The "Goodly Land"

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


Parashat Eikev – The “Goodly Land”

By Rav Michael Hattin

This shiur is dedicated in memory of Dr. William Major z"l.

INTRODUCTION

Parashat Eikev is a continuation of Moshe’s impassioned exhortations to Israel, forming the latter part of the extended preamble that began with the book’s opening. Our section of Sefer Devarim, like the others that came before it, serves as the introduction to the explication of the laws that follows beginning with next week’s reading. In Parashat Eikev, Moshe again charges the people of Israel to remain loyal to God’s teachings, spelling out the consequences good and evil that will befall them as a direct result of their national choices. Once more, he offers them words of strength and encouragement, impressing upon them that if they merit God’s assistance and help, then the daunting challenge of conquering and settling the land will be accomplished without mishap or setback. As always, but this time with unusual urgency, he cautions them not to fall prey to Canaan’s fetishes of gold and silver, the alluring idolatrous images and their associated rites that if adopted by the people of Israel will quickly spell their doom.

Moshe reminds the people of the Exodus from Egypt, when God overtly and forcefully intervened to reduce the oppressive Pharaoh and his threatening minions to naught. He recalls the transformative experience of the wilderness wanderings, when steadfast trust in God’s providence was acquired not in spite of but rather because of deprivation and want. How the people longed for immediate sustenance and how they anxiously thirsted for water! Only years later, with the hindsight afforded by a lifetime, came Israel’s realization that what they truly lacked during that formative period was not food and drink, clothing and physical comfort, but rather a recognition of human dependence upon God tempered by an unshakable faith in both His ability as well as in His interest to sustain and to preserve them:

He afflicted you and caused you to hunger, He fed you the manna that you did not know, neither you nor your ancestors, in order to inform you that not by bread alone does man live but rather by all of the words of God does man live! (Devarim 8:3).

THE CONTEXT OF THE BIRKAT HAMAZON

Moshe, though painfully aware that he himself will not live to enter it, then embarks upon an extended praise of the land of Israel. Describing for his expectant listeners its fertility and plenty in the most attractive terms, his sanguine words contrast forcefully with his earlier intimations of catastrophe. It is in the context of this passage that one of the Parasha’s few mitzvot, though arguably its most famous, is introduced:

You shall know in your heart that as a parent chastises his child, so too does God your Lord chastise you. You shall observe the commands of God your Lord, to walk in His ways and to revere Him. For God your Lord brings you to a good land, a land of water streams, of springs and deep pools, issuing forth in the valleys and from the hills. It is land of wheat and of barley, of grapes, figs and pomegranates; it is a land of olive oil and (date) honey. It is a land in which you shall eat bread without deficiency, you shall lack nothing in it; it is a land whose stones shall yield iron and from whose mountains you shall extract copper. You shall eat and be satisfied, and you shall bless God your Lord concerning the good land that He has given you. Be on guard lest you forget God your Lord… (8:5-11).

As the commentaries perceptively point out, the noun “land” occurs in this brief series of seven verses a total of seven times, a sure indication that it is in fact the passage’s key expression. Here, Canaan’s bounty is tantalizingly spelled out – its abundant sources of water, its golden grains, redolent fruits and beneficial liquids, even the natural metallic resources embedded deep in its rocky hills. The land’s blessing will provide plenty of good bread and sweet water, precisely the staples for which the people hungered so mightily during the long period of aimless wandering through a parched and inhospitable wasteland. But Canaan’s rewards will not be extended to the people gratis, in fact quite the contrary. If the trying experience of the wilderness provided ample opportunity for the people to express discontent and rancor, unveiled resentment and exaggerated complaints, then the produce of the land’s fertile hills and valleys will surely demand of them another countervailing response: “You shall eat and be satisfied, and you shall bless God your Lord concerning the good land that He has given you”. The text thus presents us with a glaring study in contrasts: the scorched and arid wilderness versus the well-watered slopes of the land, the people’s pained and impetuous outcries versus their measured and well-considered praises of the Provider.

THE CONSTITUENT BLESSINGS OF THE BIRKAT HAMAZON

This mitzvah of blessing God after having eaten to satiation is popularly known as “Birkat HaMazon” or “Grace after Meals”. The liturgy of the prayer is well known to every Jewish child who attends Hebrew school, although there appears to be no hint of its familiar contents in the text itself. According to a startling Talmudic tradition, though, the four blessings that constitute the Birkat HaMazon are quite ancient:

Said Rav Nachman: Moshe instituted the first blessing of “HaZan” at the time that the manna began to fall for the people of Israel. Yehoshua instituted the second blessing concerning the land, at the time that the people entered the land. David and Shelomo instituted the third blessing of “God who builds Jerusalem” – David instituted the section concerning “Israel your people and Jerusalem Your city” while Shelomo added the matter of “the great and holy House upon which Your name is called”. The fourth blessing of “HaTov VeHameitiv” – God who is good and bestows goodness – was instituted by the Sages of Yavneh in commemoration of the victims of Beitar. This accords with the words of Rav Matna who explained that on that day that the victims of Beitar were given a proper burial, the Sages of Yavneh introduced “HaTov VeHameitiv” – God is good for having preserved their bodies from decay, and He bestows good for having allowed them to be buried…(Talmud Bavli, Tractate Berachot 48b).

In the above passage, Rav Nachman provides us with a brief summary of the blessings of the Grace after Meals, indicating authorship while cohesively linking that authorship to underlying theme. He tells us that there are all together four blessings that constitute the Birkat HaMazon (and here a perusal of the Siddur or birkon would be appropriate), the first three of them dating from Biblical times while the fourth was composed much later. But besides providing us with information of historical value, Rav Nachman also implies something of serious Halakhic import: the first three blessings are Scripturally ordained (“deOrayta”) in accordance with the Biblical verse cited earlier, while the fourth is Rabbinic (“deRabbanan”) in origin.

A COMPOSITION OF CENTURIES

More specifically, Rav Nachman suggests that the blessings of the Birkat HaMazon were composed over the course of a number of centuries. The first blessing that stresses God’s central role as Provider and Sustainer, was authored by Moshe himself on the occasion of the manna. Recall that the miracle of the manna unfolded soon after the Exodus, for the people had scarcely entered the wilderness of Seen after the events of Yam Suf when, suffering from acute hunger, they first began to recast the experience of their servitude in Egypt as having been a pleasant and satiating diversion! God responded by providing them with the manna, and during the entire course of the wilderness wanderings until they traversed the River Yarden and entered Canaan proper, the heavenly bread fell daily from the sky (see Shemot Ch. 15).

Yehoshua, Moshe’s protיgי, composed the second blessing that focuses upon the gift of God’s bounty of the land of Israel. It was of course Yehoshua who led the people to victory over the Canaanite confederacies and then initiated the process of the people’s settlement in the new land, so a link between him and the composition of the second blessing would not be incongruous.

As for the third blessing, which stresses the centrality to Jewish consciousness of Jerusalem and of the Temple, makes mention of the Davidic monarchy and then beseeches God to restore them all to us, Rav Nachman avers that it was composed by David and by his son Shelomo. The former was Biblical Israel’s most pivotal leader, pushing back their foes, extending the borders of their realm and for the first time uniting their fractious tribes around his new capital of Jerusalem. The latter ushered in the first and only imperial period in Jewish history, crowning his glorious political, economic and cultural achievements with the building of the Temple. It is instructive to note that almost five centuries separate Moshe and the manna from David and Shelomo at Jerusalem (see Melachim 1:6:1).

The fourth blessing is the only one that is post-Biblical in origin. The Second Temple had already lain in ruins for some sixty years when the Jewish province of Judea again rise up in revolt against Rome, this time against the harsh hegemony of the rapacious Emperor Hadrian. The people were led by the charismatic but imperious Shim’on Bar Kochva, and while some of the Sages regarded him as the long-awaited Messiah who would restore the Jewish state to its former glory and rebuild the Temple upon its ancient site, many vehemently disagreed. But Hadrian, wielding superior force against a divided polity led by an overconfident but undersupplied Bar Kochva, cruelly crushed the revolt in 135 CE, and the Jewish fighters’ last stand at Beitar was a bloodbath. In a macabre display of ruthlessness, Hadrian decreed that the dead bodies of the Jewish defenders remain unburied, and went so far as to incorporate their corpses into the perimeter wall of his local villa (Midrash Eichah Rabbah 2:5)! Only after his death some three years later were the bodies accorded a proper burial. We should note that chronologically, more than a thousand years separate David from Bar Kochva.

THE SWEEP OF JEWISH NATIONAL HISTORY

In general terms, then, we may say that the blessings of the Birkat HaMazon provide us with a kind of brief historical timeline of the Jewish people. They trace our early beginnings as a nation (blessing 1) in our land (blessing 2), describe our moments of national triumph (blessing 3) and then recall the final downfall of our state and the effective end of Jewish nationhood (blessing 4). But with a characteristic stroke of genius, the Rabbis were able to recast that downfall into more hopeful terms, perceiving in the frightful vision of Beitar’s dead corpses a cause for gratitude and the harbinger of better days. This fantastic optimism of the Rabbis, from earliest times part of the very fiber of Jewish being, goes far in explaining the human element in our miraculous survival as a people, though we were stateless and frequently oppressed for almost nineteen centuries after Beitar’s fall.

There is of course a looming exegetical problem that is raised by Rav Nachman’s tradition, for how can we regard the obligation of Grace after Meals to be of Biblical authority, one of the Torah’s 613 mitzvot, if no such blessings are spelled out in the text of our Parasha? Can the verse “and you shall eat and be satisfied, and you shall bless God your Lord concerning the good land that He has given you” really serve as the source for liturgical formulas that are entirely absent from the passage and in any case did not achieve their final form until five hundred years after the Torah was given?

THE EXPLANATION OF THE RASHBA

The Talmudic commentaries (Tractate Berachot 48b) provide us with two basic approaches to this question. The first approach, that of the 13th century Spanish sage Shelomo ben Adret (Known as the Rashba), insists that while the OBLIGATION to express gratitude to God concerning one’s satiation from bread is of Torah origin, the FORMULA composed for that expression is Rabbinic. In other words, the Torah text never mandated the recitation of the blessings as we now have them, but only demanded that some form of gratitude be said. Moshe, inspired by the manna, composed one element, Yehoshua another, and David and Shelomo a third. These three blessings eventually became the core of the accepted liturgy and their recitation along with the fourth Rabbinic blessing was enshrined in the Halakha as the normative practice. When we say them we perform the mitzva of Birkat HaMazon, but (at least theoretically, according to Torah law) we could also perform that mitzva with an alternate recitation. Presumably, of course, whatever recitation we performed would have to correspond to the broad outline required by the Biblical text: “bless God your Lord concerning the good land that He has given you”.

Thus it is, says the Rashba, that the Talmud relates the incident of the ignorant shepherd Minyamin, who, being unable to recite the formal liturgy, nonetheless fulfilled his obligation by saying in the Aramaic vernacular with which he was familiar “Blessed be the Merciful One, Master of this bread” (40b). “And certainly”, concludes the Rashba, “before the people conquered the land or built Jerusalem they did not recite the same formula as the one that was promulgated after these events. Nor do we state the blessings in the same manner as David and Shelomo, for while they prayed for the continued stability of the state and of the Temple, we instead beseech God for their restoration!”

THE CONTRASTING VIEW OF THE RITVA

A different approach is provided by his contemporary, the Spanish sage Yom Tov ben Avraham Ishbili, known as the Ritva. The Ritva argues that a liturgy of Rabbinic origin can imply no more than a Rabbinic obligation, much as it does with respect to prayer. The difference, he explains, is that

there is no core liturgy for prayer that is spelled out in the Biblical text, and it is therefore sufficient to verbally express gratitude and supplication in any way whatsoever. However, Birkat HaMazon does have a BASIC liturgy that is mandated by Torah law, for he must bless God for his food and make mention of the land. As for Jerusalem, it is implied by the reference to a “goodly” land. Thus it is that all of these components are mentioned in the Biblical text explicitly. This of course includes the holy Temple, may it be speedily rebuilt in our days. Therefore Birkat HaMazon is of Torah origin, for its formula and prescription are these very things. But surely if one were to use different words one would still be in fulfillment of the Torah requirement, as demonstrated by the case of Minyamin the shepherd…

For the Ritva then, not only the OBLIGATION, but even the BASIC FORMULA of Birkat HaMazon is mandated by the Torah. When the verse speaks of “blessing God your Lord concerning the good land that He has given you” it is clearly indicating that Grace after Meals must incorporate an acknowledgement of God who provides (blessing one), and a mention of the land (blessing two) that He has given us.

But what of the third blessing concerning Jerusalem and the Temple? Here the Ritva considers the full profundity of the verse in its context, for does it not trace a picture of the people of Israel established in their land, satiated with its bounty, and at peace with their neighbors? Did not Moshe speak of abundant water and plentiful bread, sweet fruits and plentiful oil, as well as the implication of political serenity that alone could allow their proper cultivation? In other words, the Biblical verses that spell out the requirement of Birkat HaMazon address it within the context of an IDEAL state of affairs, the vision of which is graciously extended by God to the people of Israel if they would only hearken to His voice! But there can be no ideal state without Jerusalem at its center, no perfect nation of Israel without the Temple as its beacon! Thus, when the text speaks of the “goodly land”, the superlative land, it MUST be implying the contents of the third blessing as well, the prayer for the restoration of the Holy City as well as the Temple where God’s presence is alone manifest.

CONCLUSION

Thus it is that the Ritva leaves us with not only a novel interpretation of the verses and of the nature of the mitzva of Birkat HaMazon, but with a powerful lesson in Jewish values as well. Every year we read of Moshe’s tearful supplication to enter the land of Israel and of God’s indifference to his pleas. Yet many of us continue to live our lives outside of Israel’s borders, as if God was barring our own entry to Canaan rather than the lawgiver’s! We live our Jewish lives, often in model communities that are brimming over with ample venues for learning, sincere prayer, and service to those in need. It almost seems as if our Jewish lives are complete, even though we may reside far, far away from the ruins of the ancient Temple and from the modern cities painstakingly spun out of the desolate sands. But, avers the Ritva, something is not quite right. To recite Birkat HaMazon, for many of us a daily occurrence, is to be reminded that there can be no full Jewish life and no ideal state of affairs as long as Jerusalem is not at the center of our geographic lives, as long as the Temple is not rebuilt. To bless God for the “goodly land” is to strive to reconstitute the ideal state, to make Jerusalem and the Temple the center of our inner strivings. It is to remember that historic opportunities must not to be squandered, that Torah lives are lived comprehensively, and that without national sovereignty, underpinned by the spiritual sensitivity that alone can sustain it, we are woefully incomplete.

Shabbat Shalom