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Parashat Ekev 5758/1998
In Praise of the Land of Israel?
Yonah bar Maoz
Department of Bible
Chapter 11 of Deuteronomy describes the Land of Israel, comparing it to Egypt:
(v. 10) For the land that you are about to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come. There the grain you sowed had to be watered by your foot, like a vegetable garden; (v. 11) but the land you are about to cross into and possess, a land of hills and valleys, soaks up its water from the rains of heaven. (v. 12) 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.
The obvious question that arises from this passage was posed in Sifre Devarim par. 39: "Is Scripture writing in praise of the Land of Israel, ... or in deprecation of the Land of Israel?"]1[
If Scripture means to praise the Land of Israel, why is the wording ambiguous? Compare it to chapter 8, also in our parasha, where Scripture clearly states the merits of the Promised Land:
(v. 7) For the Lord your G-d is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; (v. 8) a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey; (v. 9) a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing; a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper.
In contrast to the explicit praise in chapter 8, certain of the expressions in chapter 11 also appear in negative contexts in Scripture. Is the phrase, "It is a land ... on which the Lord your G-d always keeps His eye," one of praise, as in Psalms 101:6: "My eyes are upon the trusty men of the land, to have them at my side. He who follows the way of the blameless shall be in my service"? Or is it one of reproach, as in Amos 9:8: "Behold, the Lord G-d has His eye upon the sinful kingdom: I will wipe it off the face of the earth"? Deuteronomy chapter 11 also says, "It is a land which the Lord your G-d looks after ]doresh[," but in what sense is this derisha, this "looking"? Is it derisha in the sense of the inquiry that precedes punishment, as in Genesis 9:5: "But for your own life-blood I will require (edrosh) a reckoning: I will require it of every beast; of man, too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man." Or is it derisha as a way of expressing love, as in Isaiah 62:12: "And they shall be called, 'The Holy People, the Redeemed of the Lord,' and you shall be called, 'Sought Out ]derusha[, a City Not Forsaken'"?
There is a further doubt in our passage. Is the Land of Israel compared to Egypt, of all places, because of the explicit praise of Egypt that appears elsewhere: "Lot looked about him and saw how well watered was the whole plain of the Jordan, all of it--this was before the Lord had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah--all the way to Zoar, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt" (Gen. 13:10)? In other words, is the comparison in our reading to be understood as glowing praise? Or was Egypt only cited as an example because it is was place with which the Israelites were familiar, and the statement focuses principally on Israel as being different, to its detriment, from all other known lands?
The sources cited below illustrate how the obscurity of the text can lead to quite different ways of understanding. Sifre Devarim par. 37 (Finkelstein ed., p.69) interprets the entire passage as praising the Land of Israel:
(v. 10) For the land that you are about to enter and possess --This was said to reassure the Israelites as they were leaving Egypt, for they said, "What if we do not enter a land as lovely as this?" The Omnipresent said to them, "For the land that you are about to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt," meaning it was superior to that land.
Sifre par.40 (p.80):
(v. 12) It is a land which the Lord your G-d looks after--But does He look after this land alone? Does he not look after all lands, as it is said, "To rain down on uninhabited land, ... to saturate the desolate wasteland" (Job 38:26-27)? So what do we learn from the words, "It is a land which the Lord your G-d looks after"? Ostensibly, he looks after this land alone, but in doing so he looks after all other lands along with this one.
It is a land ... on which the Lord your G-d always keeps His eye--Here it says, "the Lord your G-d always keeps His eye," but in another place it says, "He looks at the earth and it trembles; He touches the mountains and they smoke" (Ps. 104:32). How can these two verses be reconciled? When the Israelites do as the Omnipresent wishes, then "the Lord your G-d always keeps His eye" on it, and they come to no harm; but when Israel do not do as the Omnipresent wishes, then "He looks at the earth and it trembles." For good it says, "the Lord your G-d always keeps His eye," and for bad it says, "He looks at the earth and it trembles." How does this apply for good? If they were evil at the New Year so that G-d decreed on them year of drought and later they repented, the rainfall cannot now be increased ]the decree cannot be changed[, but the Lord your G-d always keeps His eye on the land, seeing to it that the rain which does fall will fall in its proper season, making it bring blessing, causing the rain to fall upon the earth when the land needs it. How does this apply for bad? If they were righteous at the New Year, and G-d decreed that they have a year of plentiful rainfall, then they changed their ways, the rain ]decreed[ cannot be diminished, but "He looks at the earth and it trembles," making it rain at the wrong time so that the rain brings a curse, and causing it to rain where not needed, over the water and the desert.
Sifre views verses 10-11 as showing the superiority of the land of Israel to Egypt, which the Israelites know well from their bondage there. Therefore the midrash expands on the description of the differences between a land where much toil is needed to obtain produce from the soil, as opposed to a land where much of this toil is spared them by Heaven. This advantage of the land of Israel, however, is not unique to it, but is shared by all lands where rain falls. Sifre views verse 12 as showing that the land of Israel is superior to all places on earth, moreover that the entire world exists by the merit of the land of Israel.
Sifre interprets the words, "the Lord your G-d always keeps His eye," as unequivocally indicating the Lord's mercy, especially regarding the rains, mentioned in verse 11. When drought is decreed as a punishment, the special providence over the land of Israel can still direct the rains to be a blessing, if the people mend their ways. On the other hand, any change from good to evil in the fate of the land and its inhabitants does not occur by virtue of the Lord "keeping his eye on the land", but by virtue of another sort of providence that extends over the entire world, as is implied by the context of the verse cited "He looks at the earth and it trembles" (Psalms 104, which gives a poetic description of the creation of the entire universe).
The Babylonian Talmud (Rosh ha-Shanah 17b) interprets "the Lord our G-d always keeps His eye," as equivocal, promising blessing but also making a threat:
"The Lord your G-d always keeps His eye"--sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. How for better? If Israel were utterly evil at the New Year, and it was decreed that there be not much rain, and then the people mended their ways; more rain cannot be given, for the decree was already made. Rather, the Holy One, blessed be He, brings the rain at the proper time on the land that needs rain, all according to the land. How for worse? If Israel were completely righteous at the New Year, and it was decreed that they have plentiful rain, but then the people changed their ways; one could not bring less rain, for the decree had already been made. Rather, the Holy One, blessed be He, causes the rain to fall in the wrong season, on land that does not need it.
Rashi's commentary on our passage combines both approach. He views the first two verses as unqualified praise of the land of Israel, following the approach of Sifre, adding as well from Ketubbot 112a, where it is concluded that Israel is the very finest of lands, since it is even better than Egypt, known to be an excellent place. The last verse, however, Rashi reads two ways, as in Rosh ha-Shanah 17b:
(10-11) "It is not like the land of Egypt," but better... and Egypt is the finest of lands, as it is said, "like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt" (Gen. 13:10).
"From which you have come." Even the land of Ramses ]Goshen[ where you dwelled, which is the best part of the land, as it is said, "in the choicest part of the land of Egypt" (Gen. 47:11), even that land does not measure up to the land of Israel. "Watered by your foot." In Egypt the land had to be irrigated by water brought from the Nile by your feet, and you could not sleep but had to work hard; and the low lands drank, but not the high, unless you brought up water from the low to the high. But this land soaks up its water from the rains of heaven; while you slumber in bed the Holy One, blessed be He, waters high and low, that which is seen and that which is not seen, alike. "Like a vegetable garden," which needs more than the rain, and is irrigated by working with your feet and your shoulders.
(12) "It is a land which the Lord your G-d looks after." Does he not look after all lands, as it is said, "To rain down on uninhabited land" (Job 38:26)?! Rather, he only looks after this land, as it were, and by looking after this land, he looks after all other lands along with it. "On which the Lord your G-d always keeps His eye," to see what it needs and to decree anew concerning it, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, as discussed in Tractate Rosh ha-Shanah (17b). "From year's beginning." At the New Year it is decreed what will be at the year's end.
Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam), Rashi's grandson, did not accept his grandfather's interpretation, but interpreted the entire passage as having a double meaning, being both a blessing and a threat. His commentary relates not only to the local sense of the verses but also to the larger context in which they appear:
"For the land that you are about to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt." This is the general idea of this passage: you must observe the commandments of the Lord your G-d (see 11:8), for this land is better than the land of Egypt for those who obey the commandments, and the worst of all lands for those who do not obey, since the land to which you are coming is not like Egypt, which does not rely on rain and where the good and the sinful alike obtain their bread through their labor irrigating their fields. In the land of Israel, however, if you obey the commandments then the Lord your G-d keeps his eye on the land to see that it is watered by the rain from heaven, from year's beginning to year's end, giving rain when needed. "If, then, you obey the commandments ... I will grant the rain for your land"(11:13-14), and you will eat your fill without hard work; but if not, "He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain" (11:17).
Rashbam interpreted the verses which we are studying here, 11:10-12, in light of the following contiguous chapter, 11:13-22, the famous vehaya im shamoa, recited daily as part of the Shema. G-d will give or not give rains, will seek out the land for good or otherwise, in accord with the reward and punishment laid out in vehaya im shamoa. The comparison with Egypt comes to show how much better the Jews can fare than they did in Egypt, if they act properly. But if they do not act properly, the land of Israel is likely to be for them the worst place on earth. Therefore Moses encourages the people to adhere to the Lord's commands, lest they lose their right to "the good land that the Lord is assigning to you" (Deut. 11:17)
 Although the question is posed in Sifre with respect to the phrase, "a land of hills," it stems from the general obscurity of the text. Likewise, with another question asked in Sifre, par. 37: "Is Scripture speaking in praise of the Land of Israel, or in praise of Egypt?"
 Also compare the following verses: "I asked, 'What is it?' And he said, 'This tub that is approaching--this,' said he, 'is their eye in all the land'" (Zech. 5:6); "He rules forever in His might; His eyes scan the nations; let the rebellious not assert themselves. Selah" (Ps. 66:7).
 Also cf. Jeremiah 30:14: "All your lovers have forgotten you, they do not seek you out."
 Note the phrase that both passages have in common: "like the land of Egypt."
 Further on Rashi paraphrases Sifre and the Talmud on this verse.