What is so special about the land of Israel?
The land itself was at the heart of the ancient world. At the crossroads of three continents, Israel was the inevitable waystation for land traffic between Europe, Africa and Asia. Traders were a continuous feature, coming and going with their goods, cultures, and languages.
Though in one sense merely one organ among many, the heart is the organ through which all the blood, sooner or later, is driven. For thousands of years, people and goods and ideas have flowed in and out of Israel. Isolation is essentially impossible in a land without topographical barriers, and with every incentive for overland commerce and other forms of exchange.
Mixtures of people create a more stimulating and vibrant environment. Just as a high density of people often creates more wealth in cities than those same people in suburbs, so, too, increased opportunities for relationships between different people creates more opportunities for acts of kindness, for goodness to flow. Magic can happens when people work and live and grow together.
So we could argue that Canaan/Israel was not necessarily a holy land – at least not at first. Instead, we might say that Israel’s location at the epicenter of human relationships consequently also made it the place with the highest potential for relationships between man and G-d.
The mission of the Jewish people is to be a light unto the nations, to elevate the physical world into the spiritual plane. And to do that, it is essential that the physical home of the Jewish people had to be capable of that elevation.
One might ask, however: is it not problematic that the Land is named Canaan? After all, Canaan was the name of Ham’s son, and he was cursed by Noah for Ham’s sexual crime (G. 9:25-27). The Torah tells us that the Canaanites, guilty of sexual perversion, cannot achieve holiness.
Ham’s sin explains why Avraham forbids his servant from finding a wife who is a Canaanite, why Esau earns the displeasure of his parents for marrying a local Canaanite. It is why the Torah tells us explicitly, “after the doings of the land of Canaan, whither I bring you, shall ye not do; neither shall ye walk in their statutes.” (L. 18:3)
But even though the word “Canaan” (in one form or another) occurs ninety-three times in the Torah, the Torah does not use the name “Canaan” when referring to acts of holiness. The land itself, while named for its inhabitants, is not called “Canaan” by the Torah whenever we are charged with holiness, with doing G-d’s will. Instead, the Torah goes to great lengths to avoid using the name “Canaan” when referring to the purpose of the land as the place where man is meant to connect with G-d, to create holiness. Avraham is not told “Go to Canaan,” but instead, “Go the land that I will show you.” When commanded to bring offerings, the Torah does not tell us to go to the Land of Canaan. Instead, the Torah phrases it otherwise: “in the place which he shall choose to cause His name to dwell there.” (D. 14:23) or “the Lord thy G-d shall choose to set his name there.” (D. 14:24).
There is no real suspense – Avraham knows where to go, and he proceeds directly to Canaan. The Jews know that they will be offering sacrifices to G-d in the land of Canaan. But the Torah avoids naming the place “Canaan”.
Names are important. Some names (such as Adam’s names for animals, or the “Land of Canaan”) are merely descriptive. They tell us the nature of the thing, or the names of its inhabitants. But when Avraham calls out in G-d’s name, he is doing something very different: he is prescribing. The land may have been called Canaan in the past and present – but the future land will be the place where G-d sets His name, the place which G-d showed Avraham. The place of holiness.
The land is good – the indigenous people are not. The distinction is clear.
The Jewish people are supposed to elevate the physical world through an infusion of spirit – this is holiness. The Land represents the physical piece, and the Jewish people are the spiritual infusion that combines with the land (including through all the agricultural festivals and offerings) to establish and grow a relationship with G-d. When G-d tells Avraham, “Go to the land which I will show you,” he is bringing a family that is spiritually inclined into a land that is able to be elevated.
And by saying, “The land which I will show you,” instead of “The Land of Canaan,” G-d is telling Avraham that the future of the land is not its present: Canaanites are merely transient inhabitants; the land’s proper future is as a place where people will do as our forefathers did before the Jews went down to Egypt, and as the Jewish people have done ever since we first entered the Land from the wilderness: at the epicenter of the world, we call out in the Name of G-d and seek to create holiness.