A Demanding Land

With God's promise of the Land to the Israelites came responsibilities and consequences.

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).

They came from afar and constantly reminded themselves of that fact. That recalled “outsider” status demanded a justification of possession, and in the response lay the most complex reflection of the divine-human partnership in the Land of Israel.

The basic right to the Land was grounded in God’s assignment but that was scarcely an ab­solute claim. With possession came responsi­bilities. In the context of one of them, return of property to original owners every 50th year, a striking assertion is made: “The land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me” (Leviticus 25:23). The assigning owner maintains His property rights. The claim of the people is tenuous indeed.

God’s Mercy & Memory

Further emphasizing the dependency of oc­cupation on God’s mercy and memory, the text states that the Israelites inherited the Land by virtue of the original covenant God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob–and not by merit of their deeds (Deuteronomy 9:4ff.).

Ironically, the very question of rights to the Land, then, leads to the possibility of exile. If this gift im­plied obligation, continued disobedience ulti­mately implied expulsion (Leviticus 26:33ff.; Deuteronomy 28:63ff.). No other ancient people so placed a moral qualification on its right to its territory. The Israelites thus extended their original understanding of a universal order that allowed God to expel humans from territory to apply to their own land.

The exile is described as torturous for both the Land and the people. The Land will be “desolate” (Leviticus 26:32); it “shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin” (26:33). The Israelites in exile, for their part, will live in fear and suffer persecution:

“The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight…. With no one pursuing, they shall stumble over one another as before the sword. You shall not be able to stand your ground before your enemies, but shall perish among the nations; and the land of your enemies shall consume you” (26:36-38).

But beyond exile lay a final and ultimate reunification. The Land and the people, part of the same covenant, could never be fully separated. Following repentance and atone­ment, the people would return (26:41ff.).

The Torah thus posits simultaneously the strongest and most fragile of relationships: A direct assignment from God but a connection that can he cut off because of human acts of omission or commission. Given this complex­ity, it is no surprise that the Torah at times at­tributes the Land’s holiness to an immanent, inherent quality (most often emphasized in Leviticus and Numbers) and at times empha­sizes the holiness granted the Land by the peo­ple’s presence and deeds thereon (Deuteron­omy). Sanctity is inherent in the Land, and therefore, it is demanded of its residents; but simultaneously, it is given to the Land by the acts of those residents.

As later history unfolded, the complex in­terweave of the Land’s characteristics (permanently assigned yet potentially lost, bearing both obligations and opportunities, idealized yet fraught with dangers of contact) formed the basis of a complex relationship with the nation, permanent at its deepest level yet con­stantly volatile on the surface.

Discover More

Black-Jewish Relations in America

Relations between African Americans and Jews have evolved through periods of indifference, partnership and estrangement.