Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Walk Article

ISRAEL THE BEAUTIFUL

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Rabbi David Walk

 

            This week's Torah reading is the most Zionist material in the yearly cycle.  Towards the beginning of the parsha we have the famous list of Israel's chosen produce:  a land of wheat and barley, vines and figs and pomegranates, a land of oil producing olives and date honey (Deuteronomy 8:8).  However that's not all.  It is stated clearly:  For the Lord your God is bringing you to a good land, a land with brooks of water, fountains and depths, that emerge in valleys and mountains, 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 (verses 7& 9).   We are also reminded a number of times that this was the land which had been promised to our ancestors.  Of course, there is a mention that this land flows with milk and honey.  Finally we have the well-known verses from the second paragraph of Shema which tell us that the worst punishment which God can mete out is to be led out from this fine land into exile.  All of this is wonderful and can be used by both the Israel Tourism Ministry and the Office of Aliyah for major propaganda ads, but there's one little problem.  A number of verses seem to give a counter argument.

            In chapter eleven, we have the following verses:  For the land, into which you are entering to possess it, is not like the land of Egypt from which you came, where you used to sow your seed and water it with your foot like a vegetable garden. But the land into which you are about to cross to possess it, a land of hills and valleys, drinks water from the rain of heaven (11:10-11).  Well, which is better, irrigation water from the Nile or rain water?  Without other information I would assume that Egypt has it better, because it's called a garden.  Also, history reminds us of another reality:  There isn't always enough rain.  And where, pray tell, did the people in Israel go for food when there wasn't enough rain?  Egypt!  That was as true in the early twentieth century as it had been in the days of Avraham and Ya'akov.  So, there you have it.  The neighbors next door have a better country than us.  But isn't this the parsha which extols Israel

            The commentaries rush in to protect the reputation of Israel.  The Sifrei (Midrash from second century CE) quickly reminds us that irrigating with your foot is more work than rain falling all over the place.  It also explains that produce grown on hillsides is better and more abundant than produce grown on a flat plain.  Rashi uses a different logic to convince us that these verses are describing the superiority of Israel.  Both of these areas were developed by Ham the son of Noach, Egypt for his son Mitzrayim and Israel for his son Canaan.  A person builds the better area first and then builds the next area with the leftovers, clearly the inferior refuse of the first project.  The Torah testifies that Hevron was built before Zoan in Egypt (Numbers 13:22).  Ipso facto Israel is better than Egypt (actually much better, because Zoan is the best place in Egypt and Hevron is the worst city in Israel), and, therefore, the comparison is to assert this pre-eminence.

            Other commentaries are more objective (by the way one member of this second group is Rashi's grandson, the Rashbam) and admit that these two verses are advantage Egypt.  So, we're back to our original question:  Why are we embarrassing Israel?  Well, the answer comes in the very next verse which describes the supremacy of Israel:  a land that the Lord your God cares for. The eyes of the Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year (Deuteronomy 11:12).   The dominance of Israel over other lands isn't in the realm of physical wealth, rather in spiritual attributes.  We know this from recent events as well.  Israel for a long time was the only country in the area without oil wealth, and only now, when it appears that the importance of petroleum maybe waning does Israel discover its own hydrocarbon reserves. 

            Rabbeinu Bachaye (d. 1340) explained that the greatness of Israel is connected to the fact that God's supervision of Israel is direct, while the rest of the world, generally, has only indirect hashgacha.  This constant attention is marvelous, but leads to punishments, as well.  But we want this interest, because it is an expression of God's love.  No one wants to be punished, but people hate being ignored even more.  Even most children understand that they would prefer to be disciplined and know that the parent cares than to feel neglected and deserted.  The greatest fear of a child is the terror of abandonment.  It's no different with nations and ethnicities. 

            Reb Avraham Ibn Ezra points out that the reference to God's attention from the beginning of the year until the end of the year is very significant.  While most countries are following the rules of nature, God is constantly regulating the affairs of Israel.  This critical concept is pointed out by our Sages when they inform us that Israel is judged for rain on Sukkot, for grain on Pesach, and for fruits on Shavuot.  The abundance of these commodities is dependant upon the behavior of the Jewish people, and it's not something that we can just worry about on the High Holidays and go back to negative traits the rest of the year.  No, indeed, because God eyes are always upon it.

            Israel is a wonderful country, the best place on earth.  And it's not because of its affluence.   It's great to be wealthy and have everything that you could ever want, but being spiritual and feeling close to God is even more important.  In case you didn't understand this essential point, our Torah reading teaches us that idea as well, that people do not live by bread alone; rather, we live by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord (8:3).  And God's words are just clearer in Israel.


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