Parashat Ekev: A sweet partnership

Our portion of Ekev glories in the Land of Israel - its majestic topography, its luscious produce, and its flowing milk and honey.

Flowers 224-88 (photo credit: )
Flowers 224-88
(photo credit: )
Our portion of Ekev glories in the Land of Israel - its majestic topography, its luscious produce, and its flowing milk and honey. In order to explain the truly unique quality of our Promised Land, the biblical text - in chapters 8 and 11 of Deuteronomy - contrasts it with the desert experience of manna on the one hand and life in Egypt on the other. In this commentary - heavily inspired by Rav Elhanan Samet's Studies of the Weekly Portions - I shall attempt to understand what makes Israel so very special. In the past, I have pictured the desert experience as having been similar to a kollel, whereby all the physical needs and decisions of the Israelites are taken care of by the "head of the yeshiva" - God Almighty. The necessary portion of manna for each person is deposited every day, succa habitations are provided for everyone, and "a cloud by day, fire by night" directs every movement and encampment. But the wanderers are hardly enamored by the manna. Again and again they complain about the lack of meat and fish (Numbers 11:1-7), about the scarcity of water and fruits, crying out "Why did you bring God's congregation into this desert? So that we and our livestock should die? Why did you take us out of Egypt and bring us to this terrible place where there are no plants, no figs, no grapes, no pomegranates, no water to drink" (11:4, 5). And in our portion of Ekev, God describes the decades in the desert as years of "hardships to test you," of "chastisement and training" (8:3, 5). The point of the manna was to teach us that the ultimate source of food is God, "so that you may observe His commandments and fear Him" (8:3, 6). Indeed, the contrast to the desert is life in Israel. And here the narrative continues with three verses (8:7-9) mentioning the land (eretz) - in contrast to the desert - seven times, in a chiastic structure which revels in the seven species of fruit for which Israel is praised (wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olive oil and date honey), describing a "good land with flowing streams and underground springs gushing out in valley and mountain… whose stones are iron and from whose mountains you will quarry copper." The picture is magnificent, depicting a great variety of foods and natural resources - including bread, olive oil and copper - which require serious human ingenuity and energy - a partnership with God to properly develop the gifts. After all, the rainwater must be properly directed, the bread must be produced by 11 stages, the oil must be extracted by means of olive presses, and the copper must be quarried from the depths of the mountains. But it is precisely this partnership between God and humanity which is critically necessary to develop - and ultimately perfect - the world. Egypt represents the antithesis of the desert. It is no wonder that agriculture started there - a development which made the land of the Pharaohs the most commanding of the ancient world - because it was "the gift of the Nile," in the words of Herodotus. And so our biblical portion, chapter 11 of Deuteronomy, provides a dazzling parallel (verses 8-12) to the passage we have just discussed, emphasizing the defining and leading word eretz, land. Interestingly enough, however, whereas six times in our passage, eretz refers to Israel, the fourth and central time it refers to Egypt (all seven times, however it is used in contrast to "desert"). And in this passage, nevertheless, the contrast is between Egypt and Israel, the latter having been introduced as the "land flowing with milk and honey" (11:9). The biblical text continues: "Because the land you are about to inherit is not like Egypt, the place you left, where you could plant your seed and irrigate it with your feet, just like a vegetable garden" (11:10). From that perspective, Egypt is easy to cultivate, since it is not dependent on rainfall but receives water from the Nile. However, while Egyptian land may be flat and fertile, the area around the Nile remains a dry, desert valley. It is not like Israel, a land flowing with milk and honey: milk derived from cattle grazing on fields even without agriculture and honey from bees which live in areas blessed by a natural abundance of flora. It may be difficult to live only on milk and honey, but it is possible. And more importantly: "The land you are crossing to occupy is a land of mountains and valleys which can be irrigated only by rain. It is therefore a land constantly under the Lord your God's scrutiny; the eyes of the Lord your God are on it at all times, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year." (Deut. 11:11, 12) Egypt has very little of the God-human partnership. The soft, fertile soil around the Nile makes agriculture simple. Israel, abundant in its natural resources, nevertheless must rely heavily on plentiful rainfall as well as human input for successful crops. And since Israel must rely on God - the obvious source of rain - the Israelites must be worthy of His grace by dint of their ethical and moral conduct. Hence our portion concludes with a call to sensitive fulfillment of God's laws as the key to our successful harvesting of the land's produce. And perhaps that is really why Israel is called the land flowing with milk and honey; only milk and honey can be gathered without destroying any form of life - human, animal or plant. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.