The True Meaning of Exile

And Hashem spoke to Moshe saying: Command Bnai Yisrael and say to them, “Behold, you come to the Land of Cana’an. This is the land that shall fall to you as a legacy – the Land of Cana’an according to its borders.” (Sefer BeMidbar 34:1-2)

1. The theme of the parasha
Parshat Massay deals primarily with issues related to the forthcoming conquest of the Land of Israel. In this parasha, the Torah admonishes Bnai Yisrael to remove all remnants of idolatry from the land and to not enter into inappropriate treaties with the land’s inhabitants. It describes the boundaries of the land. A brief set of directions is provided for dividing the land among the tribes. Shevet Leyve – the tribe of Leyve – is not to receive an equal portion with the other tribes. Instead, the tribes are commanded to set aside cities for members of Shevet Leyve within their individual territories. Also, cites of refuge are to be designated. A person who takes a life unintentionally is to be exiled to one of these cities. The parasha ends with a directive requiring a woman who has inherited a portion of Land of Israel from her father to marry within her own shevet – tribe. This marriage restriction assures that the land she inherited from her father will remain within the tribe.

The above passages introduce the Torah’s description of the boundaries of the Land of Israel. The description begins with the southeast corner and proceeds clockwise.

And this shall be your north border: from the Great Sea you should turn your line unto Mount Hor. From Mount Hor you shall turn a line unto the entrance to Hamat; and its extension should be to Tzedad. And the border shall proceed to Ziphron, and its extension to Chatzar-enan. This shall be your north border. (Sefer BeMidbar 34:7-9, according to Rashi)

And this shall be your north border: from the Great Sea you should set as your boundary Mount Hor. From Mount Hor you shall extend the boundary to the entrance to Hamat; and its extension should be to Tzedad. And the border shall directly proceed to Ziphron, and its extension to Chatzar-enan. This shall be your north border. (Sefer BeMidbar 34:7-9, according to Rashbam)

2. Two interpretations of the Torah’s description of the borders of the Land of Israel
The above passages describe the northern border of the Land of Israel. The passages are first translated in conformity to Rashi’s understanding of their meaning.[1] The passages explain that the western border which is the Great Sea – the Mediterranean – proceeds north to Mount Hor. The border turns east from Mount Hor and proceeds eastward toward entrance to Hamat. The northern border passes through Tzedad and Ziphron and reaches its eastern extreme at Chatzar-enan. According to this translation, the border is described as a continuous line. The passages describe this line as extending along the length of the Great Sea until Mount Hor, then turning eastward and extending until Chatzar-enan before turning south to form the eastern border. Considered in their totality, the Torah’s description is of a closed figure surrounding the territory of the Land of Israel.

The second translation of the passages is suggested by Rashbam.[2] According to his translation, the Torah describes the northern border from its western terminus to its eastern terminus. It does not describe the northern border as a part of a continuous border. Rashbam actually emphasizes this distinction between his understanding of the Torah’s description of the borders and Rashi’s interpretation. Rashbam explains that the Torah describes the borders as four distinct boundaries.[3]

In short, according to Rashi, the Torah describes the border as a continuous line forming a closed figure. It describes the location of this border line on all sides of the Land of Israel. Rashbam does not agree that the border is described as a continuous line. Instead, he suggests that the Torah describes four discrete boundaries – one boundary for each direction. This seems like an odd dispute. What is its basis?

And your southern side will be from the Wilderness of Tzin adjacent to Edon. And your southern border will be from the edge of the Salt Sea on the east. And the border will bend from the south toward Ma’alai Akrabim and pass toward Tzin. And its extension will be to the south – to Kadesh Barnea. And it will continue to Chatzar Adar and pass toward Atzmon. And the border will bend from Atzmon toward Nachlah Mitzrayim and its extension will be to the sea. (Sefer BeMidbar 34:3-5)

3. A second dispute regarding the description of the borders
Rashi and Rashbam also differ over the meaning of the above passages. The passages are translated according to Rashi’s understanding of their meaning.[4] They describe the southern portion of the border. The border is described from its eastern extreme to its western extreme. In this description, this segment of the border is described as bending. In other words, the passages explain that the border does not proceed from east to west in a straight line. Instead, at two points, the border is described as deviating from its westward path.[5]

Rashbam suggests a slightly different translation of the passages. He explains that the passages do not describe the border as bending, but as protruding.[6] In other words, according to his understanding of the passages, at two points along the southern boundary, there are protrusions that increase the territory encompassed by the borders.

4. The foundation of the dispute between Rashi and Rashbam
An important difference between the interpretations of Rashi and Rashbam is the geographic perspective implicit in the description of the border. In Rashi’s interpretation, the border is described in a very objective, geometric manner. There is no specific geographic perspective implicit in the description. In other words, the description would be accurate whether provided by a speaker located outside the borders or by a speaker located within the borders. This is not true of Rashbam’s understanding of the description. The term “protrusion” implies a geographic perspective. The southern border’s deviation from its east to west path can only be described as a protrusion from the geographic perspective of a speaker located within the boundaries of the land.

This same distinction underlies the first dispute between Rashi and Rashbam. According to Rashi, the Torah describes the borders of the Land of Israel as a continuous line. The account begins from the southeast corner and describes the progression of the line towards the west, then along the Mediterranean coast northward, then from the northwest on a westward path, and finally from the northwest to the southwest. According to Rashbam, the Torah does not describe the border as a continuous line. Instead, it describes the boundaries of the Land of Israel in each direction. In other words, it describes four intersecting lines. In this manner, it describes the point to which the territory of the land extends in each direction. Again, these two descriptions reflect alternative geographic perspectives. Rashi understands the Torah’s description of the borders as objective. The formulation of the description does not reflect the geographic perspective of the speaker. The description merely defines the continuous line or closed figure that separates the space or territory within from the territory without. Rashbam’s understanding of the Torah’s description does imply a geographic perspective. It is formulated as a description of boundaries or limits. The Torah describes how far the territory of the Land of Israel extends in each direction. This formulation implies that the speaker’s geographic perspective is from within the territory.

5. The problem with Rashbam’s interpretation
Rashi’s interpretation of the passages is consistent with their context. Hashem is speaking to Moshe and describing the borders of the land that will be captured. At the point in time at which the communication takes place, the nation is encamped on the eastern bank of the Jordan. The Land of Cana’an is before Bnai Yisrael. They are situated outside of its borders. Therefore, it is reasonable to describe the borders in a manner consistent with this context. According to Rashi, this is exactly what occurs in the passages. The borders are described objectively. The description is not reflective of the speaker’s geographical location or perspective.

However, Rashbam’s position is more difficult to understand. The description of the boundaries implies that the speaker is describing the land from the geographic perspective of one standing within the territory being described. This is not consistent with the context of the passages. The nation with Moshe stood outside of the land.

And Bnai Yisrael traveled and camped upon the plains of Moav on the far-side of the Jordan. (Sefer BeMidbar 24:1)

6. Rashbam’s understanding of the Torah’s literary style
The above passage is found at the end of Parshat Chukat. Bnai Yisrael has conquered the territories of Sichon and Og. The nation is encamped on the eastern bank of the Jordan River. Rashbam notes that the location of Bnai Yisrael’s encampment is described as the far-side of the Jordan. This description is only appropriate from the geographical perspective of a speaker on the opposite – western bank – of the Jordan.[7] Rashbam’s point seem to be that although the Torah is describing events that took place before the nation entered the land, the events and their locale are described from the geographical perspective of a speaker located within the Land of Israel.

Now, Rashbam’s understanding of the Torah’s description of the boundaries of the Land of Israel is more readily understood. The description is written from the geographical perspective of a person within the territory of the Land of Israel. This is consistent with the overall literary style of the Torah. The Torah consistently adopts this perspective and not only in describing the boundaries of the Land of Israel.

Rashbam does not present an explanation for this phenomenon. However, the apparent explanation is that although the Torah was given outside of the Land of Israel, it is intended to be observed within the Land. Therefore, it speaks to the generation that entered and conquered the Land and their descendents.

7. The significance of exile
The period between the 17th of Tamuz and the 9th of Av is designated as a period of mourning. This mourning is a response to the destruction of the Bait HaMikdash and the subsequent exile from the Land of Israel. Rashbam’s comments and his outlook provide an important perspective upon these tragedies. The destruction of the Temple and the exile do not merely represent a national and material disaster. They reflect a spiritual tragedy of enormous proportion. The Torah is designed as a directive for life in the Land of Israel. Exile is not merely a material, national, and geopolitical phenomenon. It is essentially a spiritual state. It is a state of estrangement from Torah observance in its fullest state. This observance can only take place in the Land of Israel and with the Bait HaMikdash.

[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 34:7.
[2] Rabbaynu Shemuel ben Meir (Rashbam) Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 34:7.
[3] Rabbaynu Shemuel ben Meir (Rashbam) Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 34:2.
[4] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 34:4.
[5] Rashi’s comments are not easily understood and are difficult to reconcile with the actual geography of the area described. However, the above is adequately accurate for the purposes of this analysis.
[6] Rabbaynu Shemuel ben Meir (Rashbam) Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 34:4.
[7] Rabbaynu Shemuel ben Meir (Rashbam) Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 24:1