Parshat Ekev: An Unusual Sales Pitch

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Devarim, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers

Context

On two separate occasions in Parshat Ekev, Moshe describes the nature of the land promised to the Israelites.

Towards the beginning of the parsha, Moshe declares:

For the Lord your God is bringing you to a good land: a land of streams of water, of springs and underground pools emerging forth in the valley and in the mountain; a land of wheat and barley and grapes and figs and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey; a land where you will eat bread without scarceness; you will lack nothing within it; a land whose stones are iron and from whose mountains you will mine copper.

Further in the parsha, Moshe states:

For the land to which you come, to possess it, is not like the land of Egypt from which you left, where you would plant your seed and water it on foot, like a garden of vegetables. And the land to which you cross over to possess it is a land of mountains and valleys; from the rain of the heavens you shall drink water. A land that the Lord your God seeks out; constantly the eyes of the Lord your God are upon it, from the beginning of the year to year’s end.

Questions

Moshe’s first description of the land in Parshat Ekev is uniformly positive. Canaan, he explains, is a well-irrigated land of plenty that will produce a multitude of important crops and is rich in natural resources. Clearly, this description is designed to encourage the nation as it prepares, with both excitement and trepidation, for its entry into an unknown land.

Moshe’s second description of Canaan, however, might well give the Israelites pause. The land from which you have come, says Moshe, is sustained through a regular source of irrigation, the overflow of the Nile. The land towards which you travel, however, is not automatically irrigated with such regularity. This land depends instead upon rain from the heavens. God’s constant care is needed for those who live upon this land to thrive.

Why would Moshe deliberately share this unsettling information with the nation? In what way does it help the Israelites to know in advance that life in Canaan will be uncertain? We have seen that Moshe is desperately afraid that this generation might, like their parents before them, fail on the very brink of success; that they might lose heart in the face of the challenges before them (see Devarim 3, Approaches A). Why, then, would this great leader transmit discouraging information to the people at a time when encouragement is so desperately needed?

Approaches

A
After clearly rejecting the possibility that Moshe would deliberately compare Canaan unfavorably to Egypt, Rashi searches for and discerns in this great leader’s words an allusion to the agricultural superiority of Canaan. Irrigation in Egypt through the Nile’s overflow, Rashi explains, does not create consistent results. While low-lying areas in Egypt are automatically well watered, elevated terrain remains dry. Water, therefore, must be manually carried by farmers and workers to the higher terrain, as they are required to “water [the land] on foot, like a garden of vegetables.” In contrast, the land of Canaan is irrigated “from the rain of the heavens.” God will water the fields of the Israelites while they “lie comfortably in their beds.”

Across the ages, other scholars follow Rashi’s lead by suggesting additional benefits to the agricultural model of Canaan as compared to the Egyptian model. The nineteenth–twentieth-century scholar Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, for example, maintains that the man-made canals dug in Egypt to spread the waters of the Nile over distant areas create an unhealthy, damp environment that breeds disease. In contrast, the natural topography of Israel allows for water to flow from mountains to valleys, yet remain long enough to benefit each area before escaping to the sea.

B
Other scholars, including the Ramban and the Rashbam, adopt a totally different approach to Moshe’s second depiction of Canaan in Parshat Ekev. Moshe’s words in this case, these authorities argue, are not designed to reassure and encourage the Israelites but to warn them.

Couched directly after an admonition to observe the mitzvot and directly before the second paragraph of the Shma, with its clear description of divine reward and punishment, Moshe’s message to the people concerning Canaan is succinctly summed up in the words of the Rashbam: “This land is the best of all lands for those who observe the mitzvot, and the worst of
all lands for those who do not.”

You are entering a land, Moshe tells the nation, that will be completely responsive to your actions. Vastly unlike Egypt, which is irrigated regularly by the Nile, Canaan is a land that requires God’s constant attention. If you obey His law, He will cause the rain to fall and you will thrive. Conversely, if you rebel against His will, disaster will result.

This warning, the Ramban maintains, serves as a perfect introduction to the passage that immediately follows, the second paragraph of the Shma, which outlines a clear vision of divine reward and punishment in response to man’s actions (see next study).

C
Yet other scholars go a striking step further in their interpretation of Moshe’s words. Representative of this group, the Malbim asks: Why didn’t God simply bequeath the land of Egypt to the Israelites instead of orchestrating their journey into the land of Canaan? Egypt is a fertile land in its own right. Given the collective guilt of the Egyptians, it certainly would have been appropriate (and simpler) for the Israelites to dispossess their erstwhile masters and acquire their land.

The answer, suggests the Malbim, is embedded in Moshe’s description of the land of Canaan. Unlike Egypt, where irrigation occurs with regularity, Canaan is a land clearly dependent upon daily Divine Providence. Rain, in appropriate measure and in appropriate season, is essential for the sustenance of those living within its borders. After their entry into Canaan, therefore, the Israelites will be forced to continually turn their hearts heavenward in search of God’s blessing.

God, Moshe emphasizes, wants the Israelites to live in a land where their dependence upon Him will be clearly before them, front and center, each day of their lives.

D
If we accept the approach represented by the Malbim, we can combine the positions of the earlier quoted scholars by suggesting that Moshe’s description of Canaan is consciously multi-textured, designed to both encourage and warn the nation at once. Canaan, Moshe emphasizes, is the Israelites’ geographical destination, not only because of its physical attributes, but also because of its spiritual character:

The land to which God takes you does not lie. The fundamental truth that has been taught to you through the daily delivery of the manna in the wilderness (see Shmot: Beshalach 4, Approaches C) will now confront you daily upon your entry into Canaan, as well.

You are dependent upon God’s Providence each and every day of your lives. This fact would be true, of course, no matter where you might live.

But in a land like Egypt, where sustenance seems guaranteed, it is a truth easily forgotten. God, therefore, in His kindness, takes you into a land that does not lie, a land where the truth of your dependence upon heaven is inescapable, where that truth will confront you each and every day of your lives. 

There is, of course, a price to be paid for living in a land that does not lie. You will be held directly accountable for your actions in ways that will concretely affect your physical destiny. This is, however, a small price to pay for the gift of living in a land where God’s presence is so clearly felt each and every day.

Points to Ponder

Many of us spend our days in worlds where it is easy to forget our dependence upon God. Concrete cities and suburban enclaves shield us from the rhythms of the natural world; abundant produce fills the shelves of our stores, regardless of the season; we surround ourselves with creature comforts designed to distance us from any uncertainty that might touch our lives. Striking scientific advances, particularly in the health-related fields, make it easy to lose our way – to stumble, as Moshe warns us we might, into believing that “our strength and the might of our hands has brought us all this wealth.”

In such worlds, the ongoing rituals of Jewish tradition become critical aids in the maintenance of a Jew’s spiritual balance. Daily contact with God through study, prayer and concrete observance prompts each Jew to regularly consider his own vulnerability and the truth of his reliance upon God for the most basic essentials of life.

In this struggle for perspective, the Land of Israel plays a central role, as well. Not only has this land retained the unique spiritual character referred to by Moshe so many centuries ago, but the concrete manifestations of that character have dramatically increased. Israel remains to this day a land that does not lie, a land that conveys dependence upon God on so many levels and in so many ways.

Agriculturally, in spite of the State of Israel’s world-leading technological advances, the Israeli farmer must still rely upon rain in its season; the water level of the Sea of Kineret is closely monitored each year and water rights remain a consistent point of contention between Israel and its neighbors.

Historically, not only did the dream of return to the Land help sustain the nation through its turbulent exile journey, but God’s promise of that return helped refine each Jew’s awareness of his continued reliance upon his Creator.

Politically, with the restoration of the Jewish homeland, the pattern continues. Ensconced in a region of perpetual instability, surrounded by intractable foes, often isolated within the world community, the State of Israel continues to defy the odds through the grace of God and the strength and ingenuity of its citizens. Why does this small country, described by one observer as a tiny beauty mark on the face of an expansive globe, command so much of the world’s attention? Why has this land, across the flow of history, consistently been at the center of so much religious, political and emotional conflict? Why does the Jew constantly find himself praying for true peace within its borders and for the safety and security of its citizens?

Perhaps because, from the beginning of time, the Land of Israel was always meant to be a land that does not lie, a land in which our dependence upon God confronts us front and center, each and every day of our lives.