“For the land that you are coming to occupy is not like the land of Egypt from which you left – that you sow it with your seed and you water it by yourself. The land that you pass over to occupy is a land of mountains and valleys. By the rain of the heaven it is irrigated. It is a land to which Hashem you G-d attends. His eyes are upon it constantly – from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.” (Devarim 11:10-12)
Bnai Yisrael will soon enter the land of Israel. Moshe contrasts this land with the land of Egypt. He explains that Egypt is watered by a man-made irrigation system. The water is drawn from the Nile and conveyed to the fields through this system of canals and irrigation channels. This system is used for two reasons. First, Egypt is an arid country. The Nile is the only reliable source of water. Second, the Nile valley is relatively flat. This makes it possible to irrigate the fields through a system of artificial waterways.
In contrast, the terrain of the land of Israel is irregular. Fields are situated on hills and in valleys. As it is impractical to transport water uphill, an extensive irrigation system is not feasible. However, the land is blessed with adequate precipitation. In short, Egypt must be watered through the water of Nile. The land of Israel relies on rain.
What is Moshe’s message? Certainly, in the middle of his final address to the nation, he is not giving lessons in agriculture! The commentaries offer different interpretations of Moshe’s words.
According to Rashi, Moshe’s primary objective was to praise the land of Israel. His intention was not merely to contrast the land of Israel to Egypt. He wished to emphasize the superiority of the land of Israel. Bnai Yisrael viewed Egypt as a fertile bountiful land. Moshe assured the people that the land they will enter is even more blessed. In Egypt it is necessary to draw water from the Nile. In Israel the fields will be moistened by the rain. Without any personal effort the fields will be watered. Furthermore, the uneven terrain is also a blessing. Consider two lands with similar borders. One land is flat the other – like Israel – is of a more uneven terrain. The country with the uneven terrain will have more land within its borders.
Nachmanides offers a different interpretation of our passages. After quoting Rashi’s interpretation, Nachmanides explains that this interpretation does not represent the simple meaning of the passages. He contends that Moshe was not positing that the land of Israel is better than Egypt. Instead, his point was that the fertility and bounty of the land of Israel cannot be taken for granted. The land’s prosperity is uncertain. The land is completely dependant upon rain. Unlike Egypt, it cannot be artificially irrigated. Therefore, the Almighty’s goodwill is crucial. He must provide the rain essential for survival.
This dependency makes is necessary to scrupulously observe the Torah. Bnai Yisrael cannot survive in the land through their own ingenuity. Artificial irrigation is not practical. Rain is essential. The Almighty will only provide His blessing to an obedient nation. Disloyalty to the Torah will result in drought and famine.
In other words, the land of Israel is innately inferior to the land of Egypt. It is not innately fertile or rich. But this apparent defect is actually a source of perfection. This material “defect” is a source of motivation for observance of the Torah. This material “defect” is a source of spiritual perfection!
“So that you will extend your days on the land that Hashem promised to your forefathers – to give to them and their descendants. It is a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Devarim 11:9)
To some extend this dispute reflects two alternative outlooks on the context of the passages that compare the land of Israel to Egypt. The Torah generally characterizes the land of Israel positively. For example, earlier in the parasha, Moshe characterizes the land of Israel and a land of abundant water and remarkable fertility. The passage above immediately precedes our passage. In the above pasuk, Moshe admonished the people to observe the Torah so that they will retain possession of this wonderful land. According to Rashi, the comparison of the land of Israel to Egypt is consistent with this context and the Torah’s general characterization of the land of Israel. In comparing the land of Israel to Egypt Moshe admonished the people to devote themselves to the observance of the Torah. Strict observance of the mitzvot will be the key to retaining this invaluable legacy. In other words, according to Rashi, Moshe expounded on the wonders and richness of the land of Israel in order to motivate Bnai Yisrael to carefully observe the Torah. He promised then a wonderful reward in exchange for their commitment. In this context, Moshe’s intention was to stress the perfection of the land and its superiority over Egypt.
“And if you will be obedient to my commandments that I command to you this day, and you will love Hashem your G-d and serve Him with all your heart and soul, then I will provide rain in its proper time – in the beginning and the end of the season – and you will gather your grain, oil and wine.” (Devarim 11:13-14)
In contrast, Nachmanides, understands the comparison to the land of Egypt as an introduction to the above passages. These passages are the opening pesukim of the second paragraph of the Kriyat Shema. This paragraph explains that the security and wellbeing of the nation in the land of Israel is directly related to their observance of the Torah. If the Torah is observed carefully, then Hashem will provide the rain that is essential to the land of Israel. The land will be fertile and provide for the nation in abundance. However, if the nation neglects the Torah, then Hashem will withhold rain and the land will be sterile. Famine will ensue and Bnai Yisrael will be driven from the land.
The comparison to the land of Egypt is an appropriate introduction to this paragraph. Unlike Egypt, the land of Israel is not supported by a reliable source of water. It is completely dependant upon irregular rains. The fertility of the land cannot be taken for granted. The prosperity of the land of Israel is uniquely dependant upon Hashem’s providence. Therefore, the nation must be very careful to secure Hashem’s support through scrupulous observance of the mitzvot. In this context, it was not Moshe’s intention to praise the land of Israel. On the contrary, his intention was to stress that the land is materially inferior to Egypt. But its very defect is designed to ensure to spiritual perfection of Bnai Yisrael.
In short, Rashi relates the comparison to the land of Egypt to the preceding passages in which Moshe motivates Bnai Yisrael to observe the Torah. He tells the nation that they will be rewarded for their devotion through receiving and retaining the land of Israel in all of its abundance. Nachmanides relates the comparison to the following passages. Moshe is warning the people that they cannot survive in the land of Israel without Hashem’s constant support. The fertility and abundance of the land cannot be taken for granted. Only Hashem’s constant providence can assure the survival of the nation in the land of Israel.
This dispute between Rashi and Nachminides is perhaps expressed in a parallel dispute in halacha. The mishna in Tractate Berachot explains that we are required to recite a blessing of thanks when the rain falls. The mishne does not identify the circumstances under which the blessing is recited. Bait Yosef contends that this blessing of thanksgiving is recited in response to the first substantial rainfall after a period of drought. Mishne Berurah accepts the ruling of the Bait Yosef but adds that there is an exception. He explains that in the land of Israel the blessing is recited with the first annual rainfall. In other words, even if there is no preceding drought the blessing is recited. He explains that rainfall in the land of Israel is unpredictable and cannot be depended upon. Therefore, each year the blessing must be recited with the first rain. However, Mishne Berurah acknowledges that there are other opinions. According to P’ri Megadim, there is no distinction between the land of Israel and other lands. In all cases, the blessing is only recited with the first substantial rainfall that comes after a drought.
It is possible to explain the dispute between Mishne Berurah and P’ri Megadim on a superficial level. Both agree that the blessing is only recited in response to the alleviation of some form of affliction. According to P’ri Megadim, the affliction must exist in the actual physical environment. However, according to Mishne Berurah relief from an affliction of psychological anxiety is adequate to require a blessing of thanksgiving. Therefore, according to P’ri Megadim, even in the land of Israel the blessing is only recited when a drought comes to an end. Some affliction in the actual environment – in this case a drought – must be alleviated in order for the blessing to be recited. But according to Mishne Berurah, relief from anxiety alone is adequate to require a blessing of thanksgiving. In the land of Israel, anxiety over the uncertainty of rain is common. When this anxiety is relieved by the first substantial rains of the season, the blessing is recited.
However, the dispute described above between Rashi and Nachmanides may offer an alternative interpretation of this debate between P’ri Megadim and Mishne Berurah. According to Nachmanides, Moshe intended to tell the people that they cannot assume that the rain will fall. They must recognize that the land of Israel is uniquely dependant upon Hashem’s providence. They should be anxious regarding rainfall and this anxiety should motivate scrupulous observance of the Torah. This is consistent with Mishne Berurah’s position. According to Mishne Berurah, in the land of Israel we are required to recite the blessing over the rain every year. In reciting this blessing we acknowledge Moshe’s message. We do not take the rain for granted. We recognize it as an expression of Hashem’s providence and give thanks for this providence.
In contrast, P’ri Megadim’s position corresponds with Rashi’s interpretation of Moshe’s message. The Torah consistently characterizes the land of Israel as a rich and fertile land. Moshe was reiterating this characterization. This characterization is fundamental to Moshe’s message. He was motivating Bnai Yisrael to observe the Torah by promising a wonderful reward – the remarkable land of Israel. In this context, Moshe made every effort to reinforce the image of the land of Israel as a land blessed with abundance. Any reference to a defect in the land is inconsistent with this message. According to this interpretation, Mishne Berurah’s position is untenable. It would be inconsistent with this message for the Sages to create a blessing predicated on a material defect of the land of Israel. In other words, Moshe is stressing that we must always appreciate the perfection of the land of Israel. It would be inappropriate for the Sages to establish and blessing that requires that we freely engage in anxiety over the land. According to Nachmanides, the position of P’ri Megadim is much more reasonable. The land of Israel does not have a special status in regards to the blessing over the rain. As in other lands the blessing is only recited after a drought. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 11:10.  Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 11:11.  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 11:10.  Sefer Devarim 8:7-8.  Mesechet Berachot 9:2.  RavYosef Karo, Bait Yosef Commentary on Tur, Orach Chayim 221.  Rav Yisrael Meir Kagan, Mishne Berurah, 221:1.