Reprinted with permission from Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary (Jewish Publication Society).
The Land is central to all of the Torah’s prescribed behaviors. So marked is the emphasis on observing God’s law within the Land that Ramban [Nahmanides], the l3th-century commentator, concluded that all laws of the Torah were intended for observance exclusively there. (Observance elsewhere would reflect empathy and constitute preparation for return.)
Although this is an idiosyncratic view, the Torah text does see the Land as the primary locus of observance. Furthermore, many of the demands are connected directly to the Land, detailing when produce could be eaten, which products had to be brought to the Temple, which produce had to be left for the poor, etc.
Personifying the Land
The demands are not framed as an “object” (the Land) being imposed on a living entity (the people). Rather, the Land is almost personified. As humans must rest every seventh day, so every seventh year the Land must lie unplanted to gain its rest. As humans must observe the 50th year, canceling all individual debts, so, too, the Land returns by section to its owners in the 50th year.
Personification reaches its apex in august moral terms. The Land could not abide immoral behavior. The previous residents were expelled because of their disobedience to God’s norms, and so would the Land expel the Israelites were they to misbehave similarly. Expulsion might also follow abuse of the soil, through failure to grant the Land its proper rest (Leviticus 26:35).
The Land exhibits a living claim of its own, against which the Israelites had to measure and understand their presence. Otherwise, the Land would expel them to gain its respite. The Land’s divinity was understood as posing a demand.
Rights & Obligations
By what right would the Israelites possess the Land?
The nation’s self-conception emphasized arrival from abroad. They were the descendants of Abraham’s family who came to the Land from without. As a people, they immigrated after a long stay in Egypt, which they celebrated in an annual holiday cycle. Each year they would recite that history when offering God the first fruits of the Land, at the same time personalizing the gift: “I,” each farmer would say, “have entered the Land that the Lord swore to our fathers to assign us” (Deuteronomy 26:3-10).