided into 12 portions, one for each tribe of Israel. After Israel’s defeat of Sichon and Og, two tribes, Reuven and Gad, wanted this newly captured land for their homes and flocks. When they made their request to Moshe to inherit this newly conquered land east of the Jordan River, Reuven and Gad offered to forfeit their allotment of land in Canaan.
Moshe, at first, was angry with their request. Interestingly, Moshe doesn’t criticize those tribes for not wanting to take possession of their allotted portion of Canaan as being sac-religious for their rejection of the “Promised Land.” In a harsh reply, Moshe reminded the leaders of Reuven and Gad of a tragic event that took place just forty years earlier. At that time, 10 tribal leaders convinced all the men of fighting age to refuse to participate in the conquest of Canaan. Their negative report was responsible for the ensuing national punishment, to remain in the desert for 40 years. No doubt Moshe was now fearful that the request of Reuven and Gad could have a similar demoralizing effect on the people, melting once again their national resolve to conquer the land of Canaan. Who knows what consequences would befall the nation this time?
Notwithstanding the implication of their request, it would seem that Moshe could have taken a calmer tone and worked with the leaders to find an agreeable solution. However, being the great teacher that he was, Moshe’s display of anger here was just another tool in his “instructional toolbox.” Even a display of emotions, when properly employed by the teacher, can be helpful to the student.
Moshe’s harsh rebuke was calculated to cause the leaders to rethink and refine their request. Initially, they had not clearly indicated that although their motivation was self-serving, they were not going to abandon their brethren and separate themselves from the rest of the nation. They were all one nation of Israel and they too had one overarching goal above all else, to fulfill the will of God, that the nation of Israel is to live in the land of Israel. After Moshe’s stern rebuke, they reframed their request. They stipulated in an oath that the men of fighting age from the tribes of Reuven and Gad would not only fight but they would lead the nation in its conquest of Canaan.
When Moshe heard their reformulation, he concurred with their plan. The men from Reuven and Gad would join in the conquest of Canaan and see to it that their brethren are settled there. Only then could they then return home and inherit the land east of the Jordan River. Moshe added one other crucial condition. Half of the tribe of Menashe would also be given land in the territory east of the Jordan. This condition would serve to link the lands and people east of the Jordan with the land and their brethren west of the Jordan. Only then, after fulfilling this condition, would the territory east of the Jordan also become part of the new ארץ ישראל. How so? Their promise to fulfill all of these stipulated conditions assured Moshe that the underlying philosophic purpose of creating a unified nation of Israel was firmly intact.
Fourteen years later, as recorded in the Book of Joshua, the soldiers from Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe returned to their families, possessions, and land east of the Jordan River. They successfully led and fought with their brethren to secure all of the Land of Canaan on both sides of the Jordan River, then, was always part of the rightful and legal ארץ ישראל. Remarkably, the biblical borders described in this week’s Torah reading were internationally recognized by the League of Nations, thousands of years later, as the national homeland of the Jewish people.
We are now in the midst of the three week mourning period. This mourning period culminates in the fast of Tisha B’Av, commemorating the destruction of both Holy Temples in Jerusalem and our exile from the land of Israel. While we continue to pray for peace in the region, may it be the will of Hashem to bring us back to our rightful heritage in full possession of ארץ ישראל.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Robert Kaplan
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