Shaya Cohen -


What Is Special About the Land of Israel?

What if there is actually nothing “special” about the land that G-d promises to our forefathers, the land in which we are told is the only place where we may bring offerings? Is such a claim countertextual?

For starters, I would argue that the land was not inherently holy – even in the Torah. As I have argued here,

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.

Which helps explain why Avraham is not told to go to Canaan, but rather, “to the land I will show you.”

But if Canaan is not the holy land, then why is it so important in the Torah? After all, G-d told Avram to go there, and generation after generation were blessed that “your seed will inherit the land.”

We know that Canaan was the crossroads between civilizations (the route between Egypt and Mesopotamia, the land route between Europe, Asia and Africa). The land itself was at the heart of the ancient world. Canaan 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. 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.

But Canaan was also, very importantly, essential because of what it was not. It was not a place where a person with land could live without fear of starvation. Where Avram came from, food is merely a matter of working with nature: the Tigris and Euphrates offered security, ongoing and predictable food and a way to live.

And the other anchor of the ancient world, Egypt, was even more so: the Nile created a breadbasket that was unrivalled for millennia. All a person had to do in either place was harmonize with the natural cycles to grow food and carry out safe, contented lives. In modern parlance, the river kingdoms were safe and predictable, like a guaranteed welfare check. But the Promised Land was a place subject to famines, a place where agriculture was a challenge, and living on flocks and herds involved even greater uncertainty than agriculture.

Moses explains this to the people.

For the land that you are about to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come. There the grain you sowed was watered by your foot, like a vegetable garden; but the land you are about to cross into and possess, a land of hills and valleys, soaks up its water from the rains of heaven.

What makes the land of Canaan special is what it does not have: a safe and reliable means of making a living. Canaan is conducive to growing a relationship with the divine, instead of merely with the earth (i.e. the reference to irrigating crops with just our feet). It is a poor land, and one that only exists when it rains – so instead of looking down at the predictable Nile, we have to pray up, towards the heavens for blessings in the form of rain. Canaan is important because it creates insecurity. And Insecurity makes us seek connections, to go outside our comfort zones.

Moses continues:

It is a land which your G-d looks after, on which your G-d always keeps an eye, from year’s beginning to year’s end.

And blessings are contingent on our choices – our moral choices, not merely our economic or agricultural ones!

If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving your G-d and serving [God] with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil…

But if we do not stay faithful,

Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For G-d’s anger will flare up against you, shutting up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that G-d is assigning to you.

There is no guarantee! Canaan is the place of insecurity, the place where our moral choices matter. And it is when we are insecure that we look to relationships: the more insecure we are, the more we need other people and a connection to the divine. The more insecure we are, the more we are able to choose holiness, the more we are driven toward the mere possibility of being spiritually aware and connected.

Which suggests another idea entirely: If G-d wants us to reach out to Him, and He knows insecurity is the key, then perhaps the land is only one path to that relationship! Perhaps living on welfare in the modern Land of Israel defeats the purpose, while an entrepreneur living outside the Land of Israel is well within the spirit of the land of Israel even while he is outside its borders?

If this is correct, Canaan/Israel is a good place to connect with G-d, but not necessarily because it is intrinsically holy! It might just be a place that helps enable a person or a people to choose holiness (and thus by the same token it could be used for the profane, as the pre-Abrahamic residents did).

All of the above logically works. But it also has to be squared with why we call Israel the Holy Land – even though it is never referred to that way in the Torah!

The answer is found in the text itself. Sarah dies in Hebron, miles away from where her husband was. Why was she there? Arguably the single most upsetting event in her life, the Binding of Isaac, was the trigger. The prospect of losing her son (and of being married to a man who was willing to sacrifice their child) may have made her leave Avraham. If so, why did she go to Hebron? Because it was at Hebron, also called Alon Mamreh, when the three angels came and promised that she would have a son!

In other words, Sarah associated that happy memory with the place where it happened. So when the present reality of having her son was threatened, she went back to Hebron, to remind herself (or perhaps even G-d) of that initial promise, of the hope of a future with her child in it. It is we, and not G-d, who connect events to memories. Hebron may not have been special to G-d, but it was very special to Sarah.

Similarly, after the Binding, Isaac went out to the wilderness. But not just any wilderness. He went to Behar LehaRoi, the very same place where Hagar, when she felt unloved and rejected by her adoptive family, found hope and a connection with G-d. So when Isaac came out of the Binding, he separated from his father, and went to where there was a history of that connection. Isaac chose to make the place important!

So perhaps at this point G-d realized that people connect places with their memories and relative importance! G-d can visit anyone in any place – but we people tend to create connections in our heads, we make correlation into causality, as we see from Sarah and Isaac. So when Jacob went back in the land of Canaan, G-d chose to remind him to reaffirm his connection to the divine, and to do it with the place Jacob associated with a divine epiphany.

And God said unto Jacob: ‘Arise, go up to Beth-el, and dwell there; and make there an altar unto God, who appeared unto thee when thou didst flee from the face of Esau thy brother.’ Then Jacob said unto his household, and to all that were with him, ‘Put away the strange gods that are among you, and purify yourselves, and change your garments; let us arise, and go up to Beth-el; and I will make there an altar unto God, who answered me in the day of my distress, and was with me in the way which I went.’

In other words: the place became special in Jacob’s mind, and he connected going back to Beth-El with the memories of that fateful dream.

And he built there an altar, and called the place El-beth-el, because there G-d was revealed unto him, when he fled from the face of his brother.

It is the person, not G-d, who makes a place special.

Which in turns suggests that the land of Israel, the Promised Land, is not holy because G-d decreed it as such. G-d wants us to seek a connection to Him, and the insecurity of that land (especially in contrast to Mesopotamia and Egypt) fosters the need for connections. It is we over millennia of life and work and prayer who have made it what it is in our minds. G-d can appear to us anywhere. But because we know G-d is more present and accessible in the Holy Land, then that creates our reality. We know G-d is there because it is deeply embedded in our collective inherited and experienced consciousness and memory.

P.S. There is a connection between this memory effect and the post-exodus events. The places Hagar went when she was turned out by Avraham are both called a midbar, a wilderness. (Gen. 16:7) The wilderness is not spectacular or beautiful; it is a place so devoid of features that we are not naturally attracted to it. It is a bit like praying from under a shawl, or Jacob and Bilaam talking to G-d at night: blocking out the visual makes it easier for us to focus on our listening, and find a way to connect with ourselves and with G-d.  Wilderness is also a place without obvious and abundant sources of food – enhancing the insecurity we feel. In the wilderness Hagar connects to G-d. It is thus no coincidence that the epiphany at Mount Sinai is also held in the midbar, the wilderness: people would have associated a wilderness with connection to the divine.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @blessedblacksmith, @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter work]

Comments are welcome!

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