Re'eh: The Joy of Inheriting the Land of Israel

The pronouncements of blessings and curses are our very foundation in the Land of Israel.

Contact Editor
Daniel Pinner,

Six Day War Paratroopers at the Wall
Six Day War Paratroopers at the Wall
David Rubinger

Please pray for the writer's 3-week old son, Naftali Chananiah ben Tzipora Yehudit, hospitalized in the neo-natal intensive care unit of the Sha'arei Tzedek Hospital since his premature birth. 

Parashat Re’eh continues with the second of Moshe’s three farewell discourses to his beloved nation, in which he recounts the salient events of the last forty years of desert wanderings. His second discourse began two weeks ago in Parashat Va-et’chanan (Deuteronomy 4:44), and will continue until the end of Chapter 26 (in Parashat Ki Tavo, in another 3 weeks).

“Re’eh – see”, begins our parashah, “I present before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that you will listen to the mitzvot of Hashem your G-d, which I command you today. And the curse – if you do not listen to the mitzvot of Hashem your G-d, and you stray from the path which I command you today – is to go after other gods which you have not known” (Deuteronomy 11:26-28).

And in the next paragraph, Moshe defines exactly where this blessing and curse are to be presented: “It will happen, when Hashem your G-d will bring you to the Land to which you are coming to inherit it, that you will present the blessing on Mount Gerizim and the curse on Mount Ebal” (v. 29).

Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal are the two mountains that encompass the ancient city of Shechem, 550 metres (1,800 feet) above sea level. Mount Gerizim rises yet another 320 metres (1,050 feet) above Shechem to the south, and Mount Ebal towers 390 metres (1,280 feet) over Shechem to the north.

Indeed, when the Children of Israel had finished the battle for the Jordan Valley and reached the Israeli heartland, the first place they came to was Shechem.

“Joshua then built an altar to Hashem the G-d of Israel on Mount Ebal, as Moshe, the servant of Hashem, had commanded the Children of Israel, as is written in the Book of the Torah of Moshe… And he wrote there on the stones a copy of the Torah of Moshe… And all Israel, its elders, its officers, and its judges, were standing on either side of the Ark…half facing Mount Gerizim and half facing Mount Ebal – as Moshe, the servant of Hashem, had commanded – to first bless the nation of Israel. And following this, he read all the words of the Torah, the blessing and the curse” (Joshua 8:30-34).

Moshe introduces this instruction to present the blessing on Mount Gerizim and the curse on Mount Ebal with the phrase “It will happen, when Hashem your G-d will bring you to the Land to which you are coming to inherit it…”. And he used this identical phrase earlier in the same discourse: “When Hashem your G-d will bring you to the Land to which you are coming to inherit it and will throw out many nations before you – the Hittite and the Girgashite and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite – seven nations greater and mightier than you, and Hashem your G-d will deliver them before you and you will smite them – you will eliminate them completely; do not make any treaty with them, and do not show them any favour, and do not intermarry with them” (Deuteronomy 7:1-3).

Moshe introduces both these charges with the identical wordsכי יביאך ה' אלקיך אל הארץ אשר אתה בא שמה לרשתה, “when Hashem your G-d will bring you to the Land to which you are coming to inherit it…”. The identity of these phrases is too great to be coincidence; and we note that these are the only two places in the Tanach where this phrase occurs.

And we note that when instructing the Children of Israel to present the blessing and the curse, Moshe adds one word before it, which he had not used when instructing Israel to eliminate the Canaanite nations: “והיה – it will happen”.

What does this extra word והיה connote?

The Midrash teaches a principle that “the word ויהי [it happened] indicates woe, the word והיה [it will happen] indicates joy” (Bereishit Rabbah 42:3, Bamidbar Rabbah 13:5, Ruth Rabbah Introduction 7 et. al.). Or, in the negative, “Whenever it says ויהי there is no joy, whenever it says והיה there is no woe” (Vayikra Rabbah 11:7).

Moshe connected the charge to eliminate the nations from the Land of Israel with the charge to declaim the blessing on Mount Gerizim and the curse on Mount Ebal by using the identical wording to introduce them. Nevertheless, he intimated that the proclamation of the blessing and curse would entail a joy that eliminating the nations would not.

Since both these injunctions were crucial to our inheriting the Land of Israel, why does the second entail greater joy than the first?

The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michael Weiser, Volhynia, Poland, and Romania, 1809-1879) comments on Deuteronomy 7:1: “‘When Hashem your G-d will bring you…and you will throw out many nations’ – meaning that of the seven nations which were here, there were many who left their country. As our Sages have said, Joshua told them before [conquering the Land]: He who wants to make peace – let him make peace; he who wants to leave – let him leave; he who wants to make war – let him make war. And the Girgashites left, and went to Afriki”.

(The Malbim refers to the Midrash in Vayikra Rabbah 17:6 and Yalkut Shimoni, Leviticus 563: “The Girgashite [nation] arose and left of his own free will, which is why he was given a beautiful country as his own – the country of Afriki. The Gibeonites made peace, as it is written ‘the inhabitants of Gibeon made peace’ . The 31 Canaanite kings made war, and were defeated”. The “country of Afriki” most likely refers to Phrygia, a kingdom in west central Anatolia, in modern-day Turkey, rather than Africa.)

Ideally, all the Canaanite nations would have left or made peace, and we would have entered our Land without need of fighting. The fact that so many of them chose to fight perforce diminished our joy at returning home; indeed there would be constant enmity from the inhabitants of the Land, ranging from petty harassment to outright domination and oppression, for the next four centuries, until King David would finally defeat them.

The Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343), commenting on Deuteronomy 7:1, notes that the word נשל (which we have translated here as “throw out”) occurs only three times in the Tanach, each time in Deuteronomy:

  • “When Hashem your G-d will bring you to the Land to which you are coming to inherit it and will נשל, throw out many nations” (Deuteronomy 7:1);
  • “And Hashem your G-d will נשל, throw out these nations from before you” (v. 22);
  • “One who smites his fellow unintentionally…who comes with his fellow to the forest to chop trees, and his hand swings the axe to chop down the tree, and the iron נשל, flies off from the wood and hits his fellow and he dies…” (19:4-5).

The Ba’al ha-Turim explains: “Had Israel not sinned, they would not need weapons of war. This is the inference of ‘[you] will נשל, throw out many nations’ (Deuteronomy 7:1) and ‘the iron נשל, flies off’ (19:5)”.

That is to say: had we been perfect, with no sin among us, then no nations would have opposed us, and we would have no need of weapons to conquer our Land; and if we are all perfect, with no sin among us, then freak accidents like axe-heads flying off and killing innocent bystanders will not happen.

This is not to imply that either a specific Jew or a specific sin can be singled out as being responsible either for wars or for freak accidents. But it does mean that these unfortunate incidents are symptoms of a spiritual malaise among the nation.

Thus if we are forced to take up arms and fight for our Land, if the nations who occupy our Land oppose us militarily, then we can infer that we are spiritually deficient. Hence in that context, Moshe did not use the word “והיה – it will happen”: when telling us that to inherit the Land we would have to take up arms against the nations who live here, when admonishing us not to intermarry with them, when charging us to destroy their places of worship – in that context, the והיה of joy is inappropriate.

But a few chapters on, when charging the nation to deliver the blessing on Mount Gerizim and the curse on Mount Ebal – in that context the והיה of joy is singularly appropriate. The pronouncements of blessings and curses are our very foundation in the Land of Israel, which is why they epitomise and symbolise our entry into our Land.

Indeed, the Talmud (Sotah 36a) and the Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Joshua 14) record a tradition that Joshua brought the Children of Israel to Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal not after the conquest of the Jordan Valley (as a simple reading of the Book of Joshua suggests), but on the self-same day that they crossed the River Jordan: “Come and see how many miracles were performed on that day! Israel crossed the Jordan and came to Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, more than 60 mil [65 km/40 miles]”.

Some weeks after instructing the Children of Israel to deliver the blessing on Mount Gerizim and the curse on Mount Ebal, Moshe would reiterate this charge in his third and final discourse (which begins with Deuteronomy 27:1). “והיה – it will happen when you cross the Jordan, you shall erect these stones, which I command you today, on Mount Ebal, and you shall coat them with plaster. There you shall build an altar for Hashem…and you shall sacrifice upon it elevation-offerings to Hashem your G-d. And you shall slaughter peace-offerings and eat there, and you shall rejoice before Hashem your G-d” (vs. 4-7).

The S’forno (Rabbi Ovadyah S’forno, Italy, c.1470-1550) comments, sweetly and simply: “‘You shall rejoice before Hashem your G-d’ because you will then enter into a covenant with Him at Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal”.

The Talmud (Pesachim 109a) and the Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Deuteronomy 906 and 938, also Psalms 862) cite Rabbi Yehudah ben Beteira’s maxim that “when the Holy Temple stood there was no rejoicing without meat, as it says ‘you shall slaughter peace-offerings and eat there, and you shall rejoice before Hashem your G-d’”.

That is to say, the Tanna Rabbi Yehudah ben Beteira saw the sacrifices which we were to offer at the site of Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal as the very paradigm of rejoicing in the Holy Temple.

The plaster-covered stones which Moshe commanded us to erect upon entering the Land of Israel (Deuteronomy 27:2-3) and which Joshua indeed erected (Joshua 8:30-32), upon which were written “all the words of the Torah” (Deuteronomy 27:3), were so to speak the “mezuzah” which we erected at the entrance to our national Home.

In the words of the Abarbanel (Don Yitzchak Abarbanel, Spain, Italy, and Corfu, 1437-1508), “He commanded them to build an altar and to seal a covenant, as they did in Parashat Mishpatim [Exodus 24] after they learned the mitzvot there. And this [erecting the stones upon which the Torah was inscribed] parallels ‘and you will inscribe them on the doorposts of your house’ (Deuteronomy 6:9 and 11:20), upon their entering the Land. And the purpose of this mitzvah is for everyone to know that their entry into the Land is to keep the mitzvot” (commentary to Deuteronomy 27:1).

Moshe introduced two mitzvot with the identical words, “it will happen, when Hashem your G-d will bring you to the Land to which you are coming to inherit it…”. But only the mitzvah of inscribing the Torah as a mezuzah on our national doorpost, so to speak, warranted the joy implied by the extra word “והיה – it will happen”.

As a nation, we are on our way home, and have been for a century past. The request that G-d “lead us upright to our Land” is a persistent theme in our prayers. Millions of Jews over the last three generations have indeed come home upright, in joy. Millions more have come downtrodden, a bare step ahead of hideous death. And millions more waited in exile, and waited…and waited…

Our national door is open, awaiting millions more Jews – more than half the nation – still scattered in exile. The skies over England, Europe, and South Africa are rapidly darkening. Even in the USA, the most golden of exiles, the stormfront is already getting too close for comfort.

It is time – while there still is time – for every Jew to come home, upright and in joy.






top