This is the most Zionist of all our annual cycle of Torah readings. We’re told how wonderful the country is, and warned that this land won’t tolerate idolatry, sin, immorality, or, in other words, ‘hearts being corrupted’ (Devarim 11:16). We’re told that the seven choice crops grow here, and we’re told that God pays close attention to the Land all the time. However, this year the blessing which I found most fascinating is that somehow this beautiful country is not short of any essential commodities. In short, there is no ‘lacking’.
The verse which expresses this wonderful idea is: A land in which you shall eat food without shortage and lack nothing in it; a land whose stones are iron and out of whose hills you can dig copper (Devarim 8:9). In my opinion the critical word in the verse is B’MISKENOT, which I just translated as ‘without shortage’. But it also appears in other English translations as lacking, scarceness or poverty, plus sometimes in the positive as plenty, abundance and copiousness.
The word is related to the more common Hebrew words SAKANA (related to SAKIN, knife), danger or MISKEN, unfortunate. The traditional translations also didn’t present a consensus. Onkelos suggests LO B’ITZARON, ‘without stop’, and Targum Yonatan has D’LO B’CHUSRANA, ‘without shortage’. But I’m intrigued by the translation of Reb Sa’adya Gaon, who puts forward BLI TAKDIR, this is a more complicated term which can be rendered ‘without depression’. This moves us into a totally different arena, to which I shall return anon.
Rabbeinu Bechaye puts forward a clear positive economic outlook for the Land. He is ‘bullish’ on the agricultural prospects of Eretz Yisrael. It has all the ingredients for the basics of a healthy diet. This is probably the P’SHAT or literal meaning of our verse, but he can’t help ending his commentary with a famous homily: Man does not by bread alone. In Rabbinic literature (and the book of Mishlei) bread is often a metaphor for Torah. He concludes: Scholars studying Torah in that land do not suffer from the handicaps which scholars in other countries suffer from. Those foreign scholars belong to the category of people known as eating ‘the bread of troubles’ (Tehillim 127:2), in contrast to the people in Israel. The true wealth of the people in Israel is the quality of their Torah knowledge which was acquired with the help of the superior climate and food produced in Israel.
Rebbe Nachman turns this eating of simple bread into a virtue. In Eretz Yisrael, there will be no deprivation, so the normal reason that people fill up on bread (carbs!!), namely poverty, doesn’t exist. Instead, Reb Nachman avers that, ‘Thus it is that his eating only bread has nothing to do with poverty but with the breaking of the desire for eating.’ Israel helps us to enjoy the simple things in life.
Let’s go back to Reb Sa’adya who suggested that the best translation for LO B’MISKANOT should be translated BLI TAKDIR, ‘without depression’. This pre-modern Torah giant is moving us towards a more psychological approach. I believe that the Ohr HaChayim also subscribes to that point of view. He wrote: Moses mentions this as there are people, even wealthy people, who practice the lifestyle of poor people. They may be motivated by one of two reasons. 1) They are afraid they may lose their wealth and find themselves impoverished, forced to curtail their lifestyle. 2) They do not want to appear wealthy and arouse envy.
Instead, people will eat bread because they want to. These psychological considerations will not enter their thinking, because ‘no one will lack anything there’. In other countries, thinking is connected to insecurities and often depression. He explains that there will not be ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in the Holy Land. He concludes: Seeing the source of wealth is Israel itself, everyone has equal access to it, and there is no need to fear becoming impoverished or to attract the envy of the less fortunate. Moses says: KOL BA, ‘it contains all that anyone desires’.
The Maharal M’Prague offers that because Eretz Yisrael does not lack anything, only there can people truly have tranquility and be at rest. That the inability to achieve this calm and equanimity is connected to a lack of completeness and fulfillment. He explains that this is similar to the complete rest and calm of Shabbat, which could only happen after the heavy lifting of Creation had been finished and completed (V’YICVHULU and V’YISHBOT).
I think this approach is truly wonderful. The greatness of the Land isn’t in its material wealth and abundance. It’s in its power to give the Jewish people a sense of self-worth and confidence. The insecurities of the Galut Mentality is replaced with a sense of self-worth and well-being. Perhaps, that’s what the expression AVIRA D’ARA MACHKIM, ‘the atmosphere (ambience?) of the land makes us wise’. The Land itself inspires.
Sure it’s great that Eretz Yisrael provides for our physical needs, but it’s indeed amazing that it also provides for our spiritual, psychological needs as well. It is much more marvelous that it provides for our mental health, too. So, come to Eretz Yisrael for its physical greatness; stay for its therapeutic potential.