The weekly Torah portion and its lessons for all people

Nitzavim-Vayeilech, Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20 & 31:1-30
Lessons of the Land

by Avraham ben Yaakov

As the Five Books of the Torah approach their triumphant conclusion, Moses prophesies that the very Land of Israel itself will teach a stark lesson both to Israel and also to all the people of the world:

Lest there be among you a man or woman or family or tribe whose heart turns away today from HaShem our God to go to serve the gods of those nations. and when he hears the words of this curse, he will bless himself in his heart, saying: 'I shall have peace, even though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart' . HaShem will not be willing to pardon him, but then the anger of HaShem and His jealousy shall be kindled against that man.

And the generation to come, your children that shall arise after you, and the foreigner that shall come from a far land , shall say, when they see the plagues of that land and the sicknesses with which HaShem has afflicted it, and that the whole land is brimstone, salt and burning which is not sown and does not bear, nor does any grass grow in it, like the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which HaShem overthrew in His anger and in His wrath; even all the nations shall say 'Why has HaShem done this to this land? What is the meaning of the heat of this great anger?' Then men shall say: 'Because they forsook the covenant of HaShem, the God of their fathers, which He made with them when He brought them out of the land of Egypt, and they went and served other gods and worshipped them, gods that they did not know, and that He had not allotted to them; therefore the anger of HaShem was kindled against this land, to bring upon it all the curse that is written in this book .

Deuteronomy 29:17-26

The truth of Moses' prophecy is borne out by the fact that during nearly two thousand years when most of the people of Israel were in exile following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., their Land lay forbiddingly barren and desolate. We have vivid testimony to HaShem's venting His anger on the Land in the writings of the famous American author Mark Twain (1835-1910), who came as a "foreigner from a far land" to visit Israel, then known as Palestine, in the year 1867. Afterwards he described what he found:

The hills are barren, they are dull of color. The valleys are unsightly deserts fringed with a feeble vegetation that has an expression about it of being sorrowful and despondent. Every outline is harsh. It is a hopeless, dreary, heart-broken land. Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes. Over it broods the spell of a curse that has withered its fields and fettered its energies. Renowned Jerusalem itself, the stateliest name in history, has lost all its ancient grandeur, and is become a pauper village; the riches of Solomon are no longer there to compel the admiration of visiting Oriental queens. Palestine is desolate and unlovely. And why should it be otherwise? Can the curse of the Deity beautify a land?

Mark Twain, "Innocents Abroad" chapter 56

Yet just a few years after Mark Twain's visit to the Holy Land, there began the enormous influx of Jewish immigrants who returned to their ancestral land in great waves from the 1870's until the present. Within a few generations, the land of Israel has been transformed into a busy, flourishing, astonishingly fertile country that exports luscious fruits and agricultural know-how as well as leading hi-tech and other products to countries all over the world. It is a fact that in the "Land of Milk and Honey", the very cows provide higher yields of milk than in any other country in the world , while cuttings of date palms imported from other lands for planting in Israel produce fatter, more succulent honey dates than in the lands of origin of the mother trees! (Asaph Goor, "Fruits of the Holy Land").

For in the same prophecy of Moses quoted above, HaShem promised:

And it shall come to pass when all these things have come upon you, the blessing and the curse. then HaShem thy God will turn your captivity and have compassion upon you, and will return and gather you from all the peoples where HaShem your God has scattered you. And HaShem your God will bring you into the land which your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it. And HaShem your God will make you over-abundant in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your body and in the fruit of your cattle and in the fruit of your land, for good. If you will listen to the voice of HaShem your God to keep His commandments and His statutes which are written in this book of the law; if you turn to HaShem your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

Deuteronomy 30:1, 3 5, 9-10

Moses words, delivered three and a half millennia ago, are a clear warning to the people of Israel to keep the Torah in order to avoid God's terrible curses and receive His rich blessings.

What is the message for the gentile, the "stranger from a far-off land", whom the Torah also calls to testify that the curse was visited on the Land because the Children of Israel forsook God's Covenant?

Surely the Torah comes to teach all people that the very Land of Israel bears witness to God's flawless Justice in "preserving all who love him; but all the wicked He will destroy" (Psalms 145:20).

There may exist "a man or woman. whose heart turns away today from HaShem. and when he hears the words of this curse, he will bless himself in his heart, saying: 'I shall have peace, even though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart' (Deut. 29:17-19). People may persuade themselves that they can violate God's laws and escape the consequences. But the testimony of the very Land itself, the testimony of History, is that "HaShem will not be willing to pardon him, but then the anger of HaShem and His jealousy shall be kindled against that man" (ibid.).

This applies both to the Israelites - who are obligated to observe the 613 Commandments of the Torah - and to the Gentiles, who are commanded to follow the Seven Laws of the Children of Noah.

I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that you may live, you and your offspring.

Deuteronomy 30:19




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