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Parashat Pinhas

July 16, 2008

How Do We Settle the Holy Land?
By Jaron Matlow

Whenever a new nation settled in a land, it took great wisdom on the part of the leaders to ensure that the land was settled equitably. Parashat Pinhas provides the initial instructions for how the land is to be distributed to the nine and one half tribes who will settle in the Holy Land.(Reuven, Gad and Menasheh settled in the Trans-Jordan, as previously arranged with Moshe.) There is always an additional issue to contend with, which is how to deal with the existing land holders. God gave Moshe instructions for dealing with the Canaanites in other parashiot.

In our parashah God says that the land shall be divided by lottery. (Bamidbar 26:55) In order to prepare for this, God told Moshe and El’azar to take a census of all of the Israelites who are 20 years and older, according to their father’s houses, all those who are to serve in Israel’s army. (Bamidbar 26:2) In any land lottery, the parcels would be divided by some given characteristic, such as size of the parcel. The Land of Israel has many different climates and land formations, some very inhospitable and some most suitable for agriculture; some for farmlands and some for walled cities. In this lottery, God directs that each tribe receive a parcel based on the size of the tribe. ‘For the large (tribe), increase its inheritance and for the small, make its inheritance smaller.’ (Bamidbar 26:53)

This is brilliant land management. It will ensure that at the initial settlement of the Land, no area will be overcrowded. The definitions of the lots went further, however. According to Rashi (to Bamidbar 26:54) the lots were to be determined by their agricultural potential, so that each tribe would have reasonable expectations of success. According to Rashi’s calculation, a poor lot would be roughly six times larger than a more fertile one, to ensure agricultural equity. The latter chapters of the Book of Joshua tell the details of the Israelites settling in their allotted lands.

In modern day Israel, the problem of land and resource management exists just as fully. However, rather than dealing the land out to different tribes of Israel for agriculture, the land now has the same varied purposes as any other modern, industrialized nation. Israel has a problem that most countries do not have, however, in the area of land and resource management. In addition to the Jews, who have myriad different needs, there are other citizens of Israel, including Christians, Muslims, Druze and Bedouin. There are also the Palestinians, who are not citizens of Israel, but, loosely defined, live or lived outside the ‘Green Line’ of Israel’s 1949 armistice.

The need for equitable distribution was not limited to Biblical Israel. In modern Israel, rather than distribution of equitable agricultural potential, there are other factors that determine what citizens receive from the land and the state. In addition to land, government services need to be distributed. Israelis citizens who serve in the army, for instance, receive benefits that others, including Arabs who are not allowed to serve, do not receive.

Israel, under the guidance of the US State Department and others, is working to provide more equitable services to its non-Jewish Israeli citizens. The need for equity in services is the same as it was in the times of Moses and Joshua.

In ancient days as in modern Israel, Israel struggled with external forces. In ancient Israel, the quest was to keep Israel from going after strange gods and worshipping them, not following God’s will. In modern Israel, the struggle is to keep Israel secure despite internal and external forces. Equitable parsing of the Land of Israel and her resources is just as critical to Israel now, as it was then.

In ancient Israel, our people’s struggle was to stay the course and follow God, not the idolatrous religions. In modern Israel, a struggle which is just as important is the equitable treatment of all people in our Holy Land.

Many rabbis and cantors in this country, including AJR faculty and alumni, as well as many AJR students, are active members in organizations which seek to ensure that the human rights of all in Israel are protected, and that all may live in justice and dignity. We observe the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz on July 20, 2008, commemorating events in the cycle of destruction of the Beit Ha-Mikdash, The Holy Temple, leading to Israel’s exile. To ensure that we do not experience another exile from the Land of Israel, all Jews must take action to ensure that all in our Holy Land, Jew and non-Jew alike, live in peace, dignity and security.


Jaron Matlow is a rabbinical student at AJR.