Our parsha elaborates on the details of the life of holiness that the Torah requires of us: honest business dealings, love for one’s fellow, purity of faith, and overcoming one’s base desires. Those who desecrate the ideal of sanctity, and thereby desecrate God’s Name, face harsh repercussions – as, for example, in Vayikra 20:2: “I shall set My face against that man, and cut him off from amongst his people…”.
Against the background of this and other expressions, it is striking that the Torah presents the following strange threat (Vayikra 20:22): “You shall observe all of My statutes and all of My judgments, and perform them, so that the land to which I bring you, to dwell in it, shall not expel you.”
Is it the land, then, that metes out punishment? Do sinners not sin against God? Why does the Torah here not threaten a punishment like all other punishments – one that emanates directly from God, or from the ‘beit din’, by God’s command?
The Ramban comments here, and in several other places, that the commandments are addressed principally to the nation of Israeldwelling in God’s land – the “King’s palace”, as it were; a place that will not tolerate sins and abominations. Taking this explanation into consideration, we may certainly agree that a person who sins in the King’s parlor is committing a more severe transgression than one who sins far away, but our question remains: surely the punishment is meted out by the King Himself, not by His palace!
A hint at an answer is to be found in the second paragraph of the Shema, which sets forth the principle of Divine retribution. Here we find God’s promise that the reward for observing the commandments is His blessing upon the land: “I shall give your land its rain in the proper time – the early rains and the late rains”. Eretz Yisrael is a unique creation; its skies and earth are unlike those of all other countries. This is a country where it is possible to see – literally, with one’s very eyes – the connection between spirit and matter, morality and rainfall, sin and exile. “God’s eyes are upon it [the land] from the beginning of the year until its end”, this is the place where God has chosen to communicate with us via the material, physical environment – via the very dust of the earth. This place is proof that in truth the whole world is sustained by God, but it is only here that mortal eyes are able to perceive this.
The unique qualities of Eretz Yisrael facilitate a real, tangible encounter with sanctity. But if, heaven forefend, we do not guard its sanctity, then things will “naturally” go wrong. This is a very special place: its role is to demonstrate that, in truth, the parlor and the King are not separate entities; the palace itself is part of the King, and therefore the parlor itself is insulted and expels the sinners.
In this period, with the land seemingly rumbling beneath us – perhaps feeling queasy – we call out to all our brethren who value its sanctity: please, help us by increasing sanctity in the land, by fulfilling commandments in the land, by helping to build up a holy nation in the land. We aspire to having a great multitude of holy lives being lived in the land; then, with God’s help, we will have no need for holy life to be lost for its sake. “Then the saviors will ascend MountTzion…”