Author Archives: Sarah Margles

Sarah Margles

About Sarah Margles

Sarah Margles was an Education Officer at American Jewish World Service. She earned her Masters Degree in Jewish Education at the Hebrew University and completed a Certificate of Advanced Jewish Study at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem.

From Reaction to Action

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God decided 40 years before the D’varim narrative that, with few exceptions, former Israelite slaves would not enter the Promised Land. It would be a land to be inhabited only by their descendants. This decision came out of an unfortunate incident involving spies, giants, and grasshoppers. There is a mere handful of Israelites who have known slavery that will enter Canaan. It is this generational passing that opens of the book of Deuteronomy. 

Poised to enter and conquer the land, Moses gives a long speech to the next generation. This new generation of Israelites is reminded of the history they carry with them. It is a history of battle. Of all the events that occurred during the 40 years of wandering in the desert, it is the battles that Moses chooses to retell here.

It is a list of the nations that were kind to us, and those that were hostile, those that offered us safe passage, and those who were violent. It is these stories of how nations treated us that are the foundation for how we are meant to treat them in return. They are stories of reaction.

The Moabites were good to us, so we must be kind to them (Deuteronomy 2:9). The Bashanites, however, were not good to us, so we are to take their land as an inheritance (Deuteronomy 3:3). How they treated us sets the precedent for how we are to react to them. This paradigm of acting out the behavior of others back onto them is an old one, and one we are quite familiar with.

Two Perspectives

This reactivity based on how other nations treated us is akin to holding children accountable for the sins of their parents. By enacting reciprocity on the nations of Canaan, Moses is seeking to play back the actions of the parents’ generation onto the children of that nation. In Moses’ speech, the conviction with which he delivers this idea is striking, and one that is later overturned by Ezekiel (Ezekiel 18:20).

Land Distribution–Then and Now

This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit

“Among these shall the land be apportioned as shares, according to the listed names: with larger groups increase the share, with smaller groups reduce the share. Each is to be assigned its share according to its enrollment” (Numbers 26:53-54).

The Israelites had the incredible luxury of being told how to build a just society before settling in a new place. The rationality and fairness of land distribution in Parashat Pinhas is remarkable and very different from the norms of land ownership currently present around the globe.

Agrarian Communities

In rural areas, particularly in developing countries, land is the source of income, sustenance, and social (and often legal) status. Approximately 45% of the world’s population (~2.7 billion people) earns its living through agriculture. More than 500 million of these people are without secure access to land.

As workers on other people’s land, many farming communities cannot depend on continued access to the land they currently farm. In places of violence and civil unrest, displaced people are often denied the right to return to the land they fled. In former communist countries, public lands have become places of dispute as families and communities strive for some access to the small amount of land up for grabs. Many countries struggling with the legacy of colonialism deal with the chaos of unstable and corrupt governments that have followed independence.

The common theme that runs through all these cases is a lack of any coherent underlying commitment to address the agricultural needs of all members of the national community. This global challenge highlights the relevance of the short passage above from this week’s parashah.

The underlying assumption of the text is that every family, clan, and tribe has the right to own land. Ancient Israelites, like modern communities, needed a stable place to live, eat, and earn a living. The inclusion of this text in the Torah underscores the point that land ownership is essential to the successful survival of the people.