WHY NOT NEW ZEALAND
Rabbi David Walk
Those of us who obsessed over the Lord of the Rings trilogy will have no trouble believing those travelers who claim that the south island of New Zealand is the most beautiful place on earth. The whole series was filmed there and except for Mordor, it looked very nice. I mention this now, because this week's Torah reading is the most Zionist of all sections of our Bible, and it's worthwhile to consider why God mated us with the land of Israel. I sort of stole this title from an article I saw on the Bar Ilan University web site entitled Why Not Switzerland? But even though Switzerland is very beautiful (especially from the air) the thought of that being the Promised Land didn't excite me, because you would have to put up with the Swiss. New Zealand, on the other hand, has it all, a variety of scenery (mountains, plains coastlands) and there are more sheep than people (It's not even close.). Historically we've gotten along very well with sheep.
So, after all that idle speculation, what is special about Israel? Even though there are many statement about Israel in this week's Torah reading there are two sections where this question is specifically dealt with. The first and most famous simply declares that Israel is a wonderful location: For the Lord your God is bringing you to a good land, a land with brooks of water, fountains and ground water, that emerge in valleys and mountains, a land of wheat and barley, vines and figs and pomegranates, a land of oil producing olives and date honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, you will lack nothing in it, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose mountains you will hew copper. And you will eat and be sated, and you shall bless the Lord, your God, for the good land He has given you (Deuteronomy 8:7-10). These verses are the source for many of our laws of blessings over foods, but for our present purpose they describe a varied and fertile land. It's remarkable how many different landscapes are contained in the tiny strip of land we call Israel. Furthermore, this country has been a garden compared to its neighbors, whenever the Jews have dwelt there.
However, this week I'm more interested in the second set of flattering verses: For the land to which you are coming to possess is not like the land of Egypt, out of which you came, where you sowed your seed and which you watered by irrigation, like a vegetable garden. But the land, to which you pass to possess, is a land of mountains and valleys and absorbs water from the rains of heaven, a land the Lord, your God, looks after; the eyes of Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year (Ibid. 11:10-12). The first verses I quoted state objectively that Israel is a wonderful place, but these verses from chapter 11 (Not to worry, Israel is not going bankrupt.) inform us that Israel is wonderful on a relative basis, as compared to other countries. This idea that Egypt is the yardstick by which other countries are measured was already mentioned by Lot (Genesis 13:10). So, if Egypt is so great, why is it a praise of Israel that we're not like Egypt?
The key to understanding this idea is contained in the Hebrew word doresh. This term was translated as looks after in verse 12. Really the word means to seek, investigate or even dig out. Israel is better than Egypt because it has God's undivided attention. Egypt survives on the constant flow of the Nile, barely fluctuating for centuries on end. Israel requires annual rainfall to exist. We can't automatically assume that there will be enough water. Every rainy season demands God's blessing.
But is God's scrutiny a good thing? In Psalm 101 it states: My eyes are upon the faithful of the land to dwell with Me; he who goes on the way of the innocent, he will serve Me (verse 6). That sounds good, but in the book of Amos it says: Behold the eyes of the Lord God are on the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from upon the face of the earth; but I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob, says the Lord (Amos 9:8). That sounds bad. Bottom line, is it good to have God's unwavering glare upon us? Well, that depends. When we're behaving correctly or doing something marvelous, we want everyone to notice. I once quoted from a Seinfeld episode where George Constanza steals back the dollar he put into the tip cup, because the counter person didn't notice him put it in. However, we'd prefer our bads (as in my bad) to never see the light of day. Everybody wants an audience when medals are pinned on, but no one wants the cameras running when the police take you away in cuffs.
Rashi's grandson, the Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, 1085-1158), already pointed out this dichotomy. He explains that the general idea of this praise is that you have to keep the mitzvoth. Israel is better than Egypt for those who obey God's Torah, and it is the worst of all lands for those who do not. The Rashbam views this praise in light of the following section, which is the second paragraph of Shma. Here we say that if we listen to God there is fertility, and if we don't the sky gives no rain and the earth no produce. The fertility of the land is directly related to the connection of the population to God. This concept was already asserted by Nachmonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270) who interprets this phenomenon as a blessing in disguise. When the Jews live there it's great, but when our adversaries ascend to power the land is desolate. In that way they will abandon it, and allow our return. Anyway that's the theory.
Even though the problem of Divine supervision is real, I believe the resolution is quite simple. If we truly believe that God is our loving Parent, then we want that constant scrutiny that good parenting demands. We crave God's attention both when we hit a homerun and when we strike out with the bases loaded. What kind of parent would God be, if there were no distress when we make a mess of things? We're not happy when God's displays disappointment, but it would be far worse to suffer our Heavenly Parent's abandonment. So, we pray that God continues to keep an eye out for us and our beloved homeland.