THIS WONDERFUL LAND

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA

 

 

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In memory of Yakov Yehuda ben Pinchas Wallach
and Miriam Wallach bat Tzvi Donner

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PARASHAT EKEV

 

THIS WONDERFUL LAND

 

By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley

 

 

  1. INTRODUCTION

 

In his second speech of Sefer Devarim, Moshe Rabbeinu outlines the fundamentals of Jewish belief for the people he led faithfully for forty years.  Beginning in chapter 5 with the giving of the Ten Commandments, followed by the Shema, Moshe delineates the essential features that comprise Judaism.  In this week’s parasha, Moshe continues with the specific challenges that the people will face upon settling the land of Israel.  Until now, their understanding of Hashem has been shaped by their experiences wandering in the desert for forty years, with only Divine Providence protecting them and providing for them.  Unsurprisingly, then, Moshe begins to describe the land they are about to enter:

 

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).

 

What a land it is! For a people tired of wandering through the parched sand dunes of the Sinai desert, Israel’s abundant sources of water and fields of golden grain stalks will provide more than just satisfying bread and tasty water.  The land contains fruits of all types, some which are can be eaten naturally, others which, with human initiative, will become luxuriant liquids.  Even within the countryside’s rocky hills they will find abundant natural metallic resources.  Surely, the people have reached their nirvana.  Israel is clearly the land of “milk and honey.”[1]

 

 

  1. WHAT THE LAND ISN’T

 

Moshe Rabbeinu revisits the greatness of the land in Chapter 10.  Like the previous description of Israel, he uses the word “land” seven times in this description as well.  However, while he praises the land, we note one glaring difference – now, his concern is not with what the land is, but what it is not:

 

And you shall observe all of the mitzvot which I command you today, in order that you may be strong, and come and possess the land to which you are passing over, to possess it.  And in order that you may prolong your days upon the land which God promised to your fathers, to give it to them and their seed, a land flowing with milk and honey.  For the land to which you are coming, to possess it - it not LIKE THE LAND OF EGYPT, from which you came out, where you sowed your seeds and watered with your foot, like a vegetable garden.  The land to which you are passing over to inherit it is a land of mountains and valleys; it drinks the water of the rain from heaven.  It is a land which Hashem your God cares for; the eyes of Hashem your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year."  (11:8-12)

Why the sudden concern with the land of Egypt?  Is Moshe worried that in the people’s minds, they will enter Canaan still yearning for Egypt?  Surely, the last expressions of longing for the land that enslaved them died out with the generation of complainers in the desert.  Rashi takes these verses at face value; in his understanding, Moshe is still the unrelenting salesman:

 

(The new land) is not like the land of Egypt (Devarim 11:10) – but rather better than it.  This assurance was extended to the people of Israel when they left the land of Egypt, for they had said: “perhaps we will not come to a land as good and as beautiful as this one!”…for the land of Egypt is more praiseworthy than all of the other lands, as the verse states “it is like the garden of the Lord” (Bereishit 13:10), and…the land of Ra’amses where the Israelites dwelt is the choicest land in Egypt, as the verse states “Yosef settled his father and his brothers.  He gave them a landed possession in Egypt in the choicest area of Ra’amses, just as Pharaoh had commanded” (Bereishit 47:11).  But even that land was not as good as the land of Israel.  (For in Egypt) you irrigated the fields after the manner of a garden of vegetables – for which rainfall does not suffice and it must be watered by foot and shoulder, (holding the water and transporting it to the fields).  In the land of Egypt one had to bring water from the Nile with one’s feet and then water the fields and one had to disturb one’s sleep and expend effort, for the low lands could be thereby irrigated but not the highlands, and one had to raise the water from the low lands to the high.  But this land (the land of Israel) drinks water “from the rains of the heavens” (Devarim 11:11) – you may continue to sleep in your bed while the Holy One Blessed be He does the work for you, irrigating the low lands and the high lands, the exposed tracts and the unexposed tracts as one (commentary to Devarim 11:10).

     

However, Rashi’s understanding is not universally accepted.  The Rashbam argues that the uniqueness of the land that Moshe describes has nothing to do with its physical qualities, but with its spiritual make-up:

 

This is the meaning of these sections [in the Torah].  You need to observe the commandments, for this land is greater [in the goodness it provides] to those that observe the commandments, and worse to those that transgress them.  In this respect, the land is unlike Egypt, which is not reliant on rainfall, and therefore provides its bounties to good and wicked alike … (commentary to verse 10)

 

The Rashbam’s understanding of Israel’s unique form of goodness is expanded by the Ramban:

 

The straightforward reading of the passage is that it is stated as a warning, for God means to say to them that “if you observe all of the commandments then you shall possess a land flowing with milk and honey,” for God will grant the rains of your land in their due season and the land shall give forth its produce.  But realize that this new land is not like the land of Egypt that can be irrigated from the water channels and reservoirs like a garden of vegetables, but it rather is a land of hills and valleys that gets its water from the rainfall and in no other way.  It therefore always requires God’s sustaining hand to provide it with rain for it is a very arid land that needs rainfall all of the year.  IF YOU ABROGATE THE WILL OF GOD SO THAT HE WILL NOT SUSTAIN IT WITH DESIRABLE RAINS THEN IT BECOMES A POOR LAND INDEED THAT CAN BE NEITHER PLANTED NOR CULTIVATED, AND NO CROPS SHALL GROW UPON ITS SLOPES.  

All of this is reemphasized in the following section that “if you shall surely hearken to My commandments…then I shall grant the rains of your land in their proper season – the early rain and the late rain” (Devarim 11:13-15) – that is, always; but if you fail to hearken to My commandments, then God shall “stop up the heavens so that there will not be any rain, and you will be quickly lost – by famine – from upon the good land” (Devarim 11:17), for you will not be able to live in it when the rainfall fails. 

This section therefore provides a warning in accordance with the laws of nature and from it we may learn that even though God is capable of all things and He could effortlessly destroy the inhabitants of Egypt and dry up their rivers and channels, nevertheless the land of Canaan could be more quickly lost should He withhold His powerful rains … (commentary to Devarim 11:10-12).

 

As opposed to Rashi’s portrayal of this section as Moshe’s boosterism, both the Rashbam and the Ramban see these verses as warnings to the people.  In his philosophical treatise the Kuzari, Rabbi Yehudah haLevi used these verses as a basis to explain how the people’s spiritual constitution was affected by the topography of the land they were to inhabit:

 

We do not find in the Bible, “If you keep this law, I will bring you after death into beautiful gardens and great pleasures.” On the contrary, it is said, “You shall be My chosen people, and I will be a God unto you, who will guide you . . . You shall remain in the country which forms a stepping-stone to this degree, i.e. the Holy Land. Its fertility or barrenness, its happiness or misfortune, depend upon the divine influence which your conduct will merit, whilst the rest of the world will continue its natural course. For if the divine presence is among you, you will perceive by the fertility of your country, by the regularity with which your rainfalls appear in their due seasons, by your victories over your enemies in spite of your inferior numbers, that your affairs are not managed by simple laws of nature, but by the divine will. You will also see that drought, death, and wild beasts pursue you as a result of disobedience, although the whole world lives in peace. This shows you that your concerns are arranged by a higher power than mere nature.” [Kuzari I: 109]

 

In the Kuzari’s view, geography was destiny.  Situated at the corner of three continents, the land of Israel, lacking the abundant natural resources of the superpowers that bracketed it (Egypt to the south, Assyria/Babylonia to the north/east), could never suffer from complacency.  Instead, to survive, the people had to always turn their eyes heavenwards.

 

  1. THE REAL ISRAEL

 

What then, however, are we to make of Moshe’s first speech?  Why the unfailing praise of Israel in chapter 8, if in fact chapter 11 describes a land without any regularities, where there was no guarantee that next year’s crop would equal last year’s, and the inhabitants had no certainty that rain would fall, bringing fruits and crops.  Contextually, we can explain the contradiction in terms of the opposing fears that Moshe places against them.  Chapter 8 describes a people that barely and miraculously survived a forty-year trek in the barren wilderness; for them, Israel was nothing less then the Garden of Eden on earth.  Moshe’s concern is the sense that the people may claim their good fortune as their own, and forget the Heavenly benefactor who made it all possible.  In contrast, Chapter 11 describes a people that having lived in the land, working it from day to day, have forgotten the vicissitudes of their immediate past.  Instead, they long for an imagined past long ago, when water was readily available.   Like their desert ancestors who pined for Egypt where vegetables were plentiful and the fish was free for the taking, conveniently ignoring the sufferings and slavery they endured, the people engage in a selective historical retelling.  Too often, when faced with difficulties in the present, people respond by exaggerating their immediate challenges and creating an alternative past where all was well.  What Moshe is warning the people is not to make the same error as their forebears, who panicked in the desert with its trials, and would have returned to Egypt at the first opportunity.  Instead, they are to preserve, and be reminded that ultimately, in Yehoshua’s formulation, “the land of Israel is exceeding good.”



[1] The mid-20th century scholar R. Reuven Margoliot, once pointed out that when the land of Israel is praised in the Torah, it is always in terms of its vegetation, never in terms of its animal products. He asks why the apparent exception here, especially in the case of the most famous phrase of all, Israel as the land “flowing with milk and honey”? Many commentators concur that the honey referred to, is not from bees but from the date palm. Along those lines,  R. Margoliot makes a radical suggestion regarding “milk.” We know from many texts that Israel was famed for its grapes and wine. But the biblical yayin, “wine,” generally refers to red wine. Chalav – the word we normally translate as “milk,” R. Margoliot suggests means white wine, called here chalav because of its “milky” appearance).