Author Archives: Rabbi Benjamin J. Segal

Rabbi Benjamin J. Segal

About Rabbi Benjamin J. Segal

Rabbi Benjamin J. Segal is president of Melitz, the Center for Zionist Jewish Education, Jerusalem.

A Demanding Land

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.

land of israelPersonification 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).

Homeless At Home

Reprinted with permission from Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary (Jewish Publication Society).

Expulsion from territory is a dominant theme of the Torah’s early world history (Genesis 1-11): Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden, Cain exiled from before the presence of the Lord, Noah’s generation blotted out “from the earth” (6:7), and humanity scattered from (the tower of) Babel. With Abraham, God opts for a narrower channel of access to the world–through a people who will have a special rela­tionship to Him and to a particular land.

Assigning the Land


Because this land exists in triangular relationship with the descendants of Abraham and with God, it forever straddles the tran­sient and the eternal, the real and the ideal. It is both subject to human influence and unal­terably divine; these diverse qualities form a grid on which the land is described in the Torah. The human and the divine seek to co­exist in the land.

In tracing that relationship, one must note the nature of the Torah sources concerning the land. This home is not a subcategory of Israel­ite thought. It is axiomatic; a primary, defin­ing category of the people’s existence vis-à-vis its God. Observations are made from within, reflecting ultimate involvement and identifica­tion but lacking external perspective. Refer­ences to the land should be understood as a nation’s self-expression, not objective reflec­tions on a subject of concern….

israeli desertIn what sense did the forefathers “own” the land? Time and again, the forefathers are “giv­en” this land (Genesis 13:15,17, 35:12ff.), as part of the covenant. As we learn from ancient Near Eastern covenant terminology, the giving is more properly understood as “assignment”: They are assigned the land of Israel.

In the forefathers’ time, theirs was the promise, not the possession; the legal deed, not the control. Much later the Israelites would he told that they were to be only strangers in residence (Leviticus 25:23). The forefa­thers needed no such message, for they lived that reality. Understanding that full ownership was God’s promise for the future, they faced the first challenge of the land: establishing personal bonds symbolizing their connection. They, the people, had to gain possession of the divine land.

Psalm 27

Elul is the month of preparation and shofar blowing. The name of the month has been understood to be an acronym for the Hebrew verse “I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine.” During Elul we read Psalm 27, “To David – the Lord is my light,” twice daily. This practice is relatively new, evidently some 200 years old. But it is a wise practice, even essential.

The first half of the psalm bespeaks assurance. The psalmist, while describing the enemy from a distance (from whom will I be afraid), approaching (as evil men come near), preparing (should an army besiege me), and attacking (should war come against me), nevertheless is calm, above all danger, sacrificing and thanking the Lord. The opening hopefulness in Godstructure reflects both the growing threat and its total disappearance. The first three verses increase numerically: two parallel phrases of five words each, then six, then seven (that number hinting at completion). There follows the central word of the psalm, One. Facing all these threats, the psalmist feels the peace of unity, and throughout this first half the reader senses no doubt, no real threat.

How strange it is that the second half of the psalm depicts a world so totally opposite. (Many scholars even conclude that these are separate psalms!) Here we find a desperate search, a constant request, a pleading before the Holy One (“do not hide Your face … do not thrust [me] aside … do not forsake me, do not abandon me”). The author is abandoned by parents and surrounded by enemies. At the apex of this section, the psalmist cries out in agony, with a sentence he cannot finish, for it depicts the worst of all: Had I not the assurance that I would enjoy the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living …. His faith is his sole remaining thread connecting him to the land of the living. If he did not have this faith, then …

But the two psalms are indeed one. Hebrew roots carefully repeated in the two halves testify to unity, as does the clear inclusion: the name of God opens and closes the first half (The Lord is my light … a hymn to the Lord) and the second (Hear O Lord … look to the Lord).