Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Eqev 5763/ August 16, 2003

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


Parashat Eqev 5763/ August 16, 2003

WHY NOT SWITZERLAND?

Yehiel Amrami


The promise given in this week's Torah portion is "For the land that you are about to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come ... But the land you are about to cross into... [is] a land of hills and valleys" (Deut. 11:10-11). Why was the land of the Canaanites and the seven nations chosen for the land of Israel? What was special about it? We know that from the beginning this is the land that was promised to the forefathers, but this does not render our question superfluous.

Some think the land was chosen because of its physical attributes, as stated in our parasha: "A land of hills and valleys, soaks up its water from the rains of heaven". It has many sources of water: "a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill"; it is a land of plenty: "a land of wheat and barley of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey"; a land with natural resources: "a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper". In short, "where you will lack nothing" (ibid. 8: 7-9). This sounds reason enough, but a deeper look at the virtues of the land reveals that they were not born out in reality.

Abraham was promised the land, but his first steps in it are accompanied by famine and he goes down to Egypt to purchase grain (Gen. 12:10). Famine repeats itself in Isaac's days (ibid. 26:1-3), Jacob's (42:1-2), and even seven hundred years later, in the days of the Judges (Ruth 1:1).
Not Israel but rather Egypt is called "the garden of the Lord"-"like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt" (Gen. 13:10). This is the description of the land of Zoar, Sodom and Gomorrah-that part of the land of Israel that was destroyed. Only in the future, according to the prophecy of Isaiah, would a miracle take place; the entire land, including its deserts and the Aravah plain, would be converted into the Garden of the Lord: "He has made her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the Garden of the Lord" (Is.51:3).
Israel's water resources are also problematic: once again, Deuteronomy portrays neighboring Egypt as rich in water, never having to fear drought: "For the land that you are about to enter ... is not like the land of Egypt... there the grain that you sowed had to watered by your own labors... but the land you are about to cross into and possess... soaks up its water from the rains of heaven" (Deut. 11:10-11). If there are no rains, there will be no water in the "streams and fountains issuing from plain and hill" (ibid. 8:7). No water means no crops and once again, the threat of famine.

Further, though promised that we would mine copper from its mountains, we know that attempts to extract copper from Timna near Eilat failed. There are traces of copper in the soil there, but not enough for commercial purposes, and the place has become a nature reserve. Nor have other natural resources such as oil or metals been found in sufficient amounts, though we are rich in salts and phosphates found in the Dead Sea (we also possess uranium in the Negev).

We have no choice but to conclude that the chosen status of the land is not predicated on its physical attributes but on its spiritual value. Nahmanides strengthens this idea in his comment on Deut. 11:11:
This land is not like Egypt which you can water "by your foot" [meaning with your own labors] but it is a land of hills and valleys, requiring much rain a whole year round, and therefore requires that G-d "look after" her (ibid.11:12) -Hebrew doresh. If you violate G-d's will, he will not look after the land with respect to the rains and it will not produce or give forth crops and no grass will grow in its hills, and all this is detailed in the second parasha [11:13-17] "If, then, you obey the commandments... I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late." And if not, "He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain".

In other words, Israel is a land in need of water and were it not for the grace of G-d, it would produce no crops. Further, Egypt's agriculture is based on the natural cycle. A man waters his field by irrigation from the Nile, and whether he is virtuous or wicked, crops grow. But the land of Canaan is under G-d's direct supervision, and, as the Talmud in Ta'anit says, the keys to the rains are held in His hand.

We see that there is a direct relation between rain and observing G-d's command-ments and the land of Canaan was chosen precisely because of this dependency. Therefore the Torah promises that "it is a land which the Lord your G-d looks after, on which the Lord your G-d always keeps His eye, from year's beginning to year's end" (Deut.11:12). In this way the land parallels the people who are also dependent for their existence on G-d's graces: "Were it not for the Lord...who was on our side when men assailed us, they would have swallowed us alive" (Ps. 124:1-3). The fact that both the people and the land are dependent on G-d created a strong bond between them, rather like a mother (the land) and child (Israel). Through the land, G-d gives reward or punishment to his people. When the people are not on their land, then G-d's presence, the Shekhina, is also not present, but goes into exile together with them. For this reason, the land is not hospitable to those who inhabit her, if they are not Israel.
For 1880 years, the Land of Israel was not built up and did not develop, in line with the Torah's warning in Leviticus 26:32-33, which Nahmanides and Rabbenu Bahye both interpret as a blessing in disguise: "I will make the land desolate, so that your enemies who settle in it shall be appalled by it...Your land shall become a desolation..." Yet within fifty years of the return of the Jewish people, the land flourished once again. We have seen the connection between land and people which has, however, a third side: G-d's providence, which is contingent on fulfilling His commandments and studying the Torah.