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Parashat Ha'azinu 5759/1998
"He fixed the boundaries of peoples in relation to Israel's numbers"
Department of Bible
In Parshat Ha'azinu, Deuteronomy chapter 32, Moses enjoins the people to contemplate history, that they may learn from it:
To what historical event are these verses alluding, and what lesson does that event teach? Rashi interpreted the text as follows:
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:
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:
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:
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).