A Demanding Land

With God's promise of the Land to the Israelites came responsibilities and consequences.

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Reprinted with permission from Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary (Jewish Publication Society).

The Land is central to all of the Torah's pre­scribed behaviors. So marked is the emphasis on observing God's law within the Land that Ramban [Nahmanides], the l3th-century commentator, con­cluded that all laws of the Torah were intended for observance exclusively there. (Observance elsewhere would reflect empathy and consti­tute preparation for return.) 

Although this is an idiosyncratic view, the Torah text does see the Land as the primary locus of observance. Furthermore, many of the demands are con­nected directly to the Land, detailing when produce could be eaten, which products had to be brought to the Temple, which produce had to be left for the poor, etc.

Personifying the Land

The demands are not framed as an "object" (the Land) being imposed on a living entity (the people). Rather, the Land is almost per­sonified. As humans must rest every seventh day, so every seventh year the Land must lie unplanted to gain its rest. As humans must observe the 50th year, canceling all individual debts, so, too, the Land returns by section to its owners in the 50th year.

land of israelPersonification reaches its apex in august moral terms. The Land could not abide im­moral behavior. The previous residents were expelled because of their disobedience to God's norms, and so would the Land expel the Israel­ites were they to misbehave similarly. Expul­sion might also follow abuse of the soil, through failure to grant the Land its proper rest (Leviticus 26:35).

The Land exhibits a living claim of its own, against which the Israelites had to measure and understand their presence. Otherwise, the Land would expel them to gain its respite. The Land's divinity was understood as posing a demand.

Rights & Obligations

By what right would the Israelites possess the Land?

The nation's self-conception emphasized arrival from abroad. They were the descen­dants of Abraham's family who came to the Land from without. As a people, they immi­grated after a long stay in Egypt, which they celebrated in an annual holiday cycle. Each year they would recite that history when offer­ing God the first fruits of the Land, at the same time personalizing the gift: "I," each farmer would say, "have entered the Land that the Lord swore to our fathers to assign us" (Deuteronomy 26:3-10).

They came from afar and constantly reminded themselves of that fact. That recalled "outsider" status demanded a justification of possession, and in the response lay the most complex reflection of the divine-human partnership in the Land of Israel.

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Rabbi Benjamin J. Segal

Rabbi Benjamin J. Segal is president of Melitz, the Center for Zionist Jewish Education, Jerusalem.