Acharei Mot-Kedoshim. Holy Land?
This week we celebrate Yom Haatzmaut. Our Parsha also speaks of the Land of Israel.
Let us begin with a question to get the discussion rolling: Israel is sometimes known as the “Holy Land”.
What is a Holy Land?
Can stones and soil be holy?
What is it that makes the land of Israel in some manner “Holy”?
Is this an accolade, an opportunity or a liability?
And now to a fascinating passage in our parsha. After detailing a litany of sexual violations, the Torah continues, by warning that these sins can engender national displacement - exile:
“Do not defile yourselves in any of these 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. So let not for defiling it, as it spewed out the nation that came before you.” (Lev. 18:24-28)
In a similar vein regarding the issue of murder. The Torah states:
“You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land” (Num. 35:33).
Can a land become defiled or polluted?
What is the metaphor of the land “spewing” or “vomiting” out sinful residents?
The land as described as if it is sensitive to and intolerant of sin. Can a land have an automatic sensitivity to wrongdoing and corruption?
There are, interestingly, two fundamental perspectives or understandings on the land's holiness. The first is rational, the second more mystical; the first sees holiness as a by-product of human behaviour - the people is holy rather than the soil; the second see holiness as intrinsic and immanent.
Here is the first approach:
According to [Maimonides'] view, holiness cannot be characterized as ontological or essentialist. Holy places, persons, times, and objects are in no objective way distinct from profane places, persons, times, and objects. Holiness is the name given to a certain class of people, objects, times, and places which the Torah marks off. According to this view holiness is a status, not a quality of existence. It is a challenge, not a given; normative, not descriptive. (Menachem Kellner. Maimonides Confrontation with Mysticism)
The land of Israel is the Holy Land and the Temple Mount is a holy place only by virtue of the Mitzvot linked to these locations. These Mitzvot were not associated with the land and the mountain because these are “holy.” On the contrary, their “holiness” derives from the Mitzvot associated with them. The idea that a specific country or location has an intrinsic “holiness” is an indubitably idolatrous idea. (Yishayahu Leibowitz. Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State)
In this view, because the holy land has extra laws – first fruits, the sabbatical year, tithes, the Temple and many others – by virtue of the extra observance, the “thicker” culture of religious industry, a higher spiritual intensity may be achieved in the land. In this sense the land may be determined as holy. But that holiness is contingent on the laws being practiced. If the laws are neglected or transgressed, the consequences will be dire, far worse than in a regular land.
But the verses of our parsha don't seem to reflect this understanding. They seem to be suggesting a second model which is dramatically different. These verses imply that there IS something intrinsic and visceral about the land’s character. Some may claim this as mere metaphor, yet Rashi comments:
“The land spew you out: A parable! This may be compared to the case of a prince (i. e. a sensitive, refined person) to whom one gives a disgusting thing to eat which he cannot retain on his stomach but vomits it out thus Eretz-Yisrael is unable to retain sinners on its soil.”
The metaphor raises the image of a spiritually refined land that has a “sensitive stomach” and refuses to digest errant, sinful behaviour which taint it. Nachmanides takes this to a deeper level:
“God …placed over each and every people in their lands according to their nations a star and a specific constellation, as is known in astrology. …but upon the land of Israel - the center of the [world's] habitation, the inheritance of God [that is] unique to His name - He did not place a captain, officer or ruler from the angels, … in His giving us the land, He, is the Power for us and that we be designated to His name…” (commentary to Lev 18:24)
Other nations and countries are subject to fixed rules, guided by nature (astrology), but the land of Israel is under direct providence of God. Its spiritual sensitivity is due in part to God’s special watchfulness over the Land of Israel:
It is a land which the Lord your God seeks, on which the Lord your God always keeps His eye, from year’s beginning to year’s end” (Deut 11:12)
We have discussed several models of sanctity regarding the land of Israel
Do any of these expressions resonate with you? Which?
Do some of these models seem unreasonable?
Do you relate to Israel as a holy land, or maybe a homeland, a land of the past or a land of the future? Or … how would you relate to the Land of Israel?
How are these two approaches relevant if at all in modern Israel?