The Beauty of Israel Is in the Eye of the Beholder
Occasionally you come across information in an article that is meaningless to most of the readers, but resonates powerfully with you. Stumbling across one of these nuggets is a “Eureka!” moment, and I was lucky enough to have such a moment this week while reading an op-ed on the incredible desalination successes in Israel over the past few years.
In between paragraphs praising Israel for its superlative agricultural industry, I came across this nugget: “Israeli dairy cows produce some of the highest amounts of milk per animal in the world, with an average of over [2,600 gallons] per animal.”
Why would a person interested in desalination be even faintly concerned about the udder output of Israel’s bovine population? But if you are a bible lover, you will read that statement and bolt upright in your chair. Because 3,500 years ago, as recorded in this week’s Torah portion and elsewhere in the Torah, God promised an anxious Jewish nation that the Promised Land would be “a land flowing with milk and honey.” Imagine that! Millennia have passed, and the milk is still flowing in Israel more copiously than anywhere else.
This week’s Torah portion, Eikev, is dominated by its depiction of Eretz Yisrael as a future earthly paradise for the Jews, although there is an alternative dystopian depiction in which it is portrayed as a land fraught with impossible challenges and complications. As part of his overall description, Moshe informs the Jews that Canaan “is not like the land of Egypt from where you came.”
The medieval commentators seem to debate the meaning of this ambiguous statement, with Rashi suggesting that Moshe was telling them that Eretz Yisrael was superior to Egypt — at that time the most affluent country on earth. The Jews had complained to him on numerous occasions about how they missed the fleshpots of Egypt. Moshe was reassuring them, says Rashi, that the Land of Israel would be far better than Egypt.
The later medieval commentator Ramban appears to disagree with Rashi. Unlike Egypt, which relied on the water of the River Nile to irrigate its arable land, the Land of Israel required significant annual rainfall to generate sufficient crops. As all of its rainfall was contingent on the good behavior or otherwise of the Jewish nation, the statement about Egypt was actually a warning to the Jews, cautioning them that Canaan might indeed turn out to be wonderful, but there was no guarantee the land would automatically produce crops as it had in Egypt. If the Jewish nation abided by its covenant with God, the land would certainly produce crops in abundance — but if not, the land would remain barren.
This disagreement between Rashi and Ramban is bewildering. How is it possible for them to argue about something so fundamental? Either Eretz Yisrael was more wonderful than Egypt — and “wonderful” is easily defined and measured — or it was not.
This week, as I struggled with this conundrum, I came across something that offered a way to reconcile the two opinions. Last October, a group of American Jews launched a movement they called “Love Letters to Zionists.” The organization requires former lovers of Israel turned Jewish anti-Zionists to write letters to close family members who remain avid supporters of Israel, explaining their change of heart and trying to convince their loved ones to see the other side of the story. The “Love Letters to Zionists” website reproduces a number of these letters, although, curiously, we are not shown any replies.
What struck me while reading these anti-Zionist letters was the gulf between Jewish lovers of Israel and Jews who don’t have a good word to say about the place. It is not just the treatment of Palestinians that causes them anxiety; their complaints stretch to every aspect of life in the Jewish State. Here is one example: “the cost of living is high, the services atrocious . . . [and if you moved to Israel] you would HATE driving because people are hateful and aggressive on the road, you would be viewed as an outsider for your entire life and treated differently because you aren’t part of the ever-important in-group!” Wow! So I guess that does it. The verdict is delivered. Israel is a terrible place to drive, and services are a disaster. In short, a dreadful country. Although, I wonder if drivers in Ramallah are less aggressive than their Israeli counterparts, or if services in Gaza compare favorably with New York and Los Angeles.
The serious point is this: The letters all seem to be written by people living in a parallel universe. For them, Israel can do no good, and everything about the country is bad. Politically, socially, culturally — it is a complete disaster. But hold on one second — is this the same Israel that we all find so vibrant? So dynamic? So young? So alive? The same issues that convince Israel haters the country is bad lead us to conclude the exact opposite.
I think this is what Moshe meant when he said that Israel was not like Egypt. Israel, he was saying, is not a boring country on autopilot. Egypt never evoked negative reactions and it was predictable in every respect. The Land of Israel, on the other hand, depending on your attitude, and your relationship with God’s covenant, could be a paradise or it could be a hell. If you fell in love with it, everything about the place was wonderful. If you despised it, nothing was satisfactory — the rain was sparse, the crops were late, the weather was foul, and don’t get me started about the buses! Ramban is not disagreeing with Rashi; rather, he contextualizes Rashi’s positive interpretation by postulating that Israel’s beauty remained in the eye of the beholder. Remarkably, even in this respect, nothing has changed in 3,500 years.