Reexamining the Book of Jewish Sovereignty

Illustration: IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren at liberation of Kotel in 1967 (Image credit: David Rubinger/Government Press Office of Israel)

The last “book” of the Torah, Devarim (words), is also called Deuteronomy (second law) because it contains many laws especially relevant to the conquering and settlement of Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) that were not presented in the first four “books” of the Torah.

Devarim reflects the transition from the end of one period to the anticipation of another. Having been enslaved in Egypt for hundreds of years, having escaped and wandered the desert for 40 years, the Jewish people were about to experience a new leader and engage in “taking possession” of Canaan, Eretz Yisrael.

Although these words are politically loaded today, historically they were commonplace. Jewish sovereignty, however, was different. It was nationalism not as a political entity, but as a spiritual ideal.

Moving from wandering in the wilderness to establishing a homeland, from tribal encampments to cities, from nomadic exile to permanent settlement, the Jewish people would have to fight wars. At least as important, moreover, they would have to struggle to establish a Jewish civilization in the midst of foreign inhabitants and idolatry. All of this required inner fortitude and national unity that had never been tested.

No doubt the Israelites were unsure of their mission and whether they were up to it. It is therefore no surprise that this section of the Torah is filled with exhortations not to be afraid, and promises that things will turn out well if they will observe the commandments and build — in the land that G-d promised them — a society reflecting G-d’s oneness and majesty.

Moses’ directive is clear: take possession of the land, your inheritance from G-d, the land that was promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, a land of blessings — and curses, depending on how one behaved. Unlike other conquerors the Jewish people did not seek power, but sought to create a place dedicated to a spiritual purpose, a civilization focused on the Shechina (G-d’s presence).

The essence of Jewish sovereignty is that Eretz Yisrael belongs to G-d. G-d is sovereign, and the sovereignty of the Jewish people derives from that. The right to rule does not depend on one’s ability to conquer, but on what one does afterwards.

In order to accomplish its task the Jewish people need a country, a physical representation of a spiritual direction, a political entity with laws and institutions — Jewish sovereignty. The word that appears in the Torah to describe the initial stages of this process is lareshet, from the root yud-resh-shin (inherit). Understanding of the word depends on its use in context: conquest, taking control and establishing one’s authority — sovereignty — as a spiritual act mandated by G-d.

Translated as “taking possession,” lareshet appears many times, often in connection with nun-het-lamed, which is also translated as inheritance. Although in Hebrew the "roots" are of three letters, words can come in "families" that share a common two letter root and a common meaning. The cognates, "brothers" or "cousins" of yud-resh-shin, include: yerusha or morasha (inheritance), reshut (authority, ownership), rashum (registered), reshut (permission), rechush (property) and rachash (acquire). They all are expressions of one’s legal rights and relationship to property. To whom, however, did the land belong?

The land that the Jews conquered and occupied was inhabited by various tribes, city-states, and powerful kings, some native and others not — like the Hittites from what is now Turkey and the Philistines from what is now Greece. What right did the Jews have to conquer this territory and occupy it? Even more problematic, why were they commanded to annihilate and/or expel those who would not accept Jewish sovereignty? And why only in Eretz Yisrael?

Perhaps anticipating this challenge, the Torah emphasizes over and over again the sanctity of this specific area and the purpose of Jewish conquest and sovereignty: the establishment of an earthly kingdom that would reflect the kingdom of G-d.

The problem was not what others might say — because until the rise of international bodies like the League of Nations and the United Nations only a few generations ago — conquering someone else’s land was perfectly acceptable. Land and property were taken by the more powerful, often provoking wars, without objection — except by the victims. Who cared if the Jews conquered Canaan/Eretz Yisrael?

The Jewish people cared. The Torah and Jewish law have much to say about these practical issues, and apply a unique set of principles and values. The commandment to take possession (lareshet) is not only a statement of power, but an exercise of the legitimate right of inheritance — a legitimacy grounded in G-d’s promise and in the purpose of the act. Establishing one’s ownership and authority (reshut) is the basis for Jewish sovereignty.

Reshut implies law, the inherent right of taking control over one’s inherited property, the legitimacy of ownership, and the exercise of authority. But lareshet means carrying out the act practically, thereby creating a new reality.

Unlike modern concepts of political self-determination, Jewish sovereignty is unique because it represents the national and religious focus of the Jewish people in an entity, a commonwealth, and a civilization. Grounded in four millennia of history, Jewish sovereignty is both the institutions of statehood and the dimensions of the destiny of the Jewish people. Both national and transnational, its form is specific, but its content is transcendent. It occupies space, but exists in the realm of time.

Lareshet — taking possession of what belongs to you — means not only to occupy and extend authority, but to be mindful of what you do with it. As an expression of Jewish sovereignty, the State of Israel is consistent with this meaning.

The sovereignty of the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael is not only a political act, but a moral and spiritual one. Jewish sovereignty, therefore, does not depend on what the international community decides, but on what Torah commands — redeeming Eretz Yisrael by returning it to the Jewish people, enacting a system of just and fair laws (hukkim u’mishpatim), that express the values of human dignity and the concept that G-d is One.

The author is a PhD historian, writer and journalist living in Jerusalem. His book of short stories, “As Far As the Eye Can See,” was published by the New English Review Press in 2015. This article is reprinted with permission of the author. Click here to read more of this author’s work in The Jerusalem Herald.

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...הָרִימִי בַכֹּחַ קוֹלֵךְ מְבַשֶּׂרֶת יְרוּשָׁלִָם הָרִימִי אַל תִּירָאִי אִמְרִי לְעָרֵי יְהוּדָה הִנֵּה אֱלֹקֵיכֶם! (ישעיה  מ:ט)

...Raise your voice with strength, herald of Jerusalem; raise it, do not be afraid; say to the cities of Judah, "Here is your G-d!"

(Isaiah 40:9)

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