The last “book” of Torah, Devarim, is also called Deuteronomy because it contains many laws especially relevant to the conquering and settlement of Eretz Yisrael that were not presented in the first four books.
It reflects the transition from the end of one period to the anticipation of another. Having been enslaved in Egypt for hundreds of years, having escaped and wandered the desert for 40 years, the Jewish people are about to experience a new leader and engage in “taking possession” of Canaan, Eretz Yisrael.
Although these words are politically loaded today, historically they are commonplace. Jewish sovereignty, however, is different. It is nationalism not as a political entity but as a spiritual ideal.
Moving from wandering in the wilderness to establishing a homeland, from tribal encampments to cities, from nomadic exile to permanent settlement, the Jewish people will have to fight wars. At least as important, moreover, they struggle to establish a Jewish civilization in the midst of foreign inhabitants and idolatry. All of this requires inner fortitude and national unity that had never been tested.
No doubt the Israelites were unsure of their mission and whether they were up to it. It is therefore no surprise that this section of Torah is filled with exhortations not to be afraid, and promises that things will turn out well if they will observe the commandments and build, in the land God promised them, a society that will reflect God’s oneness and majesty.
The directive of Moses is clear: take possession of the land, your inheritance from God, the land that was promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, a land of blessings – and curses, depending on how one behaves. Unlike other conquerors, the Jewish people did not seek power but rather to create a place dedicated to a spiritual purpose, a civilization focused on God’s presence.
The essence of Jewish sovereignty is that Eretz Yisrael belongs to God. God is sovereign, and the sovereignty of the Jewish people derives from that.
The right to rule does not depend on one’s ability to conquer but on what one does afterward.
To accomplish its task the Jewish people needs a country, a physical representation of a spiritual direction, a political entity with laws and institutions – Jewish sovereignty. The word that appears in Torah to describe the initial stages of this process is “lareshet,” from the root yud-reish-shin (inherit). Understanding of the word depends on its context: conquest, taking control and establishing one’s authority – sovereignty – as a spiritual act mandated by God.
Translated as “taking possession,” lareshet appears many times, often in connection with nun-chet-lamed-taf, which is also translated as inheritance.
Although in Hebrew the “roots” are of three letters, they come in “families” which have a common two-letter root and a common meaning.
These cognates, sort of “brothers” or “cousins” of yud-reish-shin, include: yerushah/morashah (inheritance); rashut (authority, ownership) from the root reish-alef-shin; rashum (registered) from the root reish-shin-mem; reishut (permission) from the root reish-shin-hei; reichush (property) and rachash (acquire) from the root reish-kaf-shin – all expressions of concepts of legal rights and relationship to property.
To whom, however, did the land belong? The land the Jews conquered and occupied was inhabited by various tribes, city-states and powerful kings, some native and others not, like Hittites from what is now Turkey and Philistines from what is now Greece. What right did Jews have to conquer this territory and occupy it? Perhaps anticipating this challenge, the Torah emphasizes over and over the sanctity of this specific area and the purpose of Jewish conquest and sovereignty: the establishment of an earthly kingdom that would reflect the Kingdom of God.