Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedPR photo

The borders of the Land of Israel are from Nahar Mitzrayim (the Egyptian River) to the Euphrates River (Genesis 15:18). Thus, we were commanded: “…the Canaanite territory, and Lebanon, as far as the Euphrates River… come, occupy the land that God swore He would give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and to their descendants after them” (Deuteronomy 1: 7-8). In the Torah portion Massei, however, we read about limited borders that do not even include the East Bank of the Jordan River.

This is because the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz (the commandment to settle the Land of Israel) must be fulfilled gradually, according to the ability of Am Yisrael (the People of Israel). Since Am Yisrael was not large and numerous enough before entering the Land, and was unable to fill all the wide expanses of the entire Land of Israel, the mitzvah was to first conquer the West Bank of the Jordan River according to the borders stipulated in Parashat Massei, which are the holier areas of the Land. Only after they had settled all the territories in their possession properly, would the Children of Israel gradually expand towards the east of the Jordan, and all the territories of Eretz Yisrael (Ramban, Bamidbar 21:21).

Similarly, Malbim also explained that in this parsha, the Torah mentions several times the word “lachem” (“to you”), and ends with “zot tihiyeh lachem ha’aretz” (“this will be your land “), implying that it is only temporary, because the border would expand time and again as it did in the days of David and Solomon, and in the times of Herod when the kingdom spread to the Euphrates River, and all the more so, in the future.”

Consequently, from the outset, Moshe Rabbeinu did not intend to conquer the land of Sichon and Og, and only after they did not respond to Israel’s offer of peace and went to war, did Israel conquer their land. Only after the members of the tribe of Reuben and Gad requested to settle the Eastern side of the Jordan, Moshe Rabbeinu complied with their request on condition they too would participate in the conquest of the holier, principal portion located on the western side of the Jordan River.

However, even the western side was not settled as it should have been, especially on the northern border.

The Northern Border

There are five possibilities regarding the western point on the northern border of Eretz Yisrael, which borders the Mediterranean Sea. (Peninei Halakha: Ha’Am ve’ Ha’Aretz 3:15)

  • According to Targum Yonaton and the Jerusalem Talmud, it is the place called Tavrus Umnus, which are the Umnos Mountains in southern Turkey, north of the 36th latitude line.
  • According to “Kaftor V’Perach,” it is the mountain called Akra, a small mountain on the border between Turkey and Syria, located on the 36th latitude line.
  • According to Rambam, the northern border is the 35th latitude line, beginning from the western side in the place called Banyas (it is clear that his intention is not the place we call the “Banyas” today, which is located at the bottom of the Hermon).
  • According to Rabbi S. Serlio and Tevu’ot Ha’aretz, it is the mountain located slightly south of Tripoli, at the place today called Mount Batrun.
  • According to ‘Admat Kodesh’, it is near Beirut to the east, on a mountain now called Hamna

Apparently, the first and second opinions deal with the border of the entire Land of Israel, since from the places mentioned, it is possible to draw a natural boundary line as far as the Euphrates River, and chances are, the borders of the Land are natural borders. The fourth and fifth opinions deal with the borders in Parashat Massei, which the olei Mitzrayim (the Jews who came into Eretz Yisrael from Egypt, led by Yehoshua) were commanded to conquer and divide among the tribes.

The fifth opinion seems more likely, for in practice, the edge of the border of Israel’s settlement reached close to Beirut. We have also learned that there is a mitzvah to establish arei miklat (cities of refuge) equidistant from each other, and between the most northern one, and the border of the Land (Makot 9b). Since the most northern ir miklat in the Galilee is Kadesh (about 25 kilometers north of the Sea of ​​Galilee), consequently, the border of the Land should seemingly be close to the Beirut area.

The Actual Northern Border

Nevertheless, even if we accept the fifth or fourth method regarding the border of Parashat Massei, it is still problematic. This is because the northern inheritance belongs to the Tribe of Asher, and how is it possible that they gave him such a large inheritance? For even according to the fifth method, it turns out that they gave him a larger area than the other tribes, since it included most of the Galilee and close to half of the Lebanese mountains up to Beirut, a very large and fertile area. It is all the more difficult according to the fourth opinion, which includes all the mountains of Lebanon up to Tripoli.

It is possible to clarify that from the outset, all the twelve tribes were supposed to inherit the Western side of the Jordan until the road to Chamath, just as the Spies explored the Land until the road to Chamath (Bamidbar 13:21). And even after Reuben, Gad and the half of the Tribe of Menasheh inherited land on the eastern side of the Jordan, the northern border of the Land still remained Mount Hor and the road to Chamath the border to which Israel should have aspired.

True, the division of the Land to the tribes in the days of Joshua son of Nun was only up to Sidon, up until which the inheritance of the tribe of Asher extended. Regarding the area north of the inheritance of Asher up until the road to Chamath, as well as the mountains of Lebanon east of Sidon, it was intended for anyone lacking land, for instance, the sons of Dan who came to Leshem near Kiryat Shmona (see, Peninei Halakha: Ha’Am ve’ Ha’Aretz 3:14).

Negligence in Procreation (Pru u’Revu)

In view of the fact that Israel’s poulation was not sufficient to settle the entire Land, and the sons of Reuben and Gad and half the Tribe of Menashe settled on the eastern side of the Jordan, we did not merit to settle properly even the western side of the Jordan, and many enclaves remained in the hands of the Canaanites. Almost all the northern territory of the Lebanese mountains remained in their hands.

Ultimately, because of the Gentiles remaining in the Land, the Beit Ha-Mikdash (Holy Temple) was destroyed, and we were exiled from our Land, and the verse of the Torah describing that was fulfilled in us: “If you do not drive out the land’s inhabitants before you, those who remain shall be barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides, causing you troubles in the land that you settle. I will then do to you what I originally planned to do to them” (Bamidbar 33:55).

It is important to be precise – the main point of our failure to settle the entire Land is not because we did not fight the Gentiles properly, rather, because we were negligent in the mitzvah ‘pru u’revu’, and there were not enough people to settle the Land, as the Torah says: “I will drive the inhabitants out little by little, giving you a chance to increase and fully occupy the land” (Exodus 23: 30).

The Double Sin of the Spies

We find then, that in the depths of the Sin of the Spies lies an additional sin, namely, negligence in the mitzvah of pru u’revu. During the two hundred and ten years that the Israelites were in Egypt, they increased from seventy individuals, to 600,000 men of army age, whereas during all those forty years in the wilderness in which we should have doubled or tripled, we did not grow at all.

These two mitzvot – yishuv ha’aretz and pru u’revu – are interdependent. The blessing of the Land and the family, are one.

As Hashem said to Abraham our father: “For all the land that you see, I will give to you and to your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; if a man will be able to count all the grains of dust in the world, then your offspring also will be countable” (Genesis 13: 15-16, as well as ibid. 17: 6-8); and as Hashem said to our forefather Isaac: “I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars of the sky, and grant them all these lands. All the nations on earth shall be blessed through your descendants” (Genesis 26: 4); and as our forefather Jacob was also told: “I will give to you and your descendants the land upon which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth. You shall spread out to the west, to the east, to the north, and to the south. All the families on earth will be blessed through you and your descendants” (Genesis 28:13-14).

The Sin of the Spies of Our Generation

About a hundred and twenty years ago, close to fifty years after Rabbi Alkalai and Rabbi Kalisher began their Zionist activities, at the time of the establishment of the Zionist movement, the Jewish people numbered approximately eleven million, while the Arabs who lived in all areas of the Biblical borders, including Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, numbered a little more than five million, with a little more than half a million Arabs living on both sides of the Jordan.

At that point, the Jewish nation had the opportunity to return to the Land of Israel, in which to flourish and multiply. However, the majority of our nation were afraid to uproot themselves from the Diaspora, to immigrate to Israel, and to take their fate in their own hands, as the Torah commands. Indeed, the challenge was immense; immigration to Israel in those days involved many difficulties. However, the refusal to fulfill the mitzvah to immigrate to Israel when it was possible to do so was in a sense, a modern-day sin of the Spies, and as the Torah says, the price for it is dreadful. We suffered the Holocaust, the rule of Communist oppression, and assimilation.

Today, there are about fifteen million declared Jews in the world, and in Israel, approximately seven million. In contrast, the Arabs in the vicinity of Eretz Yisrael benefited from the fruits of the industrial revolution, the growth of food production, and the improvement of medicine, and grew from five million to more than eighty million.

These numbers teach us the full and harsh meaning of the Sin of the Spies – the sin of fear of immigrating to the Land, conquering, and settling it – which is the first factor in the destruction of the Beit Ha-Mikdash, which we mourn on Tisha B’Av.

In ancient times, because of the Sin of the Spies, the entire generation of the Jews who left Egypt was left to die in the wilderness. In modern times, the masses of the Jewish people left in the Diaspora were murdered, oppressed, and assimilated.

Fortunate are the Jews who chose to immigrate to Eretz Yisrael and settle it. Thanks to them, the Jewish people are recovering after the disasters that befell us in modern times. We can only imagine what our situation would be if millions of Jews had immigrated to Israel before the Holocaust, and today we numbered fifty million, and our Torah scholars and scientists had contributed their talents to perfect the world in the kingdom of Hashem. It is not too late, it is still possible to correct, both in the fields of yishuv ha’aretz, and in enhancing the mitzvah of pru u’revu.

The Blessing in the Mitzvah

Every period has its own special character. Just as there is a time when someone who invests in land, profits, and a time when investing in technology pays off, so too, there are generations in which whoever “invests” in the mitzvah of pru u’revu, receives a special blessing. For example, in the United States, for eighty-five years, from the Declaration of Independence (1776) to the Civil War (1861), the population increased more than tenfold, from about three million to about thirty-one million, almost all due to birth and expansion of settlement. That was when the society that absorbed the mighty waves of immigration that came afterwards was built, which formed the foundation for America becoming the most important power in the world.

How much more so is this true in these generations when the words of the prophets are beginning to come true, the Land is yielding its produce, and the Children of Israel are duty bound to multiply in order to inherit the Land, and reveal its blessing to the entire world – those privileged to establish a large family, with love and joy, and provide their children with a Torah education and derech eretz, are especially blessed.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.