This week’s Torah reading describes the journeys of the Jewish people through the desert as they approached Eretz Yisrael. Rather than have them enter the Holy Land directly, G‑d commanded them to take an extensive detour and avoid the lands of Edom, Moab, and Ammon. These three nations, all sharing ancestral links to the Jewish people, were permitted to retain possession of their lands at that time.

Our Sages note that when G‑d originally promised to give the Land of Israel to Abraham, He told him that his descendants would be given the lands of ten nations, including also the lands of Edom, Moab, and Ammon. Nevertheless, at the time of the Exodus from Egypt, they were promised only the lands of seven nations. In resolution, our Sages explain that, ultimately, in the Messianic era, the lands of the three nations mentioned above will become the inheritance of the Jewish people. That was, however, a future prophecy. At the time of the original conquest, by contrast, the Jews were to conquer only the seven Canaanite nations and these three nations were not to be disturbed.

The land of Israel is more than a physical place. It serves as an analogy for the Divine service of the Jewish people as a whole and every individual in particular. The number ten is mystically significant. As explained in the works of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, there are ten Sefiros, emanations of G‑dliness, from which all existence comes into being. These sublime spiritual qualities are mirrored in our souls, serving as the motivation for everything we think, feel, and do.

More particularly, these ten qualities are divided into groupings of seven and three: seven emotional qualities and three intellectual qualities. This is the rationale for the distinction regarding the lands of the nations mentioned above. The seven nations to be conquered represent the seven emotions, while the three whose lands will not be acquired until the era of Mashiach are identified with the intellect.

There are seven days of the week and our Rabbis speak of seven millennia of the world’s recorded history. Time is structured in these cycles of seven, because in the present time frame, our challenge involves controlling and directing our emotions. What grips us and makes our adrenalin flow are our feelings. Intellectual matters are more distant. Yes, we can be attracted by an interesting idea, but it’s our emotional arousal that pulls us out of inertia and compels us to act.

This constitutes the battleground on which the war with the seven nations is fought: Are we to control our emotions or be controlled by them. The Canaanites had lived a depraved life style, seeking base, materialistic pleasures. The Jews’ mission was to take the land of Israel from their hand and make it a holy land, a land in which G‑d’s presence would dwell.

To apply these concepts in a personal sense: We will always love. The question is what will we love and how will we express that love. Will our love be self-oriented and self-serving or will it be directed outward? Similarly, with regard to fear, will we only fear for our personal interests or will we be able to show similar concern for the welfare of others? And will we be able to rise above our ordinary thinking entirely and look with awe and reverence at the wonders of G‑d’s creation?

Conquering the seven Canaanite nations means directing our seven emotional powers to selfless and holy means of expression.

Looking to the Horizon

If the challenge of the present era is having the mind control the emotions, the challenge of the future era will be having the mind controlled by our spiritual potential that surpasses intellect. That is the analogue suggested by the conquest of the lands of these three nations: that worldly intellect will be dominated by spiritual holiness.

The mind enables us to appreciate reality. At present, the forces governing our reality are material. In the future, we will be able to appreciate the spiritual in as palpable and concrete a manner as we comprehend material things today. As a result, our way of thinking and our focus will change. Our minds will be conquered — overwhelmed and overpowered — by this new perception.

A foretaste of these insights is available at present. Just as the sun’s rays begin appearing on the horizon before the actual dawn, glimmerings of the spiritual perception that will accompany Mashiach’s coming are available at present. This is the motivating force behind the flowering of Jewish mystic knowledge in the present time. Tasting these teachings and sharing them with others enables us to anticipate the redemption and, in this way, precipitate it becoming a top-to-bottom reality.