I know this will be a controversial speech, but I've wanted to speak about this for years. So here goes!
The forty years we spent in the desert were a disaster for us - an entire generation of Jewish men died, and everyone else waited to enter Israel. But to another population - the Canaanites - those forty years were a reprieve, a last breath of survival before the Jewish people entered and launched a series of wars which we call כיבוש הארץ but they would have called Ethnic Cleansing.
“Ethnic Cleansing” - some prefer Genocide - sounds harsh, but think about it: The Torah instructs the Jews as they enter Israel, “לא תכרת להם ברית ולא תחנם, Do not make a covenant with the Canaanites and do not show them favor,” but instead go to war with them. This sounds like a blueprint for the massacre of an indigenous population, and the wholesale takeover of their land.
How do we justify this? How do we hold up our beautiful Torah as a light unto ourselves, let alone the nations?
Some address this problem by pointing to Yehoshua’s warnings - the sages teach that Yehoshua sent messengers into Israel before we crossed the Yarden River, offering the chance for native Canaanite tribes to move out or to accept the Noachide laws. Indeed, the Girgashi fled the land. Rachav’s family, in Yericho, is an example of a clan that accepted Yehoshua’s terms.
But this doesn’t really address the problem: Fundamentally, what gave us the right to enter a land and forcibly evict its societies?
Here is a fundamental Torah principle: Individuals, by definition of their basic humanity, have an automatic right to life - and so do societies. And just as individuals have laws by which they are obligated to live, so societies are judged by their adherence to certain laws - and just as individuals are punished for violation of the law, so societies are punished for their violations of law.
Individuals have a right to life and dignity which stems back to our common parentage of Adam and Chavah. As the classic work Metzudat Dovid records, “All of us are brothers because all of us come from the same womb, that of Chavah.”
All of us, Jew and non-Jew, regardless of nationality or race or gender or anything else, are created בצלם אלקים, in the image designated for us by Gd, and therefore, as the Rambam wrote, we are obligated to treat every human being with basic כבוד, basic respect. A human being’s life must be honored, even if he is not particularly wonderful.
However, every person is also charged with fulfilling the basic Noachide laws - Not to murder, not to steal, not to worship idols, not to practice sexual immorality, not to blaspheme against Gd, not to eat meat that came from a live animal, and to help create a system of justice - and violation of those laws carries with it harsh penalties.
The Torah applies the same combination of respect and responsibility to societies:
• The seven Noachide laws center around the logical steps for building proper societies.
• We are taught that HaShem waited 26 generations to give the Torah, in order to provide humanity with time to learn to get along together first.
• We are taught that HaShem honored the unity of the people who built the Tower of Bavel, and spared their lives, even though they had built the Tower for the sake of rebellion against HaShem!
But societies, like individuals, are held to moral standards. As the gemara explains, “When HaShem saw that the nations did not keep the Noachide laws they had been commanded, He exiled them from their land.” This Exile is a nation’s death knell - for almost every nation in the history of mankind, exile from its land has meant dissolution of the national identity. Exile is the Death Penalty, writ large. And the Torah believes in a Death Penalty not only for individuals, but also for societies.
This may sound harsh, but it actually reflects the beliefs of most human beings in America, and worldwide.
Think back a few weeks to the polygamist sect in Texas, accused of abusing young girls. By what right did the government break them up? They didn’t meet the criteria of a basic society.
Or think globally: This was the basis for opposition to the government of the former Soviet Union, and it is the basis for the opposition to China today. Think of Myanmar, and the government which was so concerned about its own survival that it did not allow in rescue workers, that it barred humanitarian aid from suffering children. You saw the pictures of the devastation - Who among us would not want to see that government dissolved, that society re-worked entirely?
Indeed, naive trust in government led the America administration to push for democratic elections among the Palestinian Arabs a couple of years ago, and they got Hamas in return - because not every government deserves to rule.
The Torah shows us the same lesson, repeatedly; as Ramban wrote, the purpose of the entire book of Bereishis is this lesson, to teach us what HaShem rewards and what HaShem punishes.
We watch Noach’s world sink into חמס, into abuse and kidnapping and theft, and HaShem says, “This society does not have the right to survive.”
We see the city of Sdom display barbaric cruelty to strangers, and HaShem says, “See that? This society does not deserve to survive, either.”
We see it among Jews, too - Korach’s crew is condemned to die, and so are the men who follow the Meraglim in our parshah. Social obligations are across the board, for Jew as much - or more than - for non-Jew.
Which returns us to the Canaanites, a set of populations whose eponymous ancestor mocked his disgraced grandfather Noach, who displayed sexual immorality regarding Sarah and Rivkah, who cheated Avraham when selling him a grave for Sarah and who destroyed Yitzchak’s wells, who displayed cruelty in Shechem in their treatment of Dina and did not bring a rapist to justice, who worshipped the many gods of their pagan system - in short, who violated pretty much every one of the Noachide laws - until Gd decreed, “Enough.”
This is the invasion which the Torah justifies - not an act of ethnic cleansing, not an act of genocide, but an act of justice against a society which had long ceased to respect what the Torah considers a responsible ethical code.
HaShem said to Avraham, hundreds of years before bringing the Jews to the land, “The fourth generation of your exiled descendants will return to this land” - but not until then. Why? כי לא שלם עון האמורי עד הנה, because the Emorites do not yet deserve to vanish; their sin is not yet at a level warranting their national dissolution.
HaShem told the Jews themselves in the desert, לא בצדקתך וביושר לבבך אתה בא לרשת את ארצם, כי ברשעת הגויים האלה - You are not acquiring this land because you are so wonderful, so righteous. Rather, HaShem has decided that this society of cruelty must cease to exist, and you are the tool by which HaShem will achieve that end.
That explains the Torah’s view of ancient conquest - but I am still bothered by the ramifications today: Where is the limit for us, today, to keep us from using this biblical text as justification for international violence? What will prevent us from emulating the Muslim genocides of the 7th century, or the Crusader massacres of the 11th century? Those people also thought Gd had authorized them!
To me, the answer is in the system itself, in the Torah’s own standards and expectations, on two levels:
First, in the standard we set for going to war: If war is simply a land grab, an attempt to aggrandize our kings and enrich our treasuries, then we are as ugly as those other nations I just mentioned, guilty of ethnic cleansing and genocide in the worst way. The standard must be that which is set by Gd in the Torah - which is why, halachically, the Jewish nation is not permitted to go to war without the authorization of the Sanhedrin, the high court, as well as the prophecy of the אורים ותומים, and why the army was led not by expert warriors but by a specially appointed Kohen Gadol.
And second, but perhaps more important, is the standard we set for ourselves: Our conduct, not just in war but in our day-to-day national function, must meet the highest standard, lest we be as guilty as those we uproot. Even in war, which brings out the worst in people, our soldiers are expected to conduct themselves morally. And in peace we are expected to build a society which will be the moral envy of the world. The greatest refutation of our critics, the greatest response to those who read the wars of Bamidbar and Devarim and Yehoshua and cry “Genocide,” is the ethical, moral, enlightened society we create in times of peace.
Sometimes Jews become impatient with what we see in Israel, with flaws of society, the same problems which plague nations everywhere. But this rejection of what Zecharyah called the יום קטנות, the “day of small things,” would be short-sighted.
Rav Leibele Eiger noted that in our parshah, the Canaanites are repeatedly described as העם היושב בה, and העם היושב עליה, the nation that lives in this land. This land is no longer theirs; the land is due to transition from ארץ כנען, Land of the Canaanites, to ארץ ישראל, the land of Israel. But the name ארץ ישראל doesn’t actually appear until the book of Shemuel, centuries after the Jews cross the Yarden. It took a long time to earn the title.
Gd-willing, there will come a day when all of us will make aliyah, when all of us will reclaim our portion in the land. On that great day, which I daven will be soon, we will face the same society-building challenge that was put before our ancestors 3400 years ago. If we remember the lessons of the Torah about what HaShem condemns and punishes and what HaShem desires and rewards, about society’s worth and society’s responsibility, then we will merit to help build a land worthy of that title, ארץ ישראל.
1. Metzudat Dovid is to Iyyov 31:15. The "26 generations" is from Avot d'R' Natan. Ramban's note is to the beginning of Bereishit. Yehoshua's warnings are mentioned in Yerushalmi Sheviit 6:1. The "day of small things" is from Zecharyah 4:10. R' Leibele Eiger is cited in Mishlei Chasidim al haTorah to Parshat Sh'lach. The first mention of ארץ ישראל in Tanach is Shemuel I 6:5, but see also Yehoshua 11:22.
2. Re: Noachide laws, see the 7th chapter of Sanhedrin, where there seem to be more than 7 on the list.
3. R' Saadia Gaon is the one who observed that the 7 Noachide laws are essential to building a society.
4. Ibn Ezra has a very different version of the Tower of Bavel.
5. The gemara about exiling the nations for failing to fulfill the 7 mitzvot is in Bava Kama 38a. There is a different take in Avodah Zarah 2b, which talks about the mitzvot the nations accepted and did not practice, and how the nations lose reward for those mitzvot they fulfill - but do not receive Exile as a punishment. Apparently, failure to fulfill mitzvot they have accepted means they lose גר תושב status and so lose their special reward. Failure to fulfill mitzvot they have been commanded means they lose all status and are forced to cease to exist.
6. Perhaps Dovid haMelech's military advice on Berachot 3b was about Canaanites?