This Shabbat is very special for an unapologetic Zionist like me: it is my aliyahversary. We arrived here on July 31, 2019 (28 Tammuz), which, for me, is quite literally a life-long dream come true. I am keenly aware that Moses, whose final speeches and reviews are contained in the Book of Deuteronomy, did not realize his life-long dream of living in the land that God had promised. The evocative description of the land in chapter 8 is therefore even more poignant, and the message, I believe, is even more potent: the human, the Divine, and the earth itself all intersect and intertwine in this small piece of geography. This very complex land is eretz tovah (8:7), a good and complete land. And its very complexity is the core of its holiness.
In the course of four verses (8:7-11), the word eretz, land, is mentioned seven times, qualifying it as a milah manchah, a leitmotif. The number indicates, both directly and literarily, how the land itself is multi-faceted: providing water that flows down from mountains and up from underground springs, harboring minerals like bronze and iron, and producing variegated foods, all in astonishingly diverse climates. The seven species — wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates — are listed here, and they are by far not the only foodstuffs that the land produces. The land is described as producing a surfeit (8:10); in verse 11, we are commanded to eat and be satisfied, and, in the same verse, we are also commanded to bless God who gave us the land. (This verse is the basis for the Birkat Hamazon, the Grace after Meals.)
The commentaries, from ancient to modern, discuss what the multiple mentions of eretz come to teach us. Some talk about the various climates, others discuss what is necessary for good health based on the Greek physician, Galens. The Talmud discusses these verses legalistically — how we determine measurements for definitions of impurity, carrying on Shabbat, eating on Yom Kippur and other aspects of living a Torah-centered life.
What emerges for me is that there are three sources of holiness to this land: the inorganic, the organic and the Divine — and they all intersect with and infuse each other. It is tempting to view religion and religious life as something purely spiritual, but Moses teaches us that even rocks, water and dirt are holy. Food and drink should be thoroughly enjoyed and at the same time are part-and-parcel of religious service.
One of my favorite parables from the Talmud is how God takes a sage to task in the World to Come for not partaking of His blessings in the World of the Living. God has created a physical, beautiful, breathtaking, aesthetic and sensory-filled world, and has placed humans within it. The body is a house for the soul, and any physical or sensory experience, thought, and emotion, is a possible avenue to meeting the Divine. The portals to holiness are as infinite as God Himself.
The land is complex, and living here is complicated. There are as many narratives and perspectives as there are climates, and they morph just as quickly. On the one hand, we need to dig, work and sweat; on the other, we can also sit back and bask in the land’s sweetness, beauty and wonder. Conflict seems omnipresent, yet we are among the happiest people on earth. There is so much still to learn about the other’s history, realities and ideas, but we somehow share an abiding, even unifying, collective history and unconscious.
In his last lecture, Moses is communicating not only laws, but life-lessons. Living in the land of Israel requires commitment — to the Divine, to working, to safe-guarding and valuing the land, and to one another. It is not random that the word eretz is connected to the inorganic, the organic, the human, and God. In my opinion — one I share with King David, Trumpeldor, and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook — there is as much holiness in a sunrise and an olive grove as there is in a Torah scroll or Shabbat candles. As humans, we need to dedicate ourselves to embracing and honoring the complexity of the land, its produce, and its peoples, and to being ever-mindful that all of it is a precious and holy gift.