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Sunday, 31 January 2016

We didn't steal the Land of Israel

Daf Yomi Gittin 46

The Children of Israel had just crossed over the Jordan and were about to embark on their important mission to triumph over the land that was promised to their forefathers.   Suddenly, they received a strange, unexpected delegation. 
‘We have come from a land far away to offer you a peace offering,’ said the visitors.
‘That is very generous of you,’ replied Joshua.
‘Then let us make a treaty and swear an oath not to harm one another,’ requested the visitors.
‘Thus we shall do!’ responded Joshua and the leaders of Israel.
Only once they had vowed not to harm them, did the ‘visitors’ reveal themselves as Gibeonites – local inhabitants of the land of Canaan.   Now they would not be conquered along with the other Canaanites; instead, they would live in peace side-by-side with the Children of Israel.

The Book of Joshua states, “And the Children of Israel did not smite them [the Gibeonites], because the princes of the assembly had sworn unto them.”
The Gemara asks: Why should the oath have taken effect at all?  Did they not falsely claim to have journeyed from a distant land?
The Gemara answers: Indeed, the oath did not take effect at all.  The Israelites did not smite the Gibeonites in order to sanctify Hashem’s name.
Tosfos asks: Concerning the Canaanite nations, the Torah states, “You shall not let anyone live.”  How could the Israelites take an oath against the Torah?
Tosfos answers: The Jerusalem Talmud explains that Joshua offered three choices to the inhabitants of the land of Canaan: Flee, make peace, or fight.  The Girgashites fled, the Gibeonites made peace, and thirty-one kings waged war.
Question: So, if peace was an option, why did the Gibeonites need to deceive Joshua? 
Answer: The option of peace was only available prior to the Israelites’ entry into the land.  The Gibeonites had missed their opportunity and therefore resorted to deception.

A simple reading of the text of the Torah often presents us with an incomplete picture.  Without the benefit of the Oral Law, it would appear that Hashem had instructed us to conquer a land that did not belong to us and wipe out its inhabitants indiscriminately.  As the Jerusalem Talmud quoted by Tosfos demonstrates, the truth is far from what meets the eye.  For starters, as the Talmud clarifies, all the nations of Canaan were offered the opportunity to accept the Israelites peacefully.

Secondly, a simple reading of the Torah would lead one to imagine that we stole the land from the indigenous Canaanites.  Such an understanding could not be further from the truth!   As Rashi points out in Parshas Lech Lecha, the land of Canaan was originally the territory of Noach’s son, Shem.  By the time Avraham arrived on the scene, the Canaanites had conquered the land from Shem’s family, leaving him nothing but the small area of Jerusalem. 

Avraham was Shem’s great-grandson and heir to his values, national identity, and territory.  And so Hashem’s promise to Avraham was to restore his family to their rightful land.  When the Israelites entered Canaan, they were returning to their ‘birthright.’  The fact that we offered the local nations the opportunity to remain in our land was incredibly progressive, and unique to the moral code of the Torah. 

Of course, as Nachmanides often notes, the Torah’s narrative is not merely a story; it is a guide for future generations.  Whatever occurred to our forefathers is repeated in some similar fashion in later history.  And so when we returned from Babylonia/Persia to rebuild the Second Temple, we once again found locals inhabiting the land, known as the Samaritans.  Although they did not make our lives easy, we learned to accommodate them and live peacefully alongside them.  And likewise, when we returned to our homeland over the course of the last century, we found new locals.  Once again, we have done our very best to accommodate them and live peacefully with them.

Why have we always gone to such great lengths to accommodate the locals even though the land belongs to the People of Israel?  As the Talmud concludes regarding our oath to the Gibeonites, we hold ourselves to a higher standard.  We act on the basis of ‘Kiddush Hashem’ – sanctifying G-d’s name.  We want the world to recognize that we live according to a higher moral code and that, as Hashem’s chosen nation, we treat all peoples with the utmost respect and decency – even when they do not respond in kind.  Even when the Gibeonites unquestionably deceived us, we responded with peace and kindness.

The Land of Israel is our homeland.   We have always treated the local inhabitants who have arrived in our land over the centuries with the utmost respect and civility.   May we see peace in the Holy Land immediately!

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