What Makes Israel Better?
Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg
In the beginning of Parshas Eikev (Devarim 8:7-10), the Torah presents an extremely positive and detailed picture of Eretz Yisrael, offering a vision for the incoming Jewish people that is nearly paradise. It is described as a “good land,” filled with springs, abundant food, a picturesque life. We know the benefit of the land was to provide the appropriate physical environment to allow for the nation to focus on serving God. However, later on this parsha, Moshe revisits this praise, offering a different and somewhat difficult comparison.
The Torah explains (Devarim 11:10-12):
“For the land where you are arriving to inherit is not like the land of Egypt from which you departed, where you planted your seed and watered [it] on foot like a vegetable garden. Rather, the land where you are crossing to inherit is a land of mountains and plains--- by the rain of the skies will you drink water. A land that Hashem, your God, looks after; the eyes of Hashem, your God, are always upon it, from the year's beginning until the year's end.”
Rashi offers two completely contradictory explanations regarding this comparison. At first, he posits that Eretz Yisrael is being described as being superior to Egypt (ibid 10):
“But better than it. This assurance was made to the Israelites when they departed from Egypt, when they said, 'Perhaps we shall never come to a land as good and as beautiful as this’.”
And what makes Eretz Yisrael “better”? In explaining the agricultural and geographical descriptions offered above, Rashi writes (ibid):
“In the land of Egypt, you had to bring water from the Nile on foot in order to irrigate it; you had to lose sleep, to toil. The lowlands were irrigable, but not the highlands, and you had to bring the water up from the low areas to the high ones. But with this, "by the rain of the skies you will drink water."130 You can sleep in your bed while the Holy One, may He be blessed, irrigates lowland and highland, open and enclosed areas alike”
No doubt, one certainly saves time by not having to bring water from the Nile by foot. But is this really that significant of a difference?
There is another possibility offered by Rashi, and it is as far as possible from the first. He initially explains that “perhaps Scripture speaks derogatorily and this is what he told them: 'It is not like the land of Egypt, but inferior to it’.” How so? He describes (based on Kesubos 112a) how Cham, the son of Noah, built Tzoan (a city in Egypt) for his son Mitzrayim, while building Chevron for his other son, Canaan. Eventually, the land of Mitzrayim was considered the “most praiseworthy of all lands,” and Tzoan the greatest of the cities, referred to as the “seat of royalty.” On the other hand, Chevron was the most “inferior” of all cities in Eretz Yisrael, epitomized by its primary feature – a cemetery. Nonetheless, Chevron was superior to Tzoan.
The Sifsei Chachamim immediately points out that one should not think Moshe was actually denigrating Eretz Yisrael – for that very sin, the spies were killed! Instead, it was more of a “pep talk,” explaining how God would provide for them in this particular land if they followed the mitzvos. This is all well and good. However, one must be somewhat skeptical of Rashi’s approach. After all, what specifically made Chevron superior? Furthermore, how can a city whose claim to fame is a cemetery somehow be described as “better” than the city that is the center of power in the most beautiful country in the world?
The simple way of reading the verses would follow Rashi’s first possibility. Yet, as we asked above, does superiority really hinge on the method one needs to water his crops? The key to understanding Rashi lies in his focus on sleep, or lack thereof. It is not the physical labor that Rashi is alluding to. The idea of bringing water from the Nile is referring to a greater degree of psychological energy dedicated to areas such as agriculture. When one is constantly seeking out his source of water for his crops, his energies are tied up in the activitiy. The process requires his undivided attention. It is not that he is not sleeping as much. He is unable to sleep, insecure and worried, always thinking about how he will face the problems that await him when he arises. As mentioned above, Eretz Yisrael was being set up in a way where the nation, in following the mitzvos, would be in the ideal physical environment to aid them in focusing on learning and yediyas Hashem. This does not mean that they would have to do no labor whatsoever. It just meant that the nature of the activity would not naturally consume their every moment. Therefore, the superiority of Eretz Yisrael is manifest in both the physical as well as the psychological realm.
This leaves us with the other, clearly more difficult explanation proffered by Rashi. Obviously, one of Moshe’s intentions was to move the nation beyond the superficial qualities a land might possess. Egypt was the greatest of all lands, but its stature required diligent and persistent efforts by its inhabitants to bring it to that point. Moshe is commenting that esthetic qualities are temporal by nature. Yet there is more to the comparison, evidenced in the focus on Chevron and Tzoan. Tzoan was the center of kingship, while Chevron was a cemetery. Are these just two random features? It would seem there is a deeper idea here. Tzoan represented the pinnacle of man’s power. Its reputation was tied into this idea, where man comes to rule and express his dominance over the world. As far as he is concerned, there is nothing greater than that. And yet, there is one fatal flaw (no pun intended) in his thinking. Ultimately, he cannot escape that which is housed in Chevron. Man may feel he is truly powerful when he resides in Tzoan – and naturally, he fails to see the fact that the power is only fleeting. It could be that this contrast is being portrayed to the nation. No question, Egypt offers more of the accoutrements and other superficialities that create the image of it as the center of the world, epitomized by Tzoan. There is no greater sense of success in the minds of people than to create an “Egypt”. One of the intents of Eretz Yisrael was to counter this drive in man. Bnai Yisrael would reside in a land dictated by the principles of ahavas and yiras Hashem, a demonstration of God’s superiority over the Universe. It wasn’t that Moshe was denigrating Eretz Yisrael. Instead, he was attempting to have the nation look beyond the insignificances personified by Egypt and see how Eretz Yisrael’s greatness lay in helping Bnai Yisrael serve God and recognize that it is the greatness of God and not the constructions of man, that merits our reverence.