Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.
Among the major contributors to suffering around the world is the inequitable distribution of land and resources. The richest 2% of adults in the world own more than half of global household wealth. On a more concrete level, in El Salvador, where I volunteered for ten days on the AJWS Rabbinical Students’ Delegation, though the land was nominally redistributed in 1992, it was done far from equitably: The poorest people got the lowlands, which are prone to flooding, while the wealthiest held the fertile country, perpetuating the country’s economic inequalities.
In Parashat Ha’azinu, the Torah poetically describes an earlier time, when lands were apportioned by God to each nation:
“Remember the days of old,
Consider the years of ages past;
Ask your father, he will inform you,
Your elders, they will tell you:
When the Most High gave nations their homes
And set the divisions of humanity,
Fixing the boundaries of peoples
In relation to Israel’s number.”
Here the Torah seems to suggest that at one point in time, God divided populations in a way that was somehow equitable. All people had access to the land they needed. This is in keeping with the biblical Jubilee, which twice in a century required ancient Israelites to withdraw from lands that were not apportioned by the Torah to their ancestral family.
But what does it mean that God “fixed the boundaries of peoples in relation to Israel’s number” (l‘mispar b‘nei Yisrael)? One midrash explains that before the days of Abraham, God dealt harshly with the world: The sins of Noah’s generation resulted in the flood; the generation that built the tower of Babel was dispersed throughout the globe, prompting the proliferation of languages; Sodom and Gemmora’s sins were answered with fire and brimstone. According to this midrash, when Abraham came into the world, God ceased the cataclysmic punishments and set the punishments of other peoples in relationship to Israel’s presence in the world.