Acquiring the Land of Israel
From Rabbi Josh Gerstein
In this week’s Torah portion, there is an entire chapter of twenty verses dedicated to recounting in intricate detail Abraham’s purchase of the Cave of Machpela from the children of Chet. This is a unique situation, because we know that there is rule regarding the words of the Torah: there is no place for literary repetition or elegant prose for the sake of style, rather every word that is written is for specific reason and to teach us a lesson. Why, then, does the Torah deem this incident so important that it warrants such great detail and extended explanation? There must be a deeper message for us to glean from these verses.
The Talmud in Tractate Berachot 5a writes that there are three precious gifts that are given to the Jewish people, but they can only be acquired through suffering and hardship: The Torah, The Land of Israel, and the World to Come. Both the Torah and the World to come are understandably two of the basic tenets and foundations of Jewish belief. From the day that the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, the Jewish people have turned to it for guidance and direction in an ever changing world. However, to fully grasp the text of the Torah one must toil. It necessitates great diligence and hard work in order to be able to understand or even to begin to master the deep messages within.
The same is true of the World to Come; it is no simple matter to live a life with the high moral integrity and righteousness in action that brings a person their portion in the World to Come. But it is precisely because these two ideas are so integral to Judaism, and so centrally important to a meaningful Jewish life, that people are willing to work hard and sacrifice for them. With these examples we learn a true lesson: more often than not, that which is important can come along with its fair share of difficulty.
But what of the other gift – the Land of Israel? By placing the Land of Israel in between the other two precious gifts, the Talmud is teaching us an important lesson especially for our times. Not only is the Land of Israel as important as the Torah and the World to Come, but similar to them, it also takes hard work and diligence to truly acquire the Land. But one cannot simply dismiss it: just as the Torah and the World to Come are so inherently central to Judaism and therefore so very worthy of this hard work and sacrifice, so too is the Land of Israel.
It is for this reason and to drive home this significant point that last week’s Torah portion recounts Abraham’s purchase of the Cave of Machpela in such great detail. The Talmud in Tractate Kiddusin 2a in the context of a broader discussion about the ritual components of Jewish marriage, connects the purchasing of a field in the Land of Israel to the institution of a Jewish marriage.
The Talmud uses a “gezarah shava– an interpretive rule” to explain how we come to know that a man should marry his wife by giving her something of value. The Talmud connects the verse in Deuteronomy 22:13, “When a man takes a woman as his wife…” with this week’s verse in Genesis 23:13 in the context of buying the field for a burial plot, “And he spoke to Ephron in the hearing of the people of the land, saying, “But, if only you would listen to me. I am giving the money for the field; take it from me.” In both places, the same word “take” constitutes acquisition.
Rabbi Nathan Cardozo, in his work For the Love of Israel and the Jewish People, asks the very obvious question on the above: how can the Talmud possibly compare these two cases? “Is marrying ones wife the same as buying a piece of land? This seems to be offensive and, in fact, in complete opposition to what Jewish marriage is all about .Nowhere does Jewish law allow a man to deal with his wife as if she were his possession.”(For the Love of Israel and the Jewish People, page 37)
Rabbi Cordozo answers that the Sages were not trying to compare marriage to that of buying a piece of land, marriage is not about a transaction of any kind. Rather they wanted to shed light on what it truly means to acquire a piece of the Land in Israel. “One does not buy a piece of Land like one buys a piece of land anywhere else in the world. In Israel’s case, one marries the land! The land becomes a loving partner… Jews treat the Land of Israel as a living personality with whom one has a deep emotional affinity.” (For the Love of Israel and the Jewish People, page 38) Just like husband and wife are life partners who have chosen to join together their futures, so too are the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.
This also explains why meriting and acquiring the Land of Israel is so inherently difficult. Because similar to a marriage which involves a degree of hard work and toil from both husband and wife, the Jewish people are spiritually “married” to the Land of Israel and must work to maintain that relationship. This explains the unique custom which takes place under the Jewish wedding canopy, when the groom recites the verse from Psalms 137:5-6, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget [its skill]. May my tongue cling to my palate, if I do not remember you, if I do not bring up Jerusalem at the beginning of my joy.” The reason that this takes place specifically under the wedding canopy is to remind a couple that at the moment the groom and bride are joining together in this physical union of marriage, there is still a “spiritual” marriage awaiting them, one to the Land of Israel.
When a Jew comes to the Land of Israel, he cannot come with his mind set on what he can get from the Land, but rather it must be about what he can give to the Land and the people there – this is similar to a husband or wife in a marriage who strives to enhance their partner. The root of the word “אהבה“— “love” has much to teach us in this respect. According to Jewish tradition, the letters and words of the Hebrew language lend tremendous insight into the core of the concept itself. In the case of “”אהבה, the root of the word is “הַב“, literally translated “to give.”
Judaism believes that true love is only found when one goes into a relationship to give to their partner, rather than to take. This is true regarding the Land of Israel as well — to truly love the Land, one must come to it in order to give and not to take. But to realize and live that journey is not without hard work and toil; but even difficulty plays its part.
Constant work and renewal between husband and wife is needed to sustain the relationship, and so it is with the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. Every day requires new toil, but just as in a happy marriage, the fulfillment and happiness it brings is without comparison.
This article appeared on Arutz Sheva