Lectures on the Torah Reading

by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University

Ramat Gan, Israel

Parashat Haazinu

A project of Bar-Ilan University's Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Sponsored by Dr. Ruth Borchard of the Shoresh Charitable Fund (SCF). Published with assistance of the President's Fund for Torah and Science. Permission granted to reprint with appropriate credit.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


Parashat Ha'azinu 5759/1998

"He fixed the boundaries of peoples in relation to Israel's numbers"

Yonah Bar-Maoz

Department of Bible

In Parshat Ha'azinu, Deuteronomy chapter 32, Moses enjoins the people to contemplate history, that they may learn from it:

(7) Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past; ask your father, he will inform you, your elders, they will tell you: (8) When the Most High gave nations their homes and set the divisions of man, He fixed the boundaries of people in relation to Israel's numbers. (9) For the Lord's portion is His people, Jacob His own allotment.

To what historical event are these verses alluding, and what lesson does that event teach? Rashi interpreted the text as follows:

When the Most High gave nations their homes -- When the Holy One, blessed be He, gave those who angered Him their inheritance, He caused the flood to pass over them and drown them. He set the divisions of man -- He scattered the generation that witnessed the separation [of races]. He could have made them pass from the world, but He did not do so, rather, "He fixed the boundaries of people," letting them survive and not destroying them. In relation to Israel's numbers -- for the number of Israelites who would be descended from Shem and for the seventy children of Israel who went down to Egypt, He set the boundaries of nations, [establishing] seventy tongues. For the Lord's portion is His people -- why did He do all this? Because His portion was comprised among them and was destined to come forth. Who is His portion? His people. And who are His people? Jacob His own allotment (or the rope of His inheritance), the third of the patriarchs, endowed with three merits: the merit of his grandfather, of his father, and of himself, totalling three, like a rope made of three strands. Jacob and his sons became His inheritance; not Abraham's son Ishmael, nor Isaac's son Esau.

According to Rashi's commentary, these verses allude to two events, the time of the flood and the time of the tower of Babel, where G-d showed His disappointment with the human race that had let Him down and had not lived up to expectations. Therefore, the human race deserved total annihilation. However, the fine seed of the people of Israel had already been sowed; three consecutive generations of ancestors obeyed G-d's will, thus justifying the creation of the human race. Following in their ways, all their progeny would fulfill the words, "The people I formed for Myself, that they might declare my praise" (Is. 43:21). Thus, these verses praise the people of Israel and express G-d's love toward them, but they also indicate an obligation to merit this love.

This interpretation is based on two motifs: 1) the number seventy, which pertains both to the birth of nations, described in Genesis chapter 10, and likewise to the number of the children of Israel who came down to Egypt (Exodus 1:1-5). This motif is therefkore applied to our verse (Deut.32:8), "He fixed the boundaries of people in relation to Israel's numbers." 2) The second motif is the root p-r-d (be-hafrido), setting the "divisions" of man, which is echoed in Genesis 10:5: "From these the maritime nations branched out (nifredu), by their lands--each with its language--their clans and their nations," and in Genesis 10:32: "These are the groupings of Noah's descendants, according to their origins, by their nations; and from these the nations branched out (nifredu) over the earth after the Flood." Based on the appearance of this root in Ha'azinu, Rashi brought in the incidents of the Flood and the Tower of Babel.

Rabbi Samuel b. Meir, Rashi's grandson, points to a different numerical parallel in the same chapter dealing with the dawn of history:

"When the Most High gave nations their homes," giving them their allotments; "and set the divisions of man," after the death of Noah and in the time of Abraham, for it says there, "From these the maritime nations branched out, ... each with its language" (Gen. 10:5). And there you will find that He set the boundaries of the nations descended from Canaan, twelve in number, to correspond to Jacob's twelve sons. For Scripture lists Canaan and his eleven sons, making a total of twelve (Gen. 10:15-18), and there it says, "The boundary (gevul) of Canaanite territory extended from Sidon,..." (v. 19), since all this became the territory of Israel; but regarding the rest of Noah's sons, no boundaries are explicitly mentioned.

Rashbam's commentary draws a numerical parallel not between the seventy nations of the world and Israel but between the twelve descendants of Canaan and the twelve tribes of Israel. Although the linguistic associations with the verb root p-r-d, dividing or branching out, is not so strong as it was in Rashi's commentary, since Genesis 10 is not specifically tied to Canaan, he develops his ideas based on another key word: "He fixed the boundaries (gevulot) of people," from this week's reading, and "The boundary of Canaanite territory," from Genesis 10. As he notes explicitly, boundaries were drawn only for Canaan, not for any other of Noah's progeny. Therefore it is highly probable that Moses was alluding to this incident.

But Rashbam does not explain what we are to learn from this numerical comparison, aside from the fact that the borders of Canaanite territory and of the promised land coincide (see the promise given Abraham, Genesis 15:18-21). Nor can we turn to his commentary on Genesis for enlightenment, since the first part of that work has been lost, including the comments on Genesis 10.

The missing link, however, is supplied by Nahmanides, in his commentary on Genesis 10:15:

Realize that all of the land of Canaan, since it became a people, was destined for Israel and is their inheritance, as it is said, "When the Most High gave nations their homes and set the divisions of man, He fixed the boundaries of people in relation to Israel's numbers." But when the nations branched out after the Tower of Babel, G-d gave it to Canaan because he was a slave, to safeguard it for Israel; just as the property of a master's son is entrusted to his servant until the son grows up and receives both the property and the servant. With G-d's help, I shall explain this further (Deut. 2:23).

According to Nahmanides, a close reading of history teaches us about G-d's great love of Israel. From the very beginning G-d established a fitting inheritance for His people, long before they became a nation. This inheritance He safeguarded for them by giving it to the Canaanites to inhabit, to those who were cursed, "The lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers" (Gen. 9:25). Therefore, when the time comes, the people of Israel will come and rightfully claim their inheritance, not as a nation conquering a land which is not theirs, but as people receiving what is justly due them.

In his commentary on Leviticus, chapter 18, Nahmanides explains why the land of Israel was given to the people of Israel, and only entrusted to the Canaanites temporarily:

The key to understanding this lies in the words of Scripture, "When the Most High gave nations their homes and set the divisions of man, He fixed the boundaries of people,..." "For the Lord's portion is His people." The gist of the matter is that G-d created everything, and gave the heavenly forces power over the earthly, each and every nation living in its respective land with its own star and fortune, according to astrology. As it is said, "These [the stars and heavenly bodies] the Lord your G-d allotted to other people everywhere" (Deut. 4:19), for he allotted them all stars in heaven, placing the angels over them, to act as princes, as it is said, "the prince of the Persian kingdom opposed me," (Daniel 10:13), and "the prince of Greece will come in" (v. 20); and they are called kings, as it is said, "I was detained there with the kings of Persia" (v. 13). The Lord is the supreme God, master of the entire universe. But over the land of Israel, the means of habitation, the Lord's inheritance specially reserved for Him, He did not place angels to rule it, since he allotted it to His peopl, who declare the oneness of His name and are the descendants of his faithful ones, as it is said, "You shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine" (Ex. 19:5).

Nahmanides explains the uniqueness of the land of Israel, G-d's great love of the people of Israel, and the heavy burden of responsibility that these two things place on us. The land of Israel is not like other lands; rather, it is subject to G-d's special providence, in contrast to other lands that are ruled by His emissaries. Therefore it can only be given to a people that will undertake to strictly observe the laws and demands made by the King of Kings.

As we saw in Rashi's commentary, in all of humanity there was no one more faithful to G-d than our patriarchs, but they and their descendants appeared relatively late on the stage of history. Therefore, the land had to be inhabited temporarily, for G-d did not create the earth "a waste, but formed it for habitation" (Is. 45:18). This habitation, however, had to be done in a way that would indicate who were the true masters of the land. Therefore initially Canaan, the slave, inhabited the land but was vomited out of the land when its masters came.

Chapter 18 of Leviticus warns the Israelites that they are coming to a land which is different from all other places they have known: "the land, which is the inheritance of the Lord, will vomit out anyone that defiles it and will not tolerate those who worship pagan gods or engage in illicit sexual relations" (according to Nahmanides). Therefore, the people of Israel must be careful and swift to perform G-d's command if they wish to endure on the land given them.

Thus we see that the allusions to the early history of mankind are quite significant at the beginning of this poem, whose entire purpose is to be "witness against the people of Israel. When I bring them into the land flowing with milk and honey that I promised on oath to their fathers, and they eat their fill and grow fat and turn to other gods and serve them, spurning Me and breaking My covenant, and the many evils and troubles befall them--then this poem shall confront them as a witness, since it will never be lost from the mouth of their offspring. For I know what plans they are devising even now, before I bring them into the land that I promised on oath" (Deut. 31:19-21).