Daniel PinnerDaniel Pinner is a veteran immigrant from England, a teacher and an electrician by profession; a Torah scholar who has been active in causes promoting Eretz Israel and Torat Israel.
Stage 1: The past
With the Children of Israel scant weeks away from entering the Land of Israel Parashat Mas’ei opens by briefly recapping the last 40 years (Numbers 33:1-49), from the Exodus from Egypt through the next 40 years of desert wanderings.
In order to live a healthy and stable national life in the Land of Israel, we have to know our past, to have a clear idea of our future destiny, and to understand our purpose in building a Jewish state. “Keep sight of three things, and you will not come into the power of sin: Know where you came from, and where you are going to, and before Whom you will one day have to give a full account” (Pirkei Avot 3:1).
This section concludes with the Children of Israel “camping by the Jordan, from Beit Yeshimot to the low-lands of the Shittim in the plains of Moab” (Numbers 33:49).
Stage 2: Preparing for the future
“Hashem spoke to Moshe in the plains of Moab, facing Jericho on the Jordan, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you cross the Jordan to the Land of Canaan, you shall drive all the inhabitants of the Land out before you; you shall eliminate all their houses of worship and all their molten images shall you eliminate. Thus you shall inherit the Land and dwell in it…and if you do not drive the inhabitants of the Land out before you, then those of them whom you will leave will be thorns in your eyes and thistles in your sides, and they will persecute you on the Land wherein you dwell” (Numbers 33:50-55).
For “houses of worship” (“…eliminate all their houses of worship”, v. 52) the Torah here uses the word maskiyotam. There are slightly differing opinions regarding the precise meaning of the word maskit (though all agree that it is something used in idol worship). Our translation “houses of worship” follows both the Targum Onkelos and the Targum Yonatan, which render beit sig’dat’hon (“their houses of worship” in Aramaic), from the Aramaic root seged (“bow in worship”).
There is a parallel Arabic root, sajid (“to bow in worship”), from which derives the Arabic word masjid (“place of worship,” hence “mosque”).
Rashi amplifies that the word maskiyotam is to be understood “according to the Targum – their houses of worship, which are given this name because [the idolaters] would cover [sakhakh, the root of maskit] the ground with a floor of marble stones, upon which they would bow down with hands and feet outstretched”.
This is the most fundamental issue of the struggle between the Nation of Israel and all other nations who occupy the Land of Israel: it is the conflict between the G-d of Israel and the false gods of those nations, and as such it is the essence of Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of the Name of G-d). For the houses of worship of the inhabitants of the Land to remain – even when they themselves have been vanquished – entails their false gods to remain; the destruction of their houses of worship by the people of Israel at the command of the G-d of Israel is the essence of the might and the supremacy of the G-d of Israel.
Stage 3: Interpretation
The Ohr ha-Chayim (Rabbi Chayim ben Atar, Morocco and Israel, 1696-1743) comments on the words the words “…you shall drive all the inhabitants of the Land out before you”: “Since the Torah (Deuteronomy 20:16) commands, concerning the seven Canaanite nations, that ‘you shall not allow any soul to remain alive,’ it is apparent that here the Torah speaks of other nations than those seven Canaanite nations who were here then. So the Torah is precise in its wording, specifying that we are to ‘drive out all the inhabitants of the Land’ – saying that this applies even to those inhabitants who are not of the seven Canaanite nations”.
And he gives the reason for expelling all the inhabitants when commenting on the words “they will harass you on the Land wherein you dwell”: “Not only will they cling to that part of the Land that you did not merit to conquer; but even in those parts of the Land that you did merit to conquer and wherein you dwell they will persecute you, saying: Get up, get out from our midst”.
The Ohr ha-Chayim continues: “The word al (‘on,’ in the phrase ‘they will persecute you on the Land’) means ‘because of,’ as in the verse ‘because (“al”) you did not sanctify Me’ (Deuteronomy 32:51)”. That is to say, the Ohr ha-Chayim renders this verse: “If you do not drive out the inhabitants of the Land before you, then those of them whom you leave will become thorns in your eyes and thistles in your sides, and they will harass you because of the Land”. We will be harassed, massacred, persecuted, blown apart, barraged by rockets, because of the Land to which we are disloyal.
Stage 4: Implementation
It is the summer of 5708 (1948), and the newly-independent State of Israel is fighting for its very existence. Its fledgling army is almost unable to procure arms, due to embargoes imposed by Britain and the USA. Five Arab countries – Transjordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq – attack and invade, bolstered by several brigades of volunteers from the armies of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Sudan, and Pakistan. These countries proudly proclaim their intention to exterminate every Jew in Israel.
Inside Israel are over 500,000 Arab residents, most of whom have arrived over the last 60 years from all over the Middle East, attracted by the higher standard of living brought about first by the Jewish restoration of the Land, and added to since 1917 by modern European efficiency in governing after British forces defeated the corrupt, primitive, and venal Ottoman Empire.
Most of those Arab residents will flee immediately before the War of Independence officially begins, some after brief fighting, many without ever even seeing a Jewish soldier. The areas from which they flee – Jaffa, Haifa, Beer Sheva, Lod, Ramleh, villages around Jerusalem such as Ein Kerem and Malha, much of the Galilee, and others – will be absorbed painlessly into the Jewish State.
On Friday, 12th Tishrei 5709 (15th October 1948), the Givati, Negev, and Yiftach Brigades, commanded by Colonel Yigal Allon, begin Operation Yoav, an offensive whose objective is to capture part of the south of the country – specifically the areas bordering the Gaza Strip – from the occupying Egyptian forces. During an 8-day campaign, they capture Beer Sheva and the surrounding region.
With much of the Negev Desert still under Egyptian occupation, the IDF launches Operation Horev on Wednesday 20th Kislev (22nd December), whose objective is to capture the rest of the Negev Desert.
Within a week, Allon has broken the last of the Egyptian pockets of resistance in the Negev Desert. With his rear secured and his flanks safe, the Gaza Strip, lying on his homeward path, is an attainable – if difficult – objective. But because Allon’s orders do not explicitly include the capture of Gaza (even though his troops had launched raids against Khan Yunis, Gaza City, Rafah, and a few other targets), he hurried to Jerusalem to ask for permission to capture the Gaza region.
The highest-ranking politician whom Allon found in Jerusalem was Foreign Minister Moshe Shertok, who lacked the authority to authorise the capture of Gaza. Allon rushed to Tiberias, where Acting Prime Minister David Ben Gurion was resting. Ben Gurion refused Allon permission to capture Gaza, claiming US pressure.
As a consequence, Gaza will remain under Egyptian control after the War of Independence is over. Two decades later, in 5727 (1967), Egypt will launch and lead a pan-Arab war of genocide against Israel, and as a consequence will lose Gaza (and the entire Sinai Desert) to Israel.
But for the next 47 years, though Israel will retain control (at different times complete control, de facto control, partial control, or only indirect control) over the Gaza Strip, the hostile and growing population will remain there. No leader of Israel will obey the Torah imperative to “drive all the inhabitants of the Land out before you…eliminate all their houses of worship”.
As a result the hostile population will remain in Gaza.
As the Ohr ha-Chayim said: Not only do they cling to the Gaza Strip, the part of the Land that we did not merit to conquer; but even in those parts of the Land that we did merit to conquer and wherein we dwell they persecute us, saying: Get up, get out from our midst.
We left the inhabitants of the Land in Gaza – and the consequence is rockets on the entire country, from Eilat to Haifa. And as long as they remain there, the range and power and frequency of those rockets will only increase; and the tunnels which are designed to bring these genocidal enemies undetected into the heart of our towns and villages will inevitably become longer and more frequent and more advanced.
And the latest experience is that beit sig’dat’hon – their houses of worship – have virtually all become weapon-storage sites and places of refuge, which Israel dares not bomb from afar or send soldiers into.
Stage 5: Peace for the future
“You shall eliminate all their houses of worship…thus you shall inherit the Land and dwell in it” (Numbers 33:52-53). The S’forno (Rabbi Ovadyah S’forno, Italy, c.1470-1550) expounds: “‘Thus you shall inherit the Land’ – by burning out the inhabitants of the Land, and then you will merit to bequeath the Land to your children. And if you do not burn them out, then even though you will conquer the Land, you will not merit to bequeath it to your children”.
Indeed, so long as these deadly enemies remain on the Land, we are in danger of losing even those areas which we thought were long-since ours. How many Jews today dare walk through the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City? When was the last time a Jew dared walk through such parts of Jerusalem as Jebel Mukhabber, Beit Hanina, or Beit Safafa?
Does Israel really have sovereignty today over the Arab-occupied sections of Jaffa and Haifa? Over the Arab-occupied villages dotted throughout the Galilee? Those areas which Israel conquered in the War of Independence, but in which, through aifamisplaced mercy, we allowed the inhabitants of the Land to remain – did the generation of independence merit to bequeath those areas to their children?
Thousands of years ago the Torah already told us how to conquer the Land of Israel, and how to bring peace to it. Hundreds of years ago, our great Sages interpreted the Torah in perfect harmony with tomorrow’s headlines.
Stage 6: Conclusion
In the 37th Psalm, King David admonishes us not to envy evil people for their apparent success, because their fortune is but illusory and temporary: “because they will be mown down as swiftly as the grass, and as the green herb they will wither away” (Psalms 37:2).
Whose prosperity is genuine, even though it be delayed? – “Evildoers will be cut off, while those who hope for Hashem – they will inherit the Land… The humble will inherit the Land, and they will exult in the abundance of peace” (v. 11). The Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, Spain, Morocco, England, Israel, and France, 1092-1167) defines “the humble” in this context as “the opposite of the wicked”. And the Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, France, c.1160-c.1235) amplifies: “The humble who were humiliated by the wicked – they will inherit the Land when the wicked are destroyed. ‘And they will exult in the abundance of peace’, because through the destruction of the wicked there is peace and joy in the world, as it says ‘at the destruction of the wicked there is joyful song’ (Proverbs 11:10)”.