The possession of the land does not depend on the merits of the conquerors. That is what we are explicitly told in this week’s Torah portion: “You do not come to conquer their lands by virtue of your righteousness and your upright character” [Deuteronomy 9:5]. However, if this is so, we might have thought that the evil acts of the previous owners should also have no effect. If the actions are not a criterion for possession of the land, the performance of evil acts should also not matter. But then why is it written, “because of the evil of these nations G-d is sending them away from you” [ibid]? And the second reason given, “… in order to fulfill the promise that G-d made to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” [ibid], is not easy to understand either. If the land was given to the children because their fathers were righteous, can it be that the children are not required to maintain at least a minimum of righteousness in order for the promise to be kept?
The answer to the above questions is that there are two separate elements involved – entering the land and continuing to dwell there.
The entry into the land does not depend on any merits, but in order to continue living there the people must be righteous. And this explains why the evil character of the people who lived on the land is relevant to the conquest of the land.
If the entry into the land does not depend on practical merits, what does it depend on? What are the details of the oath given to the forefathers? The answer can be found in the words of the prophet: “I have made the earth… and I have given it to those who are appropriate in My eyes” [Jeremiah 27:5]. Thus there are two important factors: (1) An ethical criterion – the word used is “yashar,” meaning upright. (2) “In the eyes of G-d,” and not necessarily what appears to us at first glance to be upright. This is referring to internal honesty, which is not the equivalent of what is usually understood by the phrase “your righteousness and your upright character.” In this case, it refers to having an honest identity, a characteristic of those who conquered the land and who established the country. Even though the people were “stiff-necked,” they were worthy of the oath given to the forefathers.
According to the Maharal of Prague, being “stiff-necked” is a positive trait which is related to being dedicated to truth and justice. One who is stiff-necked is not willing to modify his ways without clear proof that he should change, both on moral and logical grounds, and it is therefore not easy for him to repent. But if and when he does repent he can be expected to maintain his new position.
Our upright identity, what is called “segulah,” the inherent unique trait of our nation, is an element in our souls that demands that the world will operate according to principles of righteousness. This demand comes into play in our willingness to sacrifice ourselves in the wars of Yisrael, where we test our morality in war against the partial morality of the Christians and Moslems. As opposed to their approach, our morality is based on the unity of the values of righteousness and justice, which constitutes the mission of our forefathers: “… the way of G-d, to perform righteousness and justice, so that G-d will give to Abraham what He promised” [Genesis 18:19].
Source: “AS SHABBAT APPROACHES” – a biweekly column in Shabbat B’Shabbato, Eikev 5774, Volume 1537. (Zomet Institute) See: www.zomet.org.il/eng