Jewish Thought: Individual Versus State


Rabbi Pinchas Gruman

In Bamidbar 35:32-33, we read, “Do not accept atonement compensation for one who has fled to his refuge city, to allow him to return to live in the land before the death of the kohen [gadol]. Do not flatter the land in which you live, for, the blood flatters the land, and for the land there can be no atonement for the blood that was spilled in it…”

No English translators translate these verses as I just did – not one! Kaplan, in his Living Torah, translates 33 as, “Do not pollute the land where you live.” So does the Metzudah. Artscroll translates it as, “Do not bring guilt to the land in which you are.” The literal translation of “veloh tachnifu es ha’aretz asher atem bo,” which is “Do not flatter the land that you live in,” does not make sense, for how do you flatter the land? Because of this problem, all other translators do not translate the word chanifaflattery – literally. They rather translate it with the words that denote the consequences of flattery, such as “pollute” or “guilt.”

My translation of “Do not flatter the land you live in,” is based on the unique understanding of Rav Moshe Feinstein in his Dorash Moshe. There he writes that the Torah requires that the murderer be judged on his merits or demerits only, without paying attention to the effect that this judgment may have on the society of the land. That is what the Torah means by “flattering” the land. Rav Moshe starts with a statement saying that no country tolerates murder. The difference is that the Torah judges an individual on his own guilt, per se; whereas sources other than the Torah basically protect the society from the murderer. Accordingly, the murderer is not necessarily judged based on his act, rather he is judged on the effect that his act may have on society. This type of judgment is what is considered “flattery” of the land, says Rav Moshe.

Let’s cite two examples where people involved were not judged on their merits, but rather on the possible effect their actions may have on the state. Both examples are from the Holocaust.

In 1939, a boat by the name of St. Louis, carrying some nine hundred Jewish refugees from the dangers of Europe, was denied landing in New York. Allowing its passengers entry to this country did not follow the visa regulations of the United States at that time – so ruled President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. St. Louis attempted next to land in an alternative port: Havana, Cuba. The then-president, Fulgencio Batista, gave the permission required for its passengers’ entrance. The permission was eventually cancelled due to pressure from Roosevelt, who was concerned that once the Jews entered Cuba, they would likely find their way to the United States. This obscene “flattery” of the so-called “welfare” of the United States sent the nine hundred refugees back to Europe and to their deaths.

Similarly, in 1942, a rickety boat – really a cattle barge – by the name of Struma, carried 769 Jews from Constanta, Romania. They were lucky to avoid the Romanian police, as Romania was allied with Germany at that time. This ship was headed to Istanbul, Turkey, which was neutral. The plan was to dock in Istanbul to refuel, and then proceed to Palestine. A captain in charge of security for the port of Istanbul, by the name of Achmet Erdoğan (yes, the father of today’s infamous president of Turkey, according to the Jerusalem Post) refused to allow Struma to dock. He was concerned that the British might refuse the Jews permission to enter Palestine, and the Turkish state would end up with these Jews. That, according to his opinion, would harm the state.

The boat never returned to Romania; it was torpedoed by a Russian submarine that regarded the Struma as an enemy vessel.

The Torah, argues Rav Moshe, rejects such “flattery to the state.