“A Parallel Land” Parashat Ekev 5780

The Jewish People stand on the eastern bank of the Jordan River. On the other side lies the Land of Canaan. They have been waiting nearly forty years for this moment. Before they cross over the Jordan, G-d gives them a teaser, telling them a little bit about the land they are about to enter [Devarim 11:10-11]: “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 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.”

Rashi, the ultimate medieval commentator, who lived in France in the eleventh century, asks the perennial Jewish question: Based on the Torah’s description, is the land of Israel good for the Jews or bad for the Jews? Rashi answers that based on this description, the land of Israel is unequivocally good for the Jews. It is not “like the land of Egypt” – it is better than the land of Egypt. The “Siftei Chachamim”, an amalgam of supercommentaries on Rashi, asks why a person would suspect that Moshe would speak disparagingly about the land. Didn’t the Jewish People’s trip from Egypt to Israel – a trip that should have taken only eleven days – take nearly forty years only because ten scouts spoke disparagingly about the land of Israel? The Siftei Chachamim answers that any land is going to find it hard to compete with Egypt, a land that has a nearly infinite source of fresh water in the Nile River. Over the years, the Egyptians had built a vast network of canals that were fed by the Nile. These canals carried fresh water miles away from the Nile to wherever it was needed[1]. All that was required to extend the Nile River even further was to drag your heel in the mud. This is what scripture means when it mentions “watering by foot”. According to the “Siftei Chachamim”, the Torah is telling the Jewish People that while the land of Israel does not have a large source of fresh water that can compete with the Nile, not only is it not inferior to Egypt, it is superior to Egypt.

How does Israel support agriculture without a fresh water source? The answer is provided in the next verse. Israel has something that Egypt does not have: Israel has “rains of heaven”. Most places in Egypt receive only about 80 mm of rain a year. Even the wettest part of the country, around Alexandria, gets only 200 mm of rain in a good year. In Israel, on the other hand, most places receive more than 500 mm of rainfall each year. Some locations in the northern Galilee are blessed with more than 900 mm of rain yearly[2]. According to the Siftei Chachamim, the fact that Israel sources its fresh water from rain is beneficial in two ways: First, whereas in Egypt, fresh water is limited to the Nile River and its immediate environs, in Israel, the entire country is fed by rainfall. Further, Egyptian topography is very different than that of the land of Israel. While Egypt, not including the Sinai Peninsula, is predominantly flat, Israel has an extremely varied topography. It cannot be naturally fed by a single fresh water source, even if such a source existed. In order to ensure that “a land of hills and valleys” receives sufficient water, rainfall is required. The Siftei Chachamim concludes that even though rainfall is inconsistent, and as the Torah teaches a few verses down the path, dependent upon human deeds[3], it is still the optimal method of receiving water.

The Ramban, who lived in Spain and in Israel about one hundred and fifty years after Rashi, sees things differently. He suggests that it is preferable that the land receive its water through rainfall specifically because rainfall, as a function of human deeds, brings G-d into the picture. Rainfall leads to a greater understanding of G-d and hence it is more desirable than a more constant source of water.

I would like to add to the explanations of the Siftei Chachamim and the Ramban in order to try to attain a new vantage point. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, in his commentary to the “Sefer HaTanya”, written by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi in the late eighteenth century, discusses [Chapter 3] the differences between sight and sound. Sight is accessed and processed in parallel: a person sees an entire picture at one time, meaning that an infinitesimal amount of time[4] is required in order for a picture to be acquired by the eye. Sound is accessed and processed serially: in order to hear “Stairway to Heaven”, a person must listen for more than eight minutes. One cannot absorb the song in an instant. He cannot compress the song by playing it at a faster speed without altering its tone. Indeed, part of what makes “Stairway to Heaven” such a great song is the evolution of the tone, tempo, and the mood during the course of the song, meaning that even if the human ear could process sound in parallel, we would not be experiencing the same song. Indeed, the difference between parallel sight and serial sound has been incorporated into the corpus of halacha. The Talmud in Tractate Rosh Hashanah [27a] rules that “Two sounds cannot be heard simultaneously[5]”.

I suggest that the land of Israel is experienced in parallel while the land of Egypt – and every other land, for that matter – is experienced serially. The Torah alludes to this when it first uses the term “the land that you are about to enter (ba)” and in the very next verse speaks about “the land you are about to cross into (over)”. These are two very different terms. When the Torah describes how Abram crisscrossed the land of Israel when he first arrived there, it tells us [Bereishit 12:6] “Abram crossed through the land, until the place of Shechem, until Elon Moreh”. Our Sages in the Midrash teach that G-d “folded” the entire land of Israel so that Abraham could easily step over every point in the land, thereby claiming the entire land for his descendants. In the land of Israel, Abraham’s serial path was transformed into a parallel cover. This transformation is what G-d promises the Jewish People before they enter the land: While, Egypt is a land that is “entered”, Israel is a land that is “crossed into”.

The Torah brings one explicit example of the difference between a serial land and a parallel land: sourcing fresh water for agriculture. Egypt is experienced serially: in order to draw fresh water, one must dredge a new canal from a preexisting canal already connected to the Nile River. Israel is experienced in parallel: rain simultaneously falls over multiple locations throughout the country, without any requirement for pre-existing connections.

In the land of Israel, not only is space experienced in parallel, so is time. In the Torah’s teaser description of the land of Israel, it tells us [Devarim 11:12] “It is a land which G-d looks after, on which G-d always keeps His eye, from year’s beginning to year’s end.” In Israel, each moment is effected by its future and its past. In the land of Israel, time ebbs and flows forwards and backwards, redefining the concept of causality. Immoral acts committed in July can cause unseasonably warm weather – and thus no rain – in December.

This takes us back to the Ramban. The parallel experience in the land of Israel is both temporal and physical. It offers a palpable sense of closeness to G-d, giving us a glimpse, however miniscule, of existence in a higher dimension, of a “bigger picture”[6]. This Sukkot, as a freak wind hurled my sukkah into the ground, smashing it to bits, I could feel G-d’s presence in that wind. I knew there was some message but I had no idea what it was. Eight months later, in the midst of a global pandemic, perhaps we are beginning to understand. The parallel land of Israel is a poor place for keeping secrets.

Shabbat Shalom and stay healthy.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and David ben Chaya.

[1] For example, the Mahmoudiya Canal connects the Nile River to Alexandria, more than 70 kilometres away, providing a continuous supply of food and fresh water.

[2] We thought that was a lot of rain until we visited the Milford Sound in New Zealand. We were told that the average yearly rainfall there was nearly six and a half metres. That is nearly 20 mm of rain a day.

[3] The Torah teaches [Devarim 11:13-17] “If you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day…I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late… 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 and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce…”

[4] Researchers have shown that about 13 milliseconds is required for the human eye to process a scene but more than 150 milliseconds to interpret what they are looking at.

[5] The halachic ramifications concern shofar blowing.

[6] This can help us understand why the Talmud in Tractate Moed Katan [25a] rules that prophecy can only occur in the land of Israel.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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