Israel’s borders – from Torah or diplomacy?

Israel’s borders – from Torah or diplomacy?

Rabbi James Gibson
Rabbi James Gibson

Mas’ei Numbers 33.1-36.15

In Mas-ei, which ends the book of Bemidar, our Torah outlines specific borders to the land promised by God to our people, a promise extending all the way back to Avraham and Sara.
The northern border proposed by the Torah extends well into modern-day Lebanon-Syria. The western boundary is the Mediterranean Sea. The southern border, well inside the Sinai Peninsula, is Wadi El-Arish (called “the River of Egypt”). The eastern boundary extends from the north of the Golan Heights and settles along the Jordan River as it flows down to the Dead Sea (Numbers 34.1-12).
Some say that the Torah serves as a title deed today to the areas described in the parsha. Others say that the modern Jewish state is a creation of modern politics and diplomacy. Though I cherish our history in the land as related in the Torah, I side with the modernists on this one.
Beginning with the British Balfour Declaration from November, 1917 and ending with the U.N. vote for partition 30 years later, the modern state of Israel is the creation of international diplomacy, politics and war.
Israel’s founders knew the text of the Torah, but they did not look to it as the answer to the problems of creating a modern state. And though disappointed with the 1947 U.N. partition plan that took away land they wanted, they worked to establish a Jewish state based on the borders sanctioned by the United Nations.
As a nation, Israel has tried to follow the strictures of international law rather than the Torah. Religious settlers notwithstanding, the government has acted according to its understanding of U.N. resolutions 242 and 338, which provide a mechanism for both Palestinian and Israeli concerns to be addressed.
As war rages in Gaza right now, I read talkbacks to articles in the Israeli press about the situation. Some refer directly to our Torah portion and claim that Gaza is properly Israel’s. And so they call for Israel to retake the Gaza Strip in fulfillment of the Divine will.
I could not disagree more. These days I pray each hour of the day for the safety of Israel’s soldiers and citizens. Like so many Pittsburghers, I too recently went to safety in a shelter as missiles flew toward where I was in Jerusalem.
I strongly wish for the infrastructure of terror to be dismantled or destroyed.
But I must say I don’t want Gaza. If the Torah says it should be ours, it will come in future generations, maybe in a messianic time. For now, let it be Palestinian, minus the apparatus of terror murderously launched at Israeli brothers and sisters.
Our Sages taught: “The only reason that the Holy One, blessed be He, created the world was so that there would be peace among humankind” (Bamidbar Rabbah 12A).
The Sages also teach that the entire Torah is based on the value of peace (Gittin 59b; Bamidbar Rabbah 11:7).
In the end, I believe our Torah is more concerned about the outlines of peace agreements than the borders of our land. I would take quiet for now and let the Torah’s borders be left to a future time.