Why Does The Nation Of Israel Merit The Land?
Why God Chose The Israelites For The Promised Land
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
This week, Rabbi David Block asks an interesting question: why do the Israelites get to go into the land of Israel? Is it because of merit? Or because it was promised to our ancestors? Or, as the text suggests, because of the evil of the other nations?
In this video, we analyze these reasons given in this week's parsha and suggest that they all work together to fulfill God's covenant with Israel – to be a model nation for the world.
Let's start by asking a really big question, why is it that the Israelites got the land of Israel?
Why Did God Promise Israel the Land?I'm not asking from a political perspective or about the foundations of the modern day State of Israel. But back in biblical times why is it that the people deserved to get the land?
Well if your memory of earlier biblical stories is good you might say, well they didn't deserve it, G-d promised it to them originally in a Brit – a covenant, that G-d made with their ancestor Abraham. Yeah, that's true, but if you take a look at this week's parsha it doesn't seem like the promises of that covenant just came for free, the people had to earn it:
Vehaya eikev tishme'un et ha'mishpatim ha'eileh u'shemartem va'asitem otam;
if you listen to all of G-d's laws and keep them and do them;
V'shamar Hashem Elokecha lecha et ha'brit v'et hachesed asher nishbah la'avotecha;
then G-d will keep the covenant that He made with your ancestors.
So the answer to our question seems simple. The people deserved the land that was promised to them in that Brit because they followed G-d's laws. But then the text says something very strange. When the people eventually do get the land, Moses warns them:
Al tomar bilvavcha bahadof Hashem Elokecha otam milfanecha leimor,
don't say in your hearts when G-d does chase away your enemies;
b'tzidkoti hevi'ani Hashem la'reshet et ha'aretz hazot,
that it was because of my righteousness that G-d allowed me to settle the land.
loh b'tzidkasecha u'b'yosher levavcha atah bah la'reshet et artzam;
it was not because of your greatness;
ki b'rishat ha'goyim ha'eileh Hashem Elokecha morisham mi'panecha,
it's because of the evil of the other nations;
u'lema'an hakim et ha'davar asher nishbah Hashem la'avotecha l'Avraham, l'Yitzchak, u'l'Yaakov,
and in order to keep the covenant that G-d made with your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Wait a second, how can that be?
Why Did the Israelites Get the Promised Land?We just read that G-d will only keep the Brit – the people will only get the land – if they deserve it, if they follow in G-d's ways; now it seems that G-d is saying that it's not because they deserve it, the Brit is going to be kept regardless of their own merit, so which is it? Do they get the rewards of the Brit because they deserve it? Or do they get the Brit despite the fact that they don't deserve it?
But the difficulty of those last verses isn't just that they deny Israel's merit and emphasize the Brit, there's a whole different reason thrown in there as to why the Israelites will get the land aside from the Brit – because the other nations are bad.
Besides the fact that that's a very depressing message that you're really not that good, it's just that you're not as bad as everyone else, now we're also just really confused, which is it? Do the people get the land because they deserve it like the first verse indicated? Is it because of the Brit even if they don't deserve it? Or is it because of how bad everyone else is?
To answer these questions, to understand how the Brit really works and why the people will ultimately get the land, we really have to understand the nature of that original Brit, that covenant that G-d made with Abraham all the way back in the beginning of the Book of Genesis.
Understanding God's Covenant with IsraelWe know the story of Abraham; G-d chose Abraham and ultimately made a covenant with him, one that would ensure Abraham that a nation would come from him. But why? Why did G-d need to make a covenant?
To be clear, we're not asking why G-d chose Abraham – for that you can take a look at Rabbi Fohrman's first Shavuot course which deals extensively with that topic – here we're asking, why did G-d need to choose anyone?
The key is you have to look at the Brit within its historical context. Look at the stories that the Torah chose to tell us before G-d's selection of Abraham. We have the sin of Adam and Eve, Cain's murder of his brother Abel, the destruction of almost all of mankind in the great flood because the people were evil and immoral, and then the building of the Tower of Babel. All these stories have one central theme, they emphasize a failure of mankind, and it's against this backdrop that Abraham enters the scene.
Right after the narrative of the tower builders, G-d selects Abraham and in their first ever interaction G-d says this:
V'e'escha l'goy gadol, v'avarechecha va'agadla shemecha, ve'heyeh beracha,
and I will make you into a great nation and I'll bless you and I'll make your name great and you will be a blessing.
Va'avarchah mevarechecha u'mekallelcha a'or,
I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you;
ve'nivrechu becha kol mishpechot ha'adamah,
and through you all the nations of the world will be blessed.
If you look closely, the focus is not only on Abraham here, it's on everyone else too; whoever else blesses you, will be blessed – everyone else will be blessed through you. Abraham here is somehow meant to possibly impact everyone else.
After all the failures of mankind G-d needed someone to help change and improve the world. And later G-d is even clearer as to how Abraham is supposed to accomplish that.
What Are the Covenant Promises of God?Right before G-d destroys Sodom and its surrounding cities we get a very rare glimpse into G-d's own mindset and we see G-d's thoughts about Abraham's mission. V'Avraham hayo yiheye l'goy gadol v'atzum ve'nivrechu bo kol goyei ha'aretz – Abraham is going to become a great and mighty nation and all the nations of the world are going to be blessed through him – like we saw.
But how is he going to be that blessing for other nations? Ki yedativ lema'an asher yetzaveh et banav v'et beito acharov v'shamru derech Hashem la'asot tzedaka u'mishpat. I know him. I know that Abraham will command his children and his household after him to keep the ways of G-d in doing righteousness and justice – tzedek u'Mishpat. G-d is charging Abraham with a mission to become a model nation, a nation who lives G-d's values of righteousness and justice, so that the other nations can learn from them.
But this charge to accomplish the mission isn't just one side – G-d makes a covenant with him. At the end of Lech Lecha as G-d introduces the concept of circumcision, G-d says, if Abraham does what I ask, if he follows in My ways, I will promise him two things:
V'hifreiti otecha b'me'od me'od,
I will greatly multiply you Abraham.
A little later: V'natati lecha u'l'zaracha acharecha et eretz megurecha,
I will give you and your children the land of your sojourning.
The two things that G-d promises are children and land. So that's the Brit; Avraham fulfills G-d's mission, G-d gives Abraham children and land.
Now the question is when you look at this Brit, are these rewards that G-d promises Abraham, are they just random? Or is there any rhyme or reason for these specific rewards?
Which Parts Are Related to the Jewish Covenant with God?The truth is you could just see the two sides of this deal as entirely unrelated to each other; Abraham does something in G-d's interest and G-d rewards Abraham with things that are in Abraham's interest – like land and children.
But the two sides may actually be very related.
Abraham's side is to become a model nation but he's going to need tools to be able to accomplish that. First he has to be a nation and the most basic ingredients of nationhood are land and children. Land and children are not rewards for following G-d, they're tools for the mission. G-d is saying, Abraham commit yourself to the mission, keep your side of the deal, and I'll give you the tools to help you accomplish it.
But now, what if you were G-d? Would you just give these tools to anyone? A powerful tool in the wrong hands can be very destructive. How is G-d supposed to know that Abraham will use the tools properly? I want to suggest that before G-d could give Abraham the tools in full, He first tested Abraham to see if he was fully committed to serving the mission and I think that that's one of the underlying themes in the narrative of the Binding of Isaac.
A Test for Keeping God's CovenantFor many decades Abraham and Sarah together were barren. Abraham faithfully followed G-d for many years and G-d promised him that he'd have descendants as numerous as the stars. Finally, after years of pain, Isaac is born. Isaac was supposed to be the child through whom all of Abraham's descendants would come, through whom the Brit would be fulfilled, but then something tragic happens. G-d asks him for the child back, asks him to sacrifice Isaac.
Now if you were Abraham what would your reaction be? You'd be livid. What? No! I've been faithful to You all these years and this is all I wanted, You promised me this, I deserve this, Isaac is my child. But that's not what Abraham says. He goes along with it. He offers up his son back to G-d. How could he do that?
I want to suggest that Abraham realized that the promise of a child – of generations of children – wasn't a reward that he deserved, it was a tool given in order to accomplish a mission. If G-d wants that tool to be used differently, well that's what it was for anyway – and Abraham realized that.
Look at G-d's response when He sees that Abraham is really willing to give up his son:
Ki ya'an asher asitah et ha'davar hazeh v'loh chasachta et bincha et yechidcha,
because you have done this thing and you have not withheld your son from me;
ki barech avarechecha v'harbah arbeh et zaracha ke'kochvei hashomayim v'ka'chol asher al sefat hayam.
then I will bless you and multiply your descendants like the stars in the sky and the dust on the earth.
Veyirash zaracha et sha'ar oyvav,
And your descendants will inherit the gates of their enemies, namely the land of Israel,
v'hitbarchu b'zaracha kol goyei ha'aretz,
and all the nations will be blessed through your descendants.
You see, it's because Abraham showed G-d that he understands the ultimate purpose of the gift of children – through his first child with Sarah – G-d's reaction was to guarantee that He would fulfill His side of the Brit and give Abraham the descendants to build a nation.
Understanding What Is Our Covenant with GodThen G-d concludes the promise in a fascinating way. Why is G-d guaranteeing this to Abraham, following the Akeidah – the Binding of Isaac? Eikev asher shamata b'koli – since you have listened to My voice. You have shown your commitment. Eikev. We've seen that word before. Of course, our parsha begins: Vehaya eikev tishme'un – if you listen to G-d's voice, then G-d will keep the Brit.
These are the only two times in the entire Torah that the word is used in the context of listening to G-d. The first time, at the Akeidah, it's used when G-d was about to give Abraham the first of the two tools, children. The second time, in our parsha, it's the first time G-d is going to give Abraham's children the second of the two tools, land.
And now when we look back to our parsha, we have a brand new understanding of what's going on.
God Promises the Israelites Land... as a Tool?Why are the people getting the land? The land isn't a reward for following G-d, it's not something the people deserve, it's a tool to help carry out G-d's mission. G-d is saying, listen, I'm willing to give you this tool, I'll give you land and children, but I can't give it to you unless I see that you're committed to using it for My mission. Follow My laws, show Me your commitment like Abraham did; vehaya eikev tishme'un – then I'll give you those tools; v'shamar Hashem Elokecha lecha et ha'brit – then G-d will keep His side of the covenant.
That's why Moses was adamant that the people realize that the land was not a reward that they deserve; loh b'tzidkasecha – it was not because of their righteousness.
You know why it's so crucially important for the people to know that, that it's not because of their righteousness? What terrible mistake would you make if you thought you got the land because you deserved it? You'd think, great, I'm done, I have accomplished what I've needed to accomplish, the fact that I got the land that's proof.
But that's antithetical to the concept of mission. No, you're getting the land for a purpose, it doesn't end when you get there, it begins there, now you actually have to use it towards that goal.
Now let's look again at that double reason why the people would get the land.
Keeping God's Covenant Using the Promised LandMoses said, it's because of how evil the other nations are and because of the Brit that G-d made with your ancestor.
We asked, which one is it? But now we understand that those aren't two separate reasons; the first reason is just explaining why we needed the second reason to begin with. You have a mission but the whole reason you needed that mission in the first place is because there's immorality and corruption in the world.
G-d says, remember, the land isn't just a reward, you're getting the land because there's evil in the world and you need to be the positive force to help change that. That's the Brit. As you enter the land never forget your purpose.