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Parsha Pearls: Parshas Chukas

Esrogim from Eretz Yisroel may be growing on stolen land!
Do Not Fight With the Nations
Not Praying Too Much
Protesting for Hashem’s Honor

“For Cheshbon was the city of Sichon, king of the Emorites, who fought with the first king of Moav, and took all his land from him, until Arnon.” (Bamidbar 21:26)

In Chullin 60b Reish Lakish says: There are many verses in the Torah that appear to be purely historical trivia, with no lesson for us, such that we might think they should be burnt and not included in the Torah. Yet in reality they teach us central laws of the Torah. He gives several examples, and one of them is this verse about Sichon conquering Cheshbon. What does the Torah want to teach us here? Hashem forbade the Jews to make war against Amon and Moav. One might have thought that when the Jews fought Sichon (which they were commanded to do) and captured the land that originally belonged to Amon and Moav, they were violating this prohibition. Therefore the Torah goes out of its way to tell us that Sichon had previously conquered it and it thereby became permitted to the Jews.

The Gemara in Gittin 38a derives from here a larger lesson: that military conquest is effective in changing the ownership of a piece of land. This means that that there are three differences between regular theft and military conquest.

Firstly, regular theft is forbidden, but military conquest is permitted. That is, non-Jewish nations have a right to expand their territory through conquest, and even the Jewish people, in ancient times when it was ruling its own land, was permitted to expand its territory through conquest. However, such a war, termed by Chazal milchemes reshus, had to be initiated by a decision of the Sanhedrin and the Urim Vetumim (Berachos 4a).

Secondly, usually when one steals, the law is that he must return the item he stole or its monetary value, but with military conquest there is no such obligation.

Thirdly, usually the rule is that a stolen movable object can be acquired if the original owner gives up hope of regaining it and the item is subsequently sold by the thief to someone else. Land, on the other hand, can never be acquired by the thief. It always belongs to its original owner, even if he gave up hope, and no matter how many times ownership is transferred. This rule is known as “karka einah nigzeles” – land cannot be stolen.

Thus the Gemara says in Succah 30a-b that if a Jew comes to a non-Jew’s field to buy hadasim for Succos, the Jew should not cut the hadasim off the tree himself, because we fear that the land may have been stolen at some point in the past, and thus all the hadasim growing on it still belong to the original owner. Only at the moment the hadasim are cut off the tree are they officially stolen – so the Jew would be considered the thief, and a stolen hadas is invalid for the mitzvah. Rather, he should tell the non-Jew to cut the hadasim and then sell it to him, so that the Jew acquires the hadas through the original owner’s giving up hope and the transfer of ownership.

This is all true regarding a regular stolen field, but if the field was taken by military conquest, it belongs to the new owner, and one who cuts off hadasim from it with the new owner’s permission is not stealing (Mishnah Berurah Orach Chaim 649:10, quoting Magen Avraham).

Now, what if the land was conquered illegitimately? Are the three ways in which conquest differs from theft dependent one on another? In other words, do we say that the reason why conquered land does not have to be returned and now belongs to the conqueror is because it was permitted to conquer that land, but in a case when it is prohibited to conquer the land, it is just like regular stealing, it still belongs to its original owner and must be returned? Or perhaps conquest is always more effective than stealing, even when the conquest was done illegitimately.

Let us answer this question based on the story in this week’s Haftarah. It is related in Sefer Shoftim that some three hundred years after the Jews entered the Holy Land, the Amonites invaded the Jews’ land. The Jews appointed Yiftach as their leader, and Yiftach sent a message to the King of Amon asking what his cause for war was. The King of Amon replied (Shoftim 11:13), “Israel took my lands when they were coming out of Egypt, from the Arnon to the Yabok, till the Jordan, and now return them in peace.” Yiftach replied that at the time the Jews came, the Arnon River was the border of Moav and Amon’s land. The lands north of the Arnon, till the Yabok, had previously belonged to Moav and Amon, but they had been conquered by Sichon before the Jews came. The Jews conquered them from Sichon, not from Moav or Amon.

The clear implication is that if the land had been conquered directly from Amon, Yiftach agreed that the Jews would have been obligated to return it, because they were forbidden to fight any wars against Amon. It is only because Sichon legitimately conquered it and the Jews legitimately conquered it from him that they did not have to return it.

When the United Nations voted in November 1947 to partition Palestine between a Jewish and an Arab State, less than 7% of the land belonged to Jews. In the 54% of Palestine allotted as a Jewish state, Jews had a very narrow majority of the population, but even there they owned only a small percentage of the land. In 1948 the Zionists took over the land allotted to them plus more, for a total of about 80% of Palestine. About 700,000 Arabs became refugees, leaving their 500 villages and the farming land around them behind. The new State of Israel took this land and transferred most of it to the Jewish National Fund, which proceeded to sell or lease it to Jews.

Since it is forbidden for Jews to conquer Eretz Yisroel in our time – and it must be stressed that even the section designated by the UN as a Jewish state was conquered by the Zionists, not given to them by anyone, since the UN was not the owner of the land and had no right to give it away (and besides, the UN’s intention was that those 700,000 Arabs should stay and maintain ownership of their land under the Jewish state) – we have here a perfect example of illegitimate land conquest. And just as the Jews at the time of the Torah, had they violated Hashem’s command and conquered land from Moav or Amon, would have been obligated to return it, and it would have had the full status of stolen land, so too lands conquered by the Zionists from their original owners are stolen land, and must be returned. Additionally, any fruit or plant grown on that land remains the property of the original owners until it is cut, and the cutting is an act of theft.

Therefore, Jews buying Arba Minim from Eretz Yisroel must be extremely careful to buy only from fields that were purchased legitimately from the Arabs, not conquered in 1948. If the field was definitely stolen, even if someone else cuts the Arba Minim and sells it to him, he would not be allowed to make a bracha (Mishnah Berurah 649:8). However, if one is uncertain as to whether the land was stolen, he may make the bracha, as we brought earlier from the Gemara in Succah 30b.

And Hashem said to Moshe and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you will not bring this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (20:12)

The Torah says (Devarim 3:26) that Moshe beseeched Hashem to change this decree, but Hashem said, “There is much for you; do not speak to Me again about this matter.” Rashi, quoting the Sifri, explains that “there is much for you” refers to the World to Come. Rabbi Tzadok Hakohein of Lublin explains this according to the Midrash Tanchuma (Chukas 10): Moshe wanted to lead the people into Eretz Yisroel, but Hashem said, “You were the leader of the generation that left Egypt and died in the wilderness. If you lead this new generation into the Land, it will appear as though you don’t care about the old generation, and you are leaving them behind. I want you to be buried together with your people outside the Holy Land, so that you can lead them into the Land in the World to Come, when the dead are resurrected. If you leave them behind now, people will think that the generation that died in the wilderness has no share in the World to Come.” This is the meaning of “there is much for you” – there is an important job for you in the World to Come: to lead your people into the Land.

Hashem told Moshe not to pray anymore, because had he continued, his prayer would have been so powerful that perhaps the decree would have been annulled, and that is not what Hashem wanted. We find a similar instance, writes Reb Tzadok, in the case of the oath forbidding the Jewish people to force the end of exile. Rashi (Kesubos 111a) explains this to mean not praying too much for the redemption. There have been certain individuals, such as Rabbi Chiya and his sons (Bava Metzia 85b), whose prayer was so powerful that they could have brought about the redemption before its proper time. But this was not what Hashem wanted.

The Gemora teaches us that even if we think the time of redemption has arrived because of the great merits of the Jewish people, or because of the great sins of the gentiles, we must not make any move on our own, for it is not the proper time desired by Hashem. This is the meaning of the other oaths mentioned there, not to go up “as a wall” and not to rebel against the nations. “Wall” is a metaphor for the steadfastness of the Jewish people, as it says (Shir Hashirim 8:9), “If she is a wall, we will build upon her a silver crown.” The Midrash says that this verse refers to Avraham Avinu when he was challenged by Nimrod to worship idols. Hashem said: If he is strong like a wall, I will save him. Thus, the prohibition on going up as a wall means that the Jewish people should not think that if they are faithful and good, this automatically means that the redemption will come. The prohibition on rebelling against the nations means that even if the nations are evil and cruel to the Jews, we may not assume that the time of redemption has come and take the license to rebel against them. The time of the end remains hidden, and no one can know if the deeds of the gentiles are enough to cause the redemption to come. Also, perhaps their measure of evil is not yet full, and Hashem waits to punish a people until its measure of evil is full, so that He can pay them all at once and wipe them out (Sotah 9a). For these reasons we are not allowed to make any assumptions and begin praying too much for the exile to end. (Pri Tzaddik, Va’eschanan 1)

And the Canaanite, king of Arad, who dwelt in the south, heard that Israel was coming by way of Asarim, and he fought with Israel and took a captive from them. (21:1)

Rashi says that this was really Amalek; they are called Canaanites because they switched to the language of Canaan in order to mislead the Jews. The Jews would pray to Hashem to help them defeat the Canaanites, and the prayer would be ineffective. But the trick did not work, because the Jews saw that they dressed in the style of the Amalekites, and their language was that of the Canaanites. Unsure as to who they really were, they prayed in an unspecific way: “If You give this people into my hands…”

If they really wanted to fool the Jews, why didn’t they change their style of dress as well? The answer is that if they had changed both their language and their dress, they would have really been considered Canaanites, and a prayer to defeat the Canaanites would have been effective. We see from here that one who adopts the language and dress of a nation is considered a true part of that nation.

Furthermore, even now that they only switched their language, the Torah calls them “Canaanites” and not “Amalekites.” Apparently even adopting the language of a people is enough to be considered a member of that people, to a certain extent. The same applies to those Jews who, although remaining religious and dressing in religious style, speak and conduct their lives using the Zionist language known as “Ivrit,” a language created and developed by heretics, deniers of the Torah and enemies of Hashem. They have thereby become an integral part of the Zionist state; this serves to explain their enthusiasm to participate in it and identification with some of its major goals.

And Edom refused to let Israel pass through its borders, and Israel turned aside from him. (20:21)

Why did Israel not fight Edom over the right to pass through its borders, as they fought Sichon and Og? The Torah explains in Devarim (2:5) that they were commanded not to: “Do not fight them, for I will not give you even a footstep of their land”.

The Midrash says that this command was a lesson for future generations of Jews in exile: “If you see Esav trying to start a fight with you, do not stand up against him, but hide yourselves from him.” (The word “hatzfinu” (hide yourselves) is a play on the word “tzafonah” (northward) in Devarim 2:3: “Turn yourselves northward.”)

Regarding this Midrash, the Chofetz Chaim writes: “The Torah teaches us not to resist the nations even when they fight against us. We must follow in the footsteps of Yaakov Avinu in his encounter with his brother Esav. As the Ramban writes in Vayishlach, all that happened between Yaakov and Esav happens to us constantly with Esav’s children. We must adopt the methods of that tzaddik, to make the three preparations that he made: prayer, a gift, and escape through war, that is, to flee and take refuge.

As long as we walked on that well-tread path, Hakadosh Baruch Hu saved us from their hands. But since we have strayed from the path and new leaders have arisen who chose new methods, leaving behind our ancestors’ weapons and adopting the methods of our enemies, we have fared worse and worse, and great travails have befallen us. May Hashem have mercy on our people and restore our judges as of old.” (Chofetz Chaim Al Hatorah, Devarim)

The literal translation of the Ramban’s words are, “escape through war, to flee and take refuge.” Clearly the Chofetz Chaim understood the Ramban to mean that actual war is never permitted during exile; the Ramban wrote the words “to flee and take refuge” as an explanation of the word “war”. According, we have added the words “that is” in the translation above.

Recently, Artscroll published a translation of the Ramban’s commentary on the Torah, in which the above passage was rendered as follows: “that we should prepare ourselves for the three items for which he prepared himself: for prayer, for gifts to appease Esau, and for saving himself by means of war, including fleeing and thereby being saved.” This translation implies that real war is also a possibility, which would be against the Chofetz Chaim.

However, a careful reading reveals that the Artscroll translators were not going against the Chofetz Chaim in practice, only in understanding the Ramban’s words. They understood the Ramban’s words to be referring to Yaakov himself; this is evident from the fact that in the phrase “for saving himself by means of war” they added in the word “himself” and not “ourselves”. Yaakov Avinu definitely did consider real war as a possibility, as the Torah says (Bereishis 32:8), “And Yaakov was very afraid, and he was in distress,” and Rashi explains that he was afraid lest he be killed, and in distress lest he kill others. However, when it comes to the lesson for Jews in exile, all agree that “war” only means “to flee and be saved”.

This is the Torah: a man who dies in a tent… (19:14)

The Gemara (Berachos 63b) comments on this verse, “The words of the Torah can only be fulfilled by someone who kills himself for it.” Usually this is understood as a reference to a diligent scholar who studies Torah at the expense of his physical comfort.

But the Chasam Sofer gives a different explanation. He sees the word מתקיימין (fulfilled) as related to the word יקים in the verse, “Cursed is he who does not uphold the words of this Torah” (Devarim 27:26). In his comment on that verse the Ramban quotes the Yerushalmi Sotah 31a, which says that King Yoshiyahu read this verse, rent his garments and said, “It is my job to uphold!” Even if someone learned, taught and kept Torah, if he was able to uphold the Torah and did not, he is cursed. The Ramban explains “upholding the Torah” to mean causing it to be kept by those who neglect it. This is the obligation of a king or leader in the Jewish people. The Chasam Sofer takes this a step further and says that any Jew can be held responsible for a sin if he was able to protest and did not protest (see Shabbos 55a), and such a person also falls under the curse for not upholding the Torah.

Here too, says the Chasam Sofer, Chazal mean that the Torah can only be upheld by someone who is willing to risk his life protesting against those who neglect it. Protest requires this level of self-sacrifice, since the protestors are invariably hated by the sinners. Those who are afraid of the masses will not be able to uphold the Torah.

The question arises: why was this allusion to upholding the Torah through protest written in the parsha of Parah Adumah – the red cow? The Satmar Rav (Divrei Yoel Shmini p. 204) suggests an answer to this question. The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:8) says that the Parah Adumah was an atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf. Why did the entire Jewish people need atonement, if it was only three thousand of them who sinned, and those sinners were executed on the spot? Furthermore, Chazal (Shemos Rabbah 42) say that the Eirev Rav, the mixed multitude of Egyptians who accompanied the Jews, were the ones who made the calf. Why then was the Jewish people held responsible?

The Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh on Shemos 32:4 says, “Chazal say that the Eirev Rav made the calf. It cannot be that the Jewish people agreed to what they did, even in their hearts, for had they agreed, they would be considered partners to the sin. The rule is that when it comes to idolatry, Hashem punishes even for a thought (Kiddushin 39b). But their sin was that they did not protest.”

It is for this fault of not protesting that the Jewish people needs atonement in every generation, through the Parah Adumah. That is why the verse “a man who dies in a tent” is written here to teach that the Torah can only be upheld by those who protest against sinners and set the Jewish people back on the right track.

But it is just as important to know how to protest and against what to protest. The Jewish people suffered great losses in the war of Pilegesh Bagivah (Shoftim 19-20). Seemingly, they should have been rewarded for the great mitzvah of protesting against the evil perpetrators of that deed. Chazal (Sanhedrin 103b), however, explain that Hashem said at that time, “For My honor you did not protest, but for the honor of a human being you protested?” The sin of Pilegesh Bagivah, however great it was, did not compare with the sin of Micha’s idol, described in the previous chapters (17-18). Of course, a protest against any sin is a protest for Hashem’s honor, but there is a difference. Idolatry is an affront against Hashem Himself, and thus warrants at least as great a protest as an affront against a human being.

The lesson for us today is that it is not enough to protest against offenses committed by the Zionist government against particular people. We must also protest against the very existence of a Jewish government during exile, which is an affront to Hashem Himself. By setting up a government and a state, the Zionists have rejected Hashem’s promise to protect us during exile, as the Torah says, “And even so, when they were in their enemies’ lands, I did not reject them nor revile them to destroy them, to annul My covenant with them, for I am Hashem their G-d” (Vayikra 26:44). They have rejected Hashem’s promise to send moshiach to take us out of exile and gather us in. Their state’s existence is an affront to Hashem’s own honor. If we protest against that, it will be said of us, “Blessed is he who upheld this Torah!”