Matot-Masei | The Borders of Israel
Updated: Apr 28
What are the borders of Israel?
This great controversy of history and modern politics is actually addressed in our parsha. In the second of this week’s double portion, Matot-Masei, in chapter 34, the Torah clearly sets out the borders of the Land of Israel. The parsha delineates the borders, beginning with the south-eastern border, which runs from the bottom of Yam HaMelach, the Dead Sea, making its way westward to “the Great Sea,” which refers to the Mediterranean, which forms the western border. The northern border starts from Hor HaHar on the Mediterranean, running through various places until it comes to Chatzar Ainan on the East. From there the eastern border descends to the bank of the Kinneret, running along the Jordan river until the bottom of the Dead Sea. The full details of these borders are found in the parsha and can be traced on the maps found in most Chumashim.
Why are the full details of the borders set out in the Torah?
Rabbeinu Bechayey, one of our commentators from the Middle Ages, explains that the Torah sets our clear borders in order to designate the specific area of land which the Jewish people were commanded by G-d to conquer and take possession of. The Ralbag adds that these borders are delineated specifically to teach us that these are the borders that G-d has promised the Jewish people, and if they venture outside these borders they cannot be guaranteed of Hashem’s help in conquering that land.
Rashi has another explanation. He quotes from the Midrash which says that the borders are delineated specifically because there are certain mitzvot which apply only within the borders of the Land of Israel. For example, the laws of terumot and ma’asrot, the tithes that were given to the Kohain, the Levite and the poor; the laws of shemita, the sabbatical year; and the laws regarding the jubilee year apply only within the borders of the Land of Israel and so we need to know its exact halachic borders.
The formation of nationhood
There are also philosophic aspects to the borders, not just halachic ones. Every country in the world has man-made borders, and often these are the result of a quirk of fate. South Africa is a good example: its present borders date back to the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910. Prior to that there was the Cape Colony, Natal, and the early Boer Republics in the Transvaal and in the Orange Free State, and then after the Anglo–Boer War these all became one country called the Union of South Africa. Across the border is Mozambique. If you live on the other side of the border, you are a Mozambican; if you are on this side, you are South African.
But what does the “South African nation” mean? Who drew up these borders? They were drawn up arbitrarily by colonialists. In fact, many conflicts have resulted from these manmade, arbitrary borders. The borders of virtually every country in the world are arbitrary lines drawn by human beings, sometimes with thought, sometimes using natural barriers like rivers and mountain ranges, sometimes by a quirk of fate. Many world conflicts have resulted from disputes over these manmade borders. Iraq is a case in point. It was created by the British Empire who just drew the borders whichever way they wanted, bringing together different cultures, religions and ethnicities. People who had never lived together were now forced into a unitary state. The nature of borders is that they are arbitrarily drawn up by people. Sometimes the borders are imposed from the outside, sometimes they are drawn up in agreement by the people themselves, but it is always human beings who establish them.
There is only one country on earth whose borders were not arbitrarily drawn by human beings but by G-d Himself, and that is the Land of Israel. The accusation that Israel is a colonialist occupier of other people’s land is a bitter irony, because in fact it is the only country in the world whose borders are delineated in the Bible and promised to the Jewish people by G-d. How can Israel be described as a colonialist power? One can argue that for reasons of political compromise and to achieve peace in the region there should be a Palestinian State, but to call Israel an “occupier” is absurd. It is the only country in the world whose borders are not arbitrary but rather divinely ordained.
The Midrash Tanchuma on our parsha, in paragraph six, brings that G-d says: “I am the one who gave you permission to be in the Land of Israel.” The Chida, one of our great commentators, explains this Midrash: a king who controls the land and the resources of a country can divide those resources in accordance with how he sees fit. G-d, the Creator and the Owner of the entire world, has designated the Land of Israel for the people of Israel. He was the one who gave it to us, and therefore it is rightfully ours. It is crucial to keep this in mind when contending with the debates and accusations against Israel today.
Being a “light unto the nations”
But there is another dimension to understanding why G-d designated Israel’s borders in the Torah. Let us begin with the question, how does a nation come into being? How does a country become an independent entity? The nations of the world form themselves through an evolutionary process whereby groups of people come together and form a common culture and often a common religion. They designate a border, create a system of governance for themselves and eventually become an independent entity within those borders. Their identity then develops around what they have created – their shared country, history and common values. This identity is created by the society itself.
In contrast, the Jewish people are the only nation on earth formed wholly by G-d and not by themselves. The basic components comprising nationhood – a piece of land, a common value system and sense of identity – were given to us by G-d. We didn’t create our identity; He created it when He took us out of slavery in Egypt and brought us to Mount Sinai, where He gave us our value system, our mission statement and indeed our very identity in the giving of the Torah. He then gave us the land of Israel, with borders that He designated, not us. Thus, every part of our nationhood was created by G-d.
This explains the Midrash Tanchuma on the parsha, in paragraph ten, which brings that G-d says: “The land is Mine and the people of Israel are Mine, and [quoting the verse] ‘because they are My servants,’ let Me give My land to My people.” The Midrash explains that both the land and the people of Israel are the servants of G-d. This means that Hashem created the Land of Israel to be a platform for His service in the world, and He created Am Yisrael to be His people and promote His values; the two are inextricably linked. The very existence of the Jewish people and the Land of Israel is a message to the entire world that our existence on earth comes completely from Hashem and that human beings were placed on earth in order to serve G-d and do good. We are meant to be a prototype, to be the “light unto the nations.” Therefore we must devote ourselves to fulfilling G-d’s commandments and living a life of goodness.
This is why the most basic act of forming a country – drawing up the borders – was not left to our discretion. We see this clearly in the verse in our parsha which says: Zot ha’aretz asher tipol lachem benachala, “This is the land that will fall to you as an inheritance.” Tipol means “to fall;” it will “fall into your lap,” so to speak, not by your own powers. Under the leadership of Joshua, the people conquered the land of Israel, which required a lot of effort on their part. But ultimately, the leadership, direction and victory in the battles came from G-d. G-d delineated its borders and told us to conquer up to a certain point and no further: this will be your land, this will be the way you live, and this will be your value system. Hence He said: “This is the land that is going to fall to you as your inheritance.” This is indeed a profound message about our purpose on earth and what it means to be a servant of G-d.