‘The Fairest of Them All’ Parashat Ekev 5782

Over the years, we’ve seen some beautiful scenery. Certain places stand out – the southern island of New Zealand, the Swiss Alps, and the fall foliage in Upstate New York, just to name a few. But there is nowhere on earth that touches the strings of my heart more than Jerusalem. Last weekend we stayed by a close friend in Jerusalem. The view from his balcony looks out over the Knesset building, the Israel Museum and the Judean Mountains. It is breathtaking.

Objectively speaking, is Israel truly the fairest of all the lands? The Torah in Parashat Ekev contrasts Israel with the land of Egypt [Devarim 11:10-12]: “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 had to be watered by your own labours, 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. It is a land which G-d looks after, on which G-d always keeps an eye, from year’s beginning to year’s end.” Based upon these verses, which of the two lands is preferable – Egypt or Israel? A case could definitely be made for Egyptian superiority. Egypt is a “vegetable garden”[1] while Israel is a “land of hills and valleys.” Where would you rather grow crops? Rashi, the most eminent of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, teaches that the Torah is actually extolling the Land of Israel. When the Torah states that Israel is not like the land of Egypt, it is unequivocally stating that Israel is better than Egypt. The two countries source their water in two different ways. Egypt is blessed with the Nile River, an infinite source of fresh water. As Egyptian terrain is relatively flat, taking water from the Nile is done by digging canals “with one’s foot”. Israel does not have a continuous source of fresh water and so it is dependent upon the rains, whose waters are stored in the Sea of Galilee and in underground aquifers. Rashi claims that Israel got the better deal: “The land of Egypt was such that you had to bring water from the Nile to irrigate it – you had to rise from your sleep and to toil. Even then, only the low lying parts were irrigated by the Nile and not the higher land, and you had to take up water from the lower to the higher parts: but in this land of Canaan, you may sleep soundly on your beds, and the Holy One, blessed be He, waters both low and high districts, both what is exposed and what is not exposed alike”.

While the prospect for having one’s lawn watered while one lies in bed is admittedly tantalizing, it is not necessarily preferable. Seasonal rain in the Middle East is wildly variable. Israel is currently on a streak of three straight years with above-average rainfall. Enough rain fell to refill the Sea of Galilee that had been nearly emptied by more than a decade of far below-average rainfall. Most people would prefer a steady supply of fresh water from the Nile, even if using it means digging canals. Economists call this “loss aversion”. Loss aversion, the tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains, was first identified by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tverski. Loss aversion forms the basis of Prospect Theory, for which Kahneman[2] won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002. Imagine someone offers you a choice: Either take one hundred dollars or flip a coin: heads and you win two hundred dollars and tails you win nothing. While the average (expected) earning in both cases is one hundred dollars, the vast majority of people will take the sure thing. Now imagine that you are being fined and the court offers you a choice: Either pay one hundred dollars or flip a coin: heads and you pay two hundred dollars and tails you pay nothing. While the average (expected) loss in both cases is still one hundred dollars, the vast majority of people will flip the coin. The reason for the different outcomes is that humans are notoriously loss-averse, implying that a person who loses one hundred dollars will lose more satisfaction than the same person will gain satisfaction from a one hundred dollar windfall. When money can be lost, humans are risk averse and they go for the safer bet. When money can be gained, say, by not paying a fine, then they are far more prone to gamble. As far as rain is concerned, famine trumps bumper crops and the smart person would prefer the steady Nile.

Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, known as the Ramban, who lived in Spain and in Israel about a century after Rashi, disagrees with Rashi and explains the comparison between the two lands in a completely different way. While Egypt’s water supply is determined by the laws of physics and hydrodynamics, Israel’s water supply is determined by spiritual merit. In Israel, the amount of yearly rainfall is directly determined by the actions of its inhabitants. The Jewish People are promised that if we keep the Torah, then we will be rewarded –  [Devarim 11:14] “[G-d] 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” – and if we sin, then we will be punished [Devarim 11:16-17] “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.” In Egypt, agricultural output was like the water of the Nile – it was the same year after year, regardless of what abominations they might have been performing[3]. Israeli rain varies along with our behaviour.

I suggest that the explanations of the Ramban and Rashi are not necessarily orthogonal, but, rather, can be holistically merged. The Talmud in Tractate Berachot [17a] tells the following story: “After Rabbi Alexandri prayed, he would say the following: Master of the Universe, it is revealed and known before You that our will is to perform Your will, and what prevents us? On the one hand, the yeast in the dough, the evil inclination that is within every person; and the subjugation to the kingdoms on the other. May it be Your will that You will deliver us from their hands, of both the evil inclination and the foreign kingdoms, so that we may return to perform the edicts of Your will with a perfect heart.” Two forces attract the Jew to sin. One of these forces is our built-in evil inclination. The human being notoriously prefers short-term pleasure over long-term reward. We eat the chocolate bar knowing that it eventually go to our hips. We sin knowing that we will one day pay the price, in this world or in the next. The second reason we sin, according to Rabbi Alexandri is as the Messiah has not yet arrived and the Jewish People are still in exile, we are not masters of our own destiny. As a result, our observance of the Torah can sometimes be, well, suboptimal.

Fortunately, G-d has provided us with ammunition to counter these two forces. [1] To counter the “yeast in the dough”, G-d has given us a soul, a piece of the Divine, as it were. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, writes that “beneath all of our urges, influences, appetites and drives there is something unified, whole, and infinite – an eternal soul created in G-d’s image. This, rather than the various forces within, clamouring for our attention, is what defines us.” We are capable of overcoming our desire. [2] To counter the “subjugation of the nations”, G-d has blessed us with the State of Israel. Since 1948, we hold our national destiny in the palms of our hands. We have no more excuses.

With this new ammunition, Kahneman’s wager takes on a very different flavour. Our coin toss is no longer fifty-fifty. We have the ability to bias the outcome of the coin flip such that the average (expected) result is much more in our favour. Imagine now that someone offers you a choice: Either take one hundred dollars or flip a coin: heads and you win two hundred dollars and tails you win nothing. And, oh by the way, this particular coin falls on its head ninety-nine percent of the time. Suddenly the “sure thing” does not look nearly as appealing. The smart person would place his faith in the rain.

And while this no longer seems like a fair wager, it is anything but unexpected. Israel is, after all, the fairest of all the lands.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5782

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Geisha bat Sara, Hila xxx and Batya Sarah bat Hinda Leah.

[1] Elsewhere, the Torah describes Sodom as [Bereishit 13:10] “Like a garden of G-d, like the Land of Egypt”.

[2] Tverski died in 1996 and Nobel Prizes are not give posthumously.

[3] See Vayikra [18:3]

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty 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 2000 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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