Parashat Acharei Mot
Tuesday April 26, 2016
18th of Nisan, 5776
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 Acharei Mot: The Land of Israel—Holy or Not? 

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ARZA’s Torah commentary explores connections in the weekly Torah portion to the Land of Israel through the lens of tradition and our own day.
Readers are absolutely encouraged to share this material for weekly Torah classes, conversations, and the Shabbat table, remembering, of course, that “Whoever conveys a teaching in the name of the person who said it brings redemption to the world” (Pirkei Avot 6:6).

 Parashat Acharei Mot, Leviticus 16:1-18:30 is read in Israel and in many Reform Jewish communities
in the Diaspora during the week that ends on Shabbat, April 30, 2016.

 Acharei Mot: The Land of Israel—Holy or Not? 

אַל־תִּֽטַּמְּא֖וּ בְּכָל־אֵ֑לֶּה כִּ֤י בְכָל־אֵ֙לֶּה֙ נִטְמְא֣וּ הַגּוֹיִ֔ם אֲשֶׁר אֲנִ֥י מְשַׁלֵּ֖חַ מִפְּנֵיכֶֽם׃ וַתִּטְמָ֣א הָאָ֔רֶץ וָאֶפְקֹ֥ד עֲוֺנָ֖הּ עָלֶ֑יהָ וַתָּקִ֥א הָאָ֖רֶץ אֶת־יֹשְׁבֶֽיהָ׃ וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֣ם אַתֶּ֗ם אֶת־חֻקֹּתַי֙ וְאֶת מִשְׁפָּטַ֔יוְלֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֔וּ מִכֹּ֥ל הַתּוֹעֵבֹ֖ת הָאֵ֑לֶּה הָֽאֶזְרָ֔ח וְהַגֵּ֖ר הַגָּ֥ר בְּתוֹכְכֶֽם׃
כִּ֚י אֶת־כָּל־הַתּוֹעֵבֹ֣ת הָאֵ֔ל עָשׂ֥וּאַנְשֵֽׁי־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֣ר לִפְנֵיכֶ֑ם וַתִּטְמָ֖א הָאָֽרֶץ׃
וְלֹֽא־תָקִ֤יא הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ אֶתְכֶ֔ם בְּטַֽמַּאֲכֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑הּ כַּאֲשֶׁ֥רקָאָ֛ה אֶת־הַגּ֖וֹי אֲשֶׁ֥ר לִפְנֵיכֶֽם:
Do not defile yourselves in any of those ways, for it is by such that the nations that I am casting out before you defiled themselves. Thus the land became defiled; and I called it to account for its iniquity, and the land spewed out its inhabitants. But you must keep My laws and My rules, and you must not do any of those abhorrent things, neither the citizen nor the stranger who resides among you; for all those abhorrent things were done by the people who were in the land before you, and the land became defiled.  So let not the land spew you out for defiling it, as it spewed out the nation that came before you. (Leviticus 18:24-28)
Questions:  If God is God of the entire world—מְלֹ֥א כָל־הָאָ֖רֶץ כְּבוֹדֽוֹ/“the whole earth is full of God’s glory” (Isaiah 6:3)—then what makes the Land of Israel spiritually unique? Is the Land of Israel  “the Holy Land”? And what does that loaded phrase mean, anyhow?

We’ll return to those questions. In the Torah portion Acharei Mot, the Land of Israel makes a cameo appearance in the final verses of Leviticus 18. Most of the chapter is devoted to sexual offenses that the Torah considers to be abhorrent.[1]  After the long list of proscribed sexual relationships, the Torah maintains that Israel’s immoral behavior will lead to exile from the Promised Land:  “Let not the land spew you out for defiling it, as it spewed out the nation that came before you” (v.28).

In the words of biblical scholar Baruch Levine, “It is as though the land, personified, is angered by its defilement at man’s hand.”[2] This idea appears several times in the Torah. In the earliest chapters of Genesis, for instance, the first couple is expelled from Eden:  “To Adam God said, “Because you did as your wife said and ate of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed be the ground because of you...” (Genesis 3:17).  Numbers 35 connects wanton violence to expulsion from the Land: 
You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land, and the land can have no expiation for blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it.  You shall not defile the land in which you live, in which I Myself abide, for I, Adonai, abide among the Israelite people (Numbers 35:33-34).

The Land of Israel has an allergic reaction to human immorality. Because of this, we would expect Jewish tradition to make the case that the Land is intrinsically more sacred and delicate than the rest of the world.  And many times that case is indeed spelled out.

That is the view of the great Spanish kabbalist and commentator Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (RaMBaN, 1194-1270).  RaMBaN held that each land had its own guiding angel and astronomical constellation that protected it—except for the Land of Israel, which is under God’s personal purview. He cites provocative midrashim in his commentary on this passage from Leviticus:
The Land which is the inheritance of God will vomit out all those who defile it and it will not tolerate idol worshippers, nor those who practice immorality.... And so the Rabbis taught in the Midrash Sifra: The Land of Israel is unlike other lands; it is unable to contain sinners....This is the meaning of the saying of the Rabbis: “Whoever lives outside the Land is as if he had no God.”...
The Rabbis have said in the Midrash Sifrei, regarding the verse And you shall perish quickly from off the Good Land (Deuteronomy 11:17):  Although I banish you from the Land of Israel to outside the Land, make yourselves distinctive [from the other nations] by doing Mitzvot, so that when you return they shall not be unfamiliar novelties to you... And thus did the prophet Jeremiah say [to the people in exile in Babylonia], Set up signposts (Jeremiah 31:21). These “signposts” are the Mitzvot, by which Israel is made distinctive.
                                                              RaMBaN on Leviticus 18:25

RaMBaN puts forward a startling idea: that the Mitzvot really are most effective when the people of Israel are dwelling in the Land of Israel. (Anyone who’s ever shivered in a Sukkah in the Midwest will understand—many of the Mitzvot were designed for the Middle East, not New England!) While the Jewish people are in exile, they keep the Mitzvot, so that, among other reasons, the commandments will not become weird or unfamiliar when the Jews ultimately return to the Land where they belong!

RaMBaN is a mystic, and many mystics in our history argue that there is a synergy that takes place when the Land and the people are united with one another;  this is “holiness.”

Similarly, the sages of the Talmud had a love affair with the Land, and expressed that love in dramatic ways:
Rabbi Abba used to kiss the cliffs of Akko. Rabbi Chanina used to repair potholes in its roads. Rav Ammi and Rav Assi [while they were studying] would move their seats from the sun to the shade or from the shade to the sun [so that they wouldn’t find fault with the climate of the Land—Rashi].  And Rabbi Chiya ben Gamda would roll around in its dust, in fulfillment of the verse Your servants take delight in its stones and cherish its dust (Psalm 102:15).
                                                              Talmud, Ketubot 112a-112b 

Considering the passion of the Rabbis of the Talmud and the mystics like the RaMBaN, it would seem natural enough that Judaism considers the Land of Israel to be “the holy land.”

But hold on:  Before reaching such a conclusion, we must consider the counterevidence. In fact, no time in the entire Tanakh is Israel ever referred to as the “Holy Land.”  (Bible scholar Moshe Weinfeld points out that the only time this phrase— הַקֹּ֑דֶשׁ אַדְמַ֣ת—appears in the Tanakh, in Zechariah 2:16, it refers specifically to the plot of land around the Temple precinct.[3]) Generally speaking, “The Holy Land” is a Christian idiom, not a Jewish one. 

If the Land is not intrinsically holy, how can we understand this passage in Leviticus that argues that defilement will result in the spewing out of its inhabitants?  The 19th century Italian commentator R. Shmuel David Luzzatto (known as “SHaDaL”) offers a rational explanation:  He claims that when the text says “the Land will become defiled,” it really means that its people will become defiled:
According to the opinion of Rabbi Yosef Shabtai Basevi, the words “the land became defiled” refer to the inhabitants of the Land of Israel becoming ritually defiled. He points to Genesis 41:57 as his proof; there it is written, וְכָל־הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ בָּ֣אוּ מִצְרַ֔יְמָה which, if literally translated, would mean that “the whole earth came to Egypt [to get food from Joseph]”, which is obviously an impossible statement. We have a similar statement in our verse: וָאֶפְקֹ֥ד עֲוֺנָ֖הּ “And called it [the Land] into account for its iniquity,” which clearly does not refer to the earth being punished, but to the sinners on that earth.  When the Torah writes that the earth spewed out the people who had sinned, it becomes crystal clear that it was not the earth that had to suffer punishment, but the
people on it. 
                                                              ShaDaL on Leviticus 18:25

To sum up thus far:  While the Rabbis wrote love letters to the Land and the mystics found God there, the Torah itself never refers to the Land of Israel as “the Holy Land.”  Some Torah commentators argued that the final verses of Acharei Mot should be understood in a figurative way.

After all, if the world is full of God and it is all God’s domain, then surely all the world is intrinsically holy?
This tension continues in our era of Jewish history, the Zionist era. Most prominent among the early Zionist thinkers who argued that the Land of Israel was intrinsically holy was Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Ha-Cohen Kook, who saw wellsprings of holiness spouting wherever he gazed in the early days of the Yishuv.

But let’s recall that for Theodor Herzl, Palestine became the site of his Jewish State only because he realized that no other place on earth would generate enough support for his Zionist project. Herzl’s goal was to find a safe political haven for Europe’s endangered Jews. He realized, after the Dreyfus Trial in France, that anti-Semitism was part of the air and soil of Europe. Herzl was sure that in the 20th Century a disaster would befall the Jews of Europe, and he was committed to finding a refuge for them, wherever that refuge may be. He considered, briefly, a haven in Uganda, before rejecting the idea as unpragmatic. For the plan to work, it could only take place in the historic homeland of the Jewish people. But Herzl, secularist that he was, would hardly ascribe “holiness” to the land itself.

So we return to the question with which we started:  If God is the God of the whole Universe, is the Land quantitatively holier than the rest of God’s creation?

Perhaps, in the end, what makes Israel different for us is the same thing that  makes our homes different from the others on our street. Our neighbor’s houses are often lovely, warm, exotic, and friendly—but only home is home. Our joys and sorrows, successes and failures, and the saga of our generations are recorded there.

To put it another way:  A Chasidic story is told about the young Yaakov Yitzchak, a Torah prodigy who would grow up to become the master known as the Seer of Lublin.  As a child, he had a tendency to run off from his heder and hide out in the forest, where he would commune with nature and feel close to God, and he would pray. Once his exasperated father asked him what he did in the forest. “I am looking for God,” he said. His father retorted, “Isn’t God the same everywhere?” “Yes, He is,” replied the boy. “He is—but I am not.”

And maybe that’s why Israel is so precious to Jewish people. God is indeed the same everywhere, and all of God’s Creation is holy. But we are different when we are in Israel. We are home.

Rabbi Neal Gold
[1]   As is well known, the most controversial verse of the chapter is v.22 (“Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman”), and in our time an enormous amount of writing his been devoted to that verse. That topic is beyond our scope in this essay—suffice to say that we certainly consider loving same-sex relationships to be as potentially holy as heterosexual ones. (Many modern commentators argue that the Torah’s prohibition of “lying with a man” refers to cultic sexual practices of Israel’s idol-worshipping neighbors, which is the true fear of much of this chapter.)
[2]    Baruch Levine, Leviticus: The JPS Torah Commentary, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989, p.123.
[3]   In Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 17-22, New York: The Anchor Bible, 2000, p.1572-1573.


Sources for Further Study

ר' אבא מנשק כיפי דעכו ר' חנינא מתקן מתקליה ר' אמי ורבי אסי קיימי משמשא לטולא ומטולא לשמשא ר' חייא בר גמדא מיגנדר בעפרה שנאמר (תהלים קב, טו) כי רצו עבדיך את אבניה ואת עפרה יחוננו
Rabbi Abba used to kiss the cliffs of Akko. Rabbi Chanina used to repair potholes in its roads. Rav Ammi and Rav Assi [while they were studying] would move their seats from the sun to the shade or from the shade to the sun [so that they wouldn’t find fault with the climate of the Land—Rashi].  And Rabbi Chiya ben Gamda would roll around in its dust, in fulfillment of the verse Your servants take delight in its stones and cherish its dust  (Psalm 102:15).
                                         Talmud, Ketubot 112a-112b

At the age of three Yaakov-Yitzchak (the future Seer of Lublin) often ran away from heder – for which he was regularly punished by his teacher, until one day the melamed surreptitiously followed him into the forest—and heard him shout, “Shema Yisrael!...” Only then did his teacher stop punishing him.
But his father wanted to know:  “Why are you wasting your time in the forest?  Why do you go there?”  “I am looking for God,” said the three year old boy.  “Isn’t God everywhere?” asked the father.  “And isn’t He everywhere the same?”  “He is—but I am not,” replied the child.
                                         Elie Wiesel, Somewhere a Master (New York: Schocken, 1982), p.123
It [Canaan] is not like the land of Egypt.  Regarding the land of Egypt, regardless of whether (you, its inhabitants) obey God’s will or don’t obey God’s will, the land of Egypt is yours.  The land of Israel is different:  If you obey God’s will, the land of Canaan is yours; if not, you are exiled from it.”          
                                         Midrash Sifrei, Ekev 38
ותטמא הארץ ואפקוד עונה עליה ותקיא הארץ החמיר הכתוב בעריות בעבור הארץ שתטמא בהן ותקיא הנפשות העושות והנה העריות חובת הגוף ואינן תלויות בארץ אבל סוד הדבר בכתוב שאמר (דברים לב ח ט) בהנחל עליון גוים בהפרידו בני אדם יצב גבולות עמים וגו' כי חלק ה' עמו וגו' והענין כי השם הנכבד ברא הכל ושם כח התחתונים בעליונים ונתן על כל עם ועם בארצותם לגוייהם כוכב ומזל ידוע כאשר נודע באצטגנינות וזהו שנאמר (דברים ד יט) אשר חלק ה' אלהיך אותם לכל העמים כי חלק לכולם מזלות בשמים וגבוהים עליהם מלאכי עליון נתנם להיותם שרים עליהם כענין שכתוב (דניאל י יג) ושר מלכות פרס עומד לנגדי וכתיב (שם פסוק כ) והנה שר יון בא ונקראים מלכים כדכתיב (שם פסוק יג) ואני נותרתי שם אצל מלכי פרס והנה השם הנכבד הוא אלהי האלהים ואדוני האדונים לכל העולם אבל ארץ ישראל אמצעות הישוב היא נחלת ה' מיוחדת לשמו לא נתן עליה מן המלאכים קצין שוטר ומושל בהנחילו אותה לעמו המיחד שמו זרע אוהביו וזהו שאמר (שמות יט ה) והייתם לי סגולה מכל העמים כי לי כל הארץ וכתיב (ירמיהו יא ד) והייתם לי לעם ואנכי אהיה לכם לאלהים לא שתהיו אתם אל אלהים אחרים כלל והנה קידש העם היושב בארצו בקדושת העריות וברובי המצות להיותם לשמו ולכך אמר (להלן כ כב) ושמרתם את כל חוקותי ואת כל משפטי ועשיתם אותם ולא תקיא אתכם הארץ וכתיב (שם פסוק כד) ואמר לכם אתם תירשו את אדמתם ואני אתננה לכם לרשת אותה אני ה' אלהיכם אשר הבדלתי אתכם מן העמים יאמר כי הבדיל אותנו מכל העמים אשר נתן עליהם שרים ואלהים אחרים בתתו לנו את הארץ שיהיה הוא יתברך לנו לאלהים ונהיה מיוחדים לשמו והנה הארץ שהיא נחלת השם הנכבד תקיא כל מטמא אותה ולא תסבול עובדי ע"ז ומגלים עריות…
וכן שנו בספרא (קדושים יא יד) ולא תקיא הארץ אתכם וגו' ארץ ישראל אינה כשאר ארצות אינה מקיימת עוברי עבירה ובספרי (האזינו שטו) ואין עמו אל נכר (דברים לב יב) שלא תהא רשות לאחד משרי האומות לבא לשלוט בכם כענין שנאמר ואני יוצא והנה שר יון וגו' והוא מאמרם (כתובות קי) כל הדר בחוצה לארץ דומה כמי שאין לו אלוה שנאמר (להלן כה לח) לתת לכם את ארץ כנען להיות לכם לאלהים ואומר (שמואל א כו יט) כי גרשוני היום מהסתפח בנחלת ה' לאמר לך עבוד אלהים אחרים ואמרו בתוספתא דע"ז (פ"ה ה"ה) הרי הוא אומר (בראשית כח כא) ושבתי בשלום אל בית אבי והיה ה' לי לאלהים ואומר לתת לכם את ארץ כנען (להלן כה לח) כל זמן שאתם בארץ כנען הייתי לכם לאלהים אין אתם בארץ כנען כביכול אין אני לכם לאלהים….
ומן הענין הזה אמרו בספרי (עקב מג) ואבדתם מהרה (דברים יא יז) אף על פי שאני מגלה אתכם מן הארץ לחוצה לארץ היו מצויינין במצות שכשתחזרו לא יהו עליכם חדשים משל לאדון שכעס על אשתו ושלחה לבית אביה אמר לה הוי מתקשטת תכשיטים שכשתחזרי לא יהיו עליך חדשים וכן אמר ירמיה (לא כ) הציבי לך ציונים אלו המצות שישראל מצוינין בהם והנה הכתוב שאמר (דברים יא יז-יח) ואבדתם מהרה ושמתם את דברי אלה וגו' אינו מחייב בגלות אלא בחובת הגוף כתפילין ומזוזות ופירשו בהן כדי שלא יהו חדשים עלינו כשנחזור לארץ כי עיקר כל המצות ליושבים בארץ ה' ולפיכך אמרו בספרי (ראה פ) וירשתם אותה וישבתם בה ושמרתם לעשות (דברים יא לא-לב) ישיבת ארץ ישראל שקולה כנגד כל המצות שבתורה.
Thus the land became defiled; and I called it to account for its iniquity, and the land spewed out its inhabitants (Leviticus 18:25).
The Torah was very strict in forbidding these sexual relationships on account of the Land which becomes defiled by them, and which in turn will vomit out the people that do [these abominations].  Now forbidden sexual relationships are matters affecting personal conduct, and do not depend on the Land [so why should the Land be affected by these personal immoral acts?].  But the secret of the matter is in the verse which states, When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when He separated the children of men, He set the borders of the people, etc.  For the portion of the Eternal is His people, etc. (Deut. 32:8-9).    [Here Ramban describes at length that each territory gets its own guardian angel and guiding constellation, but Israel is under God’s own watch.].... Thus the Land which is the inheritance of the Glorious Name will vomit out all those who defile it and will not tolerate worshippers of idols, nor those who practice immorality.....
....And so the Rabbis taught in the Sifra:  “So let not the Land spew you out for defiling it (v.28): The Land of Israel is unlike other lands; it is unable to contain sinners.”....This is the meaning of the saying of the Rabbis:  “Whoever lives outside the Land is as if he had no God, for it is said, I am the Eternal your God, Who brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God. (Lev? 25:38), and it is further said, For they have driven me [David] out this day so that I should not cleave unto the inheritance of the Eternal, saying: Go, serve other gods” (I Samuel 26:19).  And in the Tosefta of Avodah Zara the Rabbis have said:  “Now it is said, And I [Jacob] will come back to my father’s house in peace, then shall the Eternal be my God (Genesis 28:21), and it is further said, To give you the land of Canaan, to be your God (Lev. 25:38)...When you are in the land of Canaan I am your God.  When you are not in the land of Canaan, I am not, as if were possible to say, your God....
....It is on the basis of this matter that the Rabbis have said in the Sifrei:  And you perish quickly from off the good Land (Deut. 11:17). Although I banish you from the Land to outside the Land, make yourselves distinctive by the Mitzvot, so that when you return they shall not be novelties to you.  This can be compared  to a master who was angry with his wife, and sent her back to her father’s house and told her, “Adorn yourself with precious things, so that when you come back they will not be novelties to you.”  And so did the prophet Jeremiah say [to the people in exile in Babylon], Set up signposts (Jeremiah 31:21). These are the Mitzvot, by which Israel is made distinctive. 
              Now the verses which state And you perish quickly... and you shall lay up these My words (Deut. 11:17-18) only make obligatory in the exile [the observance of Mitzvot] affecting personal conduct, such as Tefillin and Mezuzot, and concerning them the Rabbis explained [that we must observe them] so that they shall not be novelties to us when we return to the Land, for the main [fulfillment] of the Mitzvot is when dwelling in the Land of God.  Therefore the Rabbis have said in the Sifrei:  And you shall possess it and dwell therein. And you shall observe to do all the statues [Deut. 11:31-32]. Dwelling in the Land of Israel is of equal importance to all the commandments of the Torah....
                                         RaMBaN on Leviticus 18:25
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