A GOOD LAND
Rabbi David Walk
When people thought about Israel over the ages there was a great divide between the mental images (Jordan's river is deep and wide, hallelujah) and the reality (It's basically a trickle.). Most of the accounts of pilgrims over the centuries described great disappointment in the actuality of the facts on the ground. The Holy Land tended to be a bit run down for most of the last two thousand years. Of course the most famous description came from the celebrated skeptic, Mark Twain: A desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds… a silent mournful expanse…. a desolation…. we never saw a human being on the whole route…. hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive tree and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country (Innocents Abroad, 1867). Of course the cactus he describes, the famous Sabra plant, was also a new immigrant from America by way of Spain. We Jews, of course, are certain that the health and well being of the land of Israel is dependant upon the presence of Jews. Since we were mostly absent for millennia, the land suffered, with our return the land again blooms. I think that this love affair is a bit more complicated, because sometimes the land actually disgorges us from its maw (Leviticus 18:25). What's the critical factor for this symbiotic relationship to flourish?
In our parsha, Moshe is preparing the Jews for entry into the Land of Israel. He compares the land to both the desert from which they are emerging and to the land of Egypt where they had spent the previous centuries. The curious thing is that each comparison seems to be presented twice. The first time Moshe makes it sound like Egypt is horrible: And the Lord will remove from you all illness, and all of the evil diseases of Egypt which you knew (Deuteronomy 7:15). However, later on he makes it sound like Egypt is fabulous, far superior to Israel: 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 foot, like a vegetable garden (11:10). If you think that's strange, later on it seems that Moshe does the same in his comparison to the desert. First he makes the desert sound appealing: God then fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your forefathers know…Your clothing did not wear out upon you, nor did your foot swell these forty years (8:4-5). There was both room and concierge service. And, of course, later he says the more expected description of the horrible nature of the desert: Who led you through that great and awesome desert, in which there were snakes, vipers and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water (8:15).
Water, on the other hand, is described as plentiful in Israel. There is surface water, mountain springs and abundant ground water in the aquifer (tehom). Sadly, that apparently defies the facts on the ground. Perhaps we can apply the well known metaphor that there is no water other than Torah. The Torah of Israel flows from copious sources which run from superficial information to profound erudition. And this begins the search for meaning in the evaluation of Israel as opposed to other lands. The love affair with Israel isn't based on the objective superiority of the land, but upon the spiritual values which the land imbues.
I believe that there are two such principles which Israel instills upon its inhabitants. The first is reliance on God. The annual cycle of rainy seasons and dry months permeates the psyche of the dwellers with constant appeal to the Almighty for rain in its proper times. This is reflected in our prayers. We adjust our daily praise and requests from God to fit the seasonal requirements of the Land of Israel. In the diaspora as well we maintain the seasonal liturgical changes of Israel, even if we live in the southern hemisphere. Also, two of the most solemn and moving services of the year are for rain and dew. At all costs we must remember that success in Israel needs Divine support so that we never proclaim: My strength and the might of my hand has accumulated this wealth for me (8:17).
The other principle is a bit more subtle. Living in the Holy Land continues to tutor us on the idea that: Humanity does not live by bread alone, rather by the word of God (8:3). Rebbe Nachman of Breslov makes the following observation: Why doesn't God give us our livelihood immediately upon our asking for it? Why must we labor so hard and then wait for efforts to bear fruit? Because we must be connected to nature as well as to God, and we live within a natural context. In other words we must be mature and sophisticated enough to recognize two simultaneous realities. We are both physical beings who must work and eat to survive like all other denizens of planet earth. But we are also spiritual beings who must recognize the finger of God in all of these endeavors. Don't get obsessed with your farming or whatever profession, but also don't lose connection to the natural order of our world.
It's a fine line which we must tread, and that effort is best accomplished in the Land of Israel. That's why the Torah promises us this week 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" (11:12). The Holy Land is always perched upon that sharp edge between humanity's effort and God's grace. Israel is good because it continually challenges us to see the dichotomy. Life is a balancing act, and equilibrium is best achieved in Israel. Maintain that harmony between the natural and the Divine, my friend.
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