Our people have a long-standing and illustrious connection with the Land of Israel. And not only Jews have a particular religious affinity for this land; Christians as well consider it to be ‘the holy land’. But what makes it holy? As we have just celebrated Israel’s Independence Day, when we are celebrating 67 years of modern Jewish sovereignty in our ancient homeland, and are thereby involved in renewing our connection to the State of Israel and to the Land of Israel, it may be fitting to ask ourselves some questions as to the nature of the sanctity of our new/old land.
We will be reading in shul this shabbat a portion towards the end of the Book of Leviticus called Behar. Among other things, it focuses on the commandment of the Sabbatical Year: once every seven years there is a prohibition in the Land of Israel against plowing, planting and reaping: The land must lie fallow. We are to eat only of the produce that grows on its own. The reason given by the Torah for this mitzvah is that there be ‘a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land’, ‘a year of solemn rest for the land’. Strange – the Torah does not usually concern itself with agricultural advice. But if this is not written for the purpose of ensuring sound agricultural procedures, what is it about; what could be the meaning of providing rest to the land? Does the land need to observe a Sabbath?
Another mystery is the apparent divergence between these verses in Leviticus and a parallel discussion of the Sabbatical Year in the Book of Exodus. There, in chapter 23 the Torah says: “Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its produce, but on the seventh year you shall disengage from the land and let it alone, that the poor of your people may eat”. Here it is not about the land celebrating a Sabbath but rather about man refraining from harvesting so as to leave the produce of the field to the poor.
What we have here are two different presentations of the mitzvah of the seventh year, reflecting two different aspects of the sanctity of the Land of Israel. As in a myriad of instances, the Torah presents divergent versions of the same commandment in order to highlight multiple hues of the divine light, all of them true and all of them crucial for a full understanding of the message of the Torah.
Leviticus represents the mystical truth of the inherent and a priori sanctity of the Land of Israel. Yes indeed, the Land needs to celebrate a Sabbath. This Land conforms, in its very essence, to the primordial pattern of creation – six units of labor and then a seventh unit of rest. From the very moment of creation this Land was set apart from all other lands. This is why the cities of Sedom and Amora were destroyed for their sins while other cities outside of the Land were not similarly punished, for this Land adheres to a higher Divine standard; it cannot tolerate evil upon it. The Book of Leviticus says as much when it warns the Israelites that if they will engage in iniquity in the Land, the Land will vomit them out just as it vomited out the Canaanites before them. This is the land which, according to the Book of Numbers, is polluted and defiled by the spilling of innocent blood. Murder is an affront to the Divine image in man, but more than that – it is affront to the land itself.
But this notion of primordial holiness is not the only truth concerning the sanctity of the Land of Israel. In the discussion of the Seventh Year in Exodus there is no mention of a ‘Sabbath of solemn rest for the land’, but rather only a commandment to refrain from withholding the produce of the land from any poor person who might wish to come and eat of it. Once every seven years the bounty of the earth is equally available to all. The foundation of this legislation as presented here is social and not metaphysical. God did not choose the Land because of its inherent qualities but rather in order to construct upon it a just society. Holiness is not built into the Land from the outset; rather it is engendered by the divine imperative and by the ensuing human response to that imperative.
What we have therefore are two different perspectives on the holiness of the Land of Israel. One you could say locates it in the hardware – the Land of Israel itself is essentially different from any other land on the face of the earth. The other approach postulates no necessary divergence between the essence of our homeland and any other land – rather you might say that the holiness of Eretz Yisrael is all in the software. This is the land upon which special divine mitzvot are to be fulfilled, this is the land that has been sanctified by our lives and by our deaths for thousands of years, this is the land that has been designated for us to build upon her a model society of justice, righteousness and mercy.
Both approaches are true – both are found in the Torah and both are reflected in later Jewish thought. The sanctity of Eretz Yisrael is both presented to us on a silver platter, and at the same time constitutes a challenge for us to measure up to. But however you look at it, by nature or by nurture, this is our Holy Land, our eternal inheritance upon which the lifeblood of our nation depends.