Rabbi David Walk
Robert Frost assumed that the wall haters must be elves (He really says that. Check the poem my title comes from.) They're the ones who want it down. Today I'd suggest that the ones who want it down are the Palestinians. The wall or barrier or security fence built between the areas where Israelis live and the Arab communities is a flash point in the modern confrontation between the two populations. On the one hand, it has clearly made life in Israel much safer, on the other hand it has made life more difficult for many Arabs trying to get to work. Like many artificial obstacles it is a double edged sword. I don't know how to make both groups happy, but, personally, I would opt for security. My satisfaction with the safety accomplishments of the fence are not shared by everyone on the Jewish side of the fence and of the argument. Many Israelis feel that wherever we put the fence we are conceding territory to the other side. There is no making everyone happy in that part of the world. Some might posit that there is no making anyone happy in that tough neighborhood. Well, this week I want to discuss with you, dear reader, some ideas about where this fence should be in a perfect (and therefore non-existent) world. Our parsha is one of the places in our Torah which talks about where the boundaries of Eretz Yisroel are. So, let's try to figure this out.
The pertinent verses in our parsha begin with: Command the children of Israel and say to them, When you arrive in the land of Canaan, this is the land which shall fall to you as an inheritance, the land of Canaan according to its borders (Numbers 34:2). Then there are ten detailed verses which describe a country contained roughly by the Mediterranean Sea on the West, the Lebanese Mountains on the north, the Jordan River on the east and the Negev Desert on the south. This is the area described elsewhere as from Dan to Be'er Sheva (2 Samuel 17:11, 1 Kings 5:5). If this is the core area of Israel, then there is another description of Israel as extending from the Euphrates to the Egyptian River (Genesis 15:18 and elsewhere). This second description is much larger (like the difference between Texas and Rhode Island) than the first. How can we reconcile these differences? It's not easy. The Midrash criticizes the tribes of Gad, Reuvein and half of Menasheh in this week's parsha for wanting to live outside the core Israel. Actually the Midrash supposes that they were punished for this transgression by being exiled earlier than any of their brethren. So, what does that mean? And what are the implications for us today?
There's actually a third set of boundaries in Jewish tradition.. In the second mishneh of Tractate Gittin (1:2) the boundaries of Israel are listed as: From Rekem eastwards is outside of Israel, and Rekem itself is considered like the East; from Ashkelon southwards, and Ashkelon is like the South; and from Acco northwards, and Acco is like the North. The rabbis didn't both giving the western border because that's the Mediterranean Sea. The only problem is that we don't know where Rekem is. There are a number of places with the name, one in the area of Binyamin and others identify it with Petra in Southern Jordan, neither of those help us. But others (including Tosafot) identify it with Trachon in the Golan Heights. That one works. These borders are even smaller than in this week's parsha. These borders are the basis for the modern sanctity of Israel. This is why people living in the deep south (I mean Eilat, not Alabama) don't keep the laws of the sabbatical year or take tithes.
Now, of course, we must deal with this week's essential question, namely, why are there so many boundaries listed for Israel? Rabbi Menachem Liebtag, who is one of the great contemporary teachers of Tanach, presented a fascinating approach to this problem. He suggests that each description of the borders accompanied a covenantal agreement with God. The nature of the boundaries reflected the nature of the covenant. Sometimes the arrangement with God reflected the national and historical relationship with our tradition, and other times the agreement was in light of our personal and spiritual connection to God and our destiny. The national aspect of this picture fluctuates through time with the vicissitudes of our people, sometimes we ride high other times we are, sadly, laid low. The personal and spiritual relationship should, at least in theory, remain stable and constant. Therefore, Rabbi Liebtag suggests that the larger border schemes reflect the fluctuating fortunes of our people, while the more compact frontiers represent the theoretically stable religious relationship with God. In a similar vein Rav Yoel Bin-Nun, speculates that whereas the spiritual Land of Canaan lies within specific borders and always maintains kedusha (sanctity), the boundaries of the political Land of Israel are not based on geography at all, but solely upon history, with fluctuating and, perhaps, lesser holiness.
But the Sfat Emet (Reb Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, 1847-1905) suggests that the sanctity and dimensions of Israel are totally dependent upon the Jews themselves. When God said that this land will 'fall to you,' that means that the Jews expand or contract the size and holiness in direct proportion to how much they concede of this world to God. This nullification (bitul) of our wants and desires to God's prerogatives allows the Divine status of eretz yisroel to 'fall' from heaven. It's similar to Shabbat. We can accept Shabbat early or hold onto it later, and that extra time has the sanctity of Shabbat.
The technical borders of Israel and of Jewish political control can be defined by practical fences and walls. Those are important, and we pray for a day when we will build these physical markers with the surrounding populations, and then, like Robert Frost, we can say, 'Good fences make good neighbors.' But the holiness of Israel will always be determined by our attitude and relationship to this great gift which we received from God. May our love and devotion to this patrimony grow and flourish.