By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
August 10, 2002
As suggested by the parsha’s name, the main topic of the
portion of SHOFTIM is the function of the court system in Israel. Judges
provide Israelite society with order and stability, protecting the life and
property of all citizens and motivating them to aspire to the values of Torah
in everyday life.
Sometimes, the most mundane of ordinances, as presided over by the judges, are
imbued with exalted ideas. Such is the case of the prohibition against
encroaching on property:
You shall not move your neighbor’s boundary, which the earlier ones
established in your inheritance that you shall inherit in the land that Hashem,
your G-d, gives you to possess it (Devarim 19:14).
Here the Torah forbids one from moving the established
boundaries as a way of enlarging one’s property at his neighbor’s expense.
explains the reason behind this commandment by understanding “the earlier
ones” as referring primarily to the imminent division of land under Yehoshua
and Elazar. Perhaps one may eventually feel that this apportionment was done
unfairly that he was short-changed. Also, he may disdain the use of lots to
distribute the land (as prescribed in Bamidbar 26:56 and 34:17), regarding it
as arbitrary, rather than a legitimate expression of Divine Providence. So, he
would now wish to “correct the injustice” by moving the boundary and taking
what he believes is his by right. Furthermore, in a more general sense, as the
Rabbis taught, this verse prohibits any instance of moving a boundary in order
to encroach on the land of another, even if he feels he has been cheated.
One must, therefore, take great care not to encroach upon the property of
one’s neighbor, even through an error in measurement. This is why the Sages
are so insistent that land surveying and the fixing of boundaries be done with
absolute precision (Bava Metzi’a 107b;
Rambam Laws of
Stealing 8:6; Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 231). If the landmark is not
positioned correctly, the error may never be detected.
This commandment draws upon fundamentals of Torah theology, law and morality.
Basically, “You shall not move your neighbor’s boundary” is a prohibition
against stealing, but it is a type of stealing that can go very easily
unnoticed. If done intentionally, the trespasser is essentially ignoring or,
what is worse, denying Hashem’s Omniscience. If done to “correct the
injustice” that occurred when the land was divided by lots, he is further
demonstrating a lack of faith in Hashem’s Providence.
We might also note that this prohibition is placed after a lengthy discussion
of the laws of murder and manslaughter (verses 1-13). This, says Ibn Ezra, is
because disputes over land, in many instances, lead to strife, contention, and
even murder. Hirsch (Rabbi
Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, 1808-1888), on the other hand, says that this
sequence exemplifies the two great spheres of all law the protection of life
and of property, which are to be placed under the
protection of the Laws of G-d administered by the State . . . which is really
the object with which our whole portion of SHOFTIM is dealing . . .
As for the moral lessons to be derived from this commandment, first, it
reminds us not to promote ourselves at the expense of others. Ambition can be
a positive motivating force, but it must be based on rightful claims, and it
must not deprive others of what is legitimately theirs. Secondly, it reminds
us not to be envious of others, but to be satisfied with what Hashem allots to
Who is wealthy? One who rejoices in his lot (Avot 4:1).
In analyzing the specifics of the commandment of “You shall not move your
neighbor’s boundary”, Sifri (Midrash Halacha on Bamidbar and Devarim, 188)
asks: What need is there for this prohibition, which is essentially an act of
stealing? Is it not treated elsewhere, in the Torah’s prohibitions against
stealing by stealth (Vayikra 19:11) or by force (19:13)?
The Sifri answers that, indeed, one who encroaches on land outside of Israel
would be guilty of violating the commandment against stealing. However, if
done in your inheritance that you shall inherit in the land that
Hashem your G-d gives you to possess it, referring to the land of
Israel, one would thereby violate two prohibitions: one against stealing and
one, the special prohibition “You shall not move your neighbor’s boundary,
which the earlier ones established.”
The question remains to be asked: Why does the Torah see fit to create a
special prohibition for encroaching on land in Israel? Is not any act of
stealing land, wherever that land might be, to be condemned?
Yes it is, says the Torah Temimah (R. Baruch ben Yechiel Michel HaLevi
Epstein, 1860-1942); however, stealing land in Israel is worse:
In the land of Israel all that which a person has is his absolutely, for all
generations. But this is not the case outside of Israel: in exile, amongst the
nations, the Israelite has no absolute right of ownership over land.
Only in Israel can a Jew be said, truly and completely, to be connected to the
land. Only in Israel is a Jew entitled to feel he belongs.
But with this entitlement comes great responsibility. If we fail to recognize
Hashem’s omniscience and providence; if we fail to create an ordered society
in which life and property are protected; if we fail to prevent self-promotion
at the expense of others; if we fail to be satisfied with the lot Hashem has
chosen for us, then we have failed in our mission. However, if these failings
are tolerated in the land Israel, the results are more dire because, as the
Maharam (R. Meir ben Baruch) of Rothenburg (c. 1215-1293) says, sinning in
Israel is like rebellion in the King’s palace.
We must strive to make Israel the place where both Hashem’s Torah and the
people of Israel feel at home.