by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – October 30, 2009
In Bereshit 12:1, G–d enjoins his faithful servant, our forefather Abraham, “Go from your land, from your birthplace and from your father’s home to the land that I will show you.” That land is the land of Canaan.
G–d tells Abraham to leave the comfort of his home and his birthplace. He is asked to leave all the close friends and acquaintences that he has made over the years, and to go to a new land.
Upon coming to this land, Abraham passes through Shechem and builds an altar to G–d at Elon Moreh. From there, he turns to Bet El and then to the Negev.
It is with regard to this land that G–d establishes a covenant with Abraham: “And I will give to you and your descendents after you the land of your sojourning all the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession” (Bereshit 17:8). This possession of ours, the Land of Israel, has the unique quality of being “the land of your sojourning” — the land for which Abraham forsook all his materalistic and mundane attractions of his birthplace in order to better serve G–d. It is a land that marks Abraham’s devotion to G–d and reminds us of our forefathers and foremothers and their deeds and actions which they performed for the sake of coming closer to the G–d of the universe.
Bet El and Elon Moreh mark spots on which our forefather Abraham built altars to G–d. Jerusalem is where Melchizedek, “priest of the most high G–d” blessed “the most high G–d who delivered” Abraham from his adversaries in freeing his nephew Lot (Bereshit 14:18–20). For fifty shekels of silver, David bought the threshing floor of Aravnah the Jebusit “to build an altar unto the L–rd” (Shmuel II 24:21). Above this altar, Solomon erected the first Bet HaMikdash and turned Jerusalem into a center of pilgrimage, thereby implementing the injunction that “Three times a year shall all your males appear before the L–rd…in the feast of unleavened bread, in the feast of weeks and in the feast of tabernacles” (Devarim 16:16). Eventually, Solomon’s Bet HaMikdash was replaced by Herod’s magnificent structure of which the Western Wall still stands. Within the now standing walls encircling the old city of Jerusalem, excavations have revealed parts of the city wall of 100 BCE built by the Hasmoneans who, as a result of their deep devotion to G–d, fought to restore to the Jewish people their freedom to serve and pray to their G–d and observe the divine ways of the Torah for which we celebrate the holiday of Hanukah to this day. Burrowing deep into the ground under the Moslem quarter of Jerusalem’s old city are Solomon’s Quarries. From these caverns, Herod’s masons quarried the rocks for the renewal of the Bet HaMikdash. On the site of Mount Zion can be found the Tomb of David, chosen by G–d to be king of Israel, a man who did not allow fear and adversity to thwart him from protecting the spiritual happiness and physical well–being of the people of Israel. Along the Kidron Valley are a row of sepulchres: the pillar of Absalom, the tomb of Yehoshafat and pyramid of Zachariah, which recall many a Biblical scene.
Leaving Jerusalem towards the south, one follows the ancient route along the valley of Rephaim where “the Philistines…spread themselves” and were conquered by David to preserve Israel’s spiritual and physical freedom (Shmuel II 5:22). In Bet Lehem, we find the tomb of Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel, who, in recognition of G–d and His holy way of life, attempted to hide her father’s idols. Here, in Bet Lehem, was the home of Naomi and her family; here Ruth gleaned in the fields and met her kinsman, Boaz; and here their great–grandson, David, was born and later anointed by the prophet Shmuel as king of Israel. Close by is the village of Tekoa, where the prophet Amos was born. Nearing Hebron, one comes to Mamre, where Abraham dwelt and built an altar to G–d. Here Abraham pitched his tent and welcomed his celestial visitors, who promised Sarah that she would bear a son (Bereshit 13:18). Near Mamre, in Hebron, Abraham bought the field containing the cave of Machpelah from Ephron for “four hundred shekels of silver” in which to bury his departed wife, Sarah (Bereshit 23:16). Abraham himself was later buried here, and so were Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah, while legend holds that the graves of Adam and Eve were also in the same location.
After leaving Jerusalem on the road due east, one eventually reaches the famous town of Jericho which fell to the blast of Joshua’s trumpets about 1250 BCE, and although Joshua forbade reconstruction of the city, in the ninth century BCE “Hiel the Bethelite did build Jericho” (Melachim I 16:34). Travelling along the scenic western shore of the Dead Sea, one comes across Qumran, where, in 1947, seven earthenware jars were found containing priceless Biblical manuscripts. Further searches revealed a wealth of parchment fragments and scrolls, most of which can be found in Jerusalem’s two main museums. Rising steeply to 1300 feet above the Dead Sea, Masada marks one of the Hasmoneans’ line of defense bastions holding back invasion from the east and the point where the Jews made their last stand to overcome Roman religious persecution in 73 CE.
Turning towards Bet Shean, one comes across a series of synagogues of the Talmudic period recently unearthed, and one is led to recall the Biblical account of Saul’s death in battle with the Philistines who “fastened his body to the wall of Bet Shean” (Shmuel I 31:10). At nearby Mount Gilboa, Saul and his three sons were found fallen (Shmuel I 31:8), and at Ein Harod, Gideon set up his troops to wrest the Land from the oppressive hands of the Midianites (Shoftim 7:1).
On leaving Jerusalem towards the north, one can find Gibeon, where Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, so that he might complete his battle in daylight (Joshua 10:12). As one journeys on, he reaches Bet El, where G–d appeared to Jacob; and closeby is Canaanite Ai, where excavations have confirmed the Biblical account that “Joshua burnt Ai, and made it…a desolation unto this day” (Joshua 8:28). Then one passes Shilo, which was the first home of the Miskan, as well as the town from which the Israelites later brought the holy ark. Later, one can see Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval on which sites Moses admonished the people of Israel before his death, and one can walk through Shechem, around which many Biblical accounts revolve.
Even as far north as Haifa, one comes across Mount Carmel where the prophet Elijah convened all the prophets of Baal and demonstrated their falsehood.
Indeed, almost every step in the Land of Israel conjures up memories of Biblical scenes and acts of devotion to G–d by our ancestors, which, in turn, helps to strengthen one’s own devotion. This, perhaps, sheds light on the purpose behind the Biblical command in Bamidbar 33:53, “And you shall take possession of the land and you shall dwell in it.”
G–d, upon enjoining us to dwell in the Land of Israel, did not leave it as an uncomfortable and desolate wasteland incapable of sustaining its inhabitants. In fact, nothing would be further from the truth. The Land of Israel is rich in minerals, and has an abundance of flowers, fields and orchards and lush vegetation. And, for eight months of the year, the Land of Israel revels in warm and sunny weather, and, during the other four months, rainfalls of two to three days duration with bright mild intervals provide the land with a year–round supply for agricultural, industrial and domestic use. This is reflected in the Biblical description of the land as “a good and spacious land flowing with milk and honey” (Sh’mot 3:8), the meaning of which the famous medieval kabblist and exegete, Ramban explains as the land’s atmosphere being pleasant and healthy and all good things can be found there, being spacious enough to hold all the Israelites comfortably, the land’s having good pasture and water to allow the animals’ production of milk in abundance, and the land’s sweet and plump fruits ooze juice as the honey extracted from its dates. It is “a land of rivers of water…A land of wheat and barley and grapevines and figs and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey” (Devarim 8:7–8).
It is this warm, pleasant and lush land rich in memories of Biblical scenes and ancestral devotion that G–d commands us to settle. This land — the holy land of Israel — stands before us today ready to take us in. We must only seek the oppurtunity to get up and go.