What Makes The Land Holy?

The land of Israel is sacred by virtue of the sacred actions performed by its inhabitants.

Commentary on Parashat Devarim, Deuteronomy 1:1 - 3:22

Moses begins his final words of instruction to the Children of Israel, focusing first on recounting their physical journey. (Deuteronomy 1:1–21)

  • Moses reviews the people’s reactions to the negative reports of the spies and the appointment of Joshua to succeed him. (Deuteronomy 1:22–45)
  • Moses recounts that all of the Israelite warriors who left Egypt died, as God had intended, and the people continued their wanderings and defeated their enemies. (Deuteronomy 2:14–3:11)
  • Moses reiterates that the Land of Israel was allocated to the Israelite tribes. (Deuteronomy 3:12–20)
  • God refuses to allow Moses to enter the Promised Land. (Deuteronomy 3:23–28)

Focal Point

Then Adonai said to me: You have been skirting this hill country long enough; now turn north. And charge the people as follows: You will be passing through the territory of your kinsmen, the descendants of Esau, who live in Se-ir. Although they will be afraid of you, be very careful not to start a fight with them. For I will not give you of their land so much as a foot can tread on; I have given the hill country of Se-ir as a possession to Esau. What food you eat you shall obtain from them for money; even the water you drink you shall procure from them for money. Indeed, Adonai your God has blessed you in all your undertakings (Deuteronomy 2:2–7).

Your Guide

Why does the text call the descendants of Esau “kinsmen” to the Israelites? (Compare to Genesis 25, 27, 32, and 33; Numbers 20:14; Malachi 1:2–4.)

Scholars say that the descendants of Esau are also called the people of Edom. Furthermore, Se-ir is often synonymous in the Bible with Edom. Why does God caution Israel that the people of Se-ir will be afraid of them but they must not provoke them? (See Exodus 15:14–16; Numbers 22:3–4.)

Why is there such a strong emphasis on the Israelites’ possessing land? Why is this an important component of our religion?

By the Way…

You shall faithfully observe all My laws and all My regulations, lest the land to which I bring you to settle in spews you out. You shall not follow the practices of the nation that I am driving out before you. For it is because they did all these things that I abhorred them and said to you: You shall possess their land, for I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey (Leviticus 20:22–24).

When Adonai your God brings you to the land that you are about to invade and occupy, Adonai dislodges many nations before you — the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, seven nations much larger than you — and Adonai your God delivers them to you and you defeat them, you must doom them to destruction: Grant them no terms and give them no quarter (Deuteronomy 7:1–2).

With regard to the commandment to conquer the Land of Israel, the obligation is imposed on us and we are enjoined to enter a state of war in order to fulfill it, even if we be killed. This is a special precept and as such is on par with all the rest of the Torah,…namely, that the entire land, its borders and straits, be in our hands and not those of some other nation. This commandment is a national affair. Blessed be the One who has made us live…[in a time] when we rule our land and we are the landlords here, not the gentiles (Zvi Yehuda Kook, From the Redeeming Torah [n.d.], quoted by Moshe Zemer in Evolving Halakhah, Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, VT, 1999, p. 216).

The fact that “you were strangers in the land of Egypt” is no adequate motivation for “not oppressing or vexing the stranger” (Exodus 22:20). On the contrary, how often do we find that the slave or exile who gains power and freedom or anyone who harbors the memory of suffering to himself or his forebears finds compensation for his former sufferings by giving free reign to his tyrannical instincts when he has the opportunity to lord it over others (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot [Exodus], WZO, 1981)?

The Land of Israel has been sanctified by the words of the prophets, by the suffering of a whole people, by the tears and prayers of thousands of years, by the labor and dedication of pioneers. Such sanctity is precious to God, vital to the people, a light within history. The State of Israel is not only a place of refuge for the survivors of the holocaust [sic] but also a tabernacle for the rebirth of faith and justice, for the renewal of souls, for the cultivation of knowledge of the words of the Divine. By the power and promise of prophetic visions we inhabit the land, by faithfulness to God and Torah we continue to survive (A. J. Heschel, Israel:An Echo of Eternity, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1969).

The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice, and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture; it will safeguard the holy places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations (Israel’s Declaration of Independence, May 14, 1948).

Your Guide

According to Leviticus 20:22–24 and Deuteronomy 7:1–2, above, why did God give the Israelites the territory of other nations?

What is the difference between the command in Deuteronomy 7:1–2 and that in Deuteronomy 2:2–7 in this week’s Torah portion?

What are the differences among the views expressed by Zvi Yehuda Kook, Nehama Leibowitz, and A. J. Heschel?

How do you think Rabbi Heschel would have interpreted Leviticus 20:22–24 or Deuteronomy 7:1–2? What was his vision for Israel?

What kind of Jewish state did the founders of Israel envision?


Those of us who are committed to a secure, prosperous Israel ache each day that the conflict with the Palestinians persists. Despite the anger we might feel toward the Palestinians, Deuteronomy 2:2–7 reminds us that God did indeed promise land to other nations in the region beside Israel. The Bible reminds us that despite our feelings, we must live according to our ethical and religious precepts.

While we stand in solidarity with Israel, we must resist the temptation to demonize the Palestinian people en masse because of the sins of their leaders and the terrorists who live among them. Reform Judaism has always maintained that the Palestinians are entitled to coexist side by side with Israel and has also challenged the efficacy of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

Our focal passage illustrates God’s desire for integrity and peace among peoples. Israel was given a land to build and to make holy, but it is only to be considered so when God’s presence lies therein. Rabbi Jonathan Magonet argues, “It is God’s presence that ensures the holiness of the land, not any special nature of the land itself. Indeed, God cannot be present in the land, so to speak, when it is polluted by the actions of the nations that preceded Israel — or by those of Israel itself” (“Covenant and Holiness: Help or Hindrance in Seeking a Reform Theology of the State of Israel” in Journal of Reform Zionism, vol. 1).

This Torah portion reminds us that no matter what the original boundaries of Eretz Yisrael were (and there were variations), Israel needed–needs–to be righteous and just; and her neighbors, despite their conflicts with Israel, were–are–entitled to their own land.

The beauty and challenge of Reform Zionism is to continue to build Eretz Yisrael–not necessarily its roads and highways as in yesteryear but its promise for peace and its democracy — in partnership with Israel’s citizens. It is our understanding of kedushah (sacredness) that drives us to implement our conviction of hope for the City of Peace, Y’rushalayim.

Reprinted with permission from the Union for Reform Judaism.

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