I also will devastate the Land, so that your enemies who come to live there will be appalled by it.
“Your enemies will be appalled by it” – this is good tidings; throughout our exile, our Land does not accept our enemies. The proof of this promise is the fact that you cannot find any land which is good and expansive which was settled and has been destroyed as our Land which has not accepted any other nation (than its original settlers) though they attempt to settle her but are unable to.
[Ramban Vayikra 26:16]
God Transformed the Curse into a Blessing [Devarim 23:6]
Ramban presents a startling comment. The Torah, as part of the curses which appear in Parashat Becḥukotai, tells us that when Am Yisrael will anger God through its sins, the nation will be punished severely. Included within the punishment is the desolation of the Land and enemies coming to live within her. The simple meaning of the verses is that the desolation of the Land will be so extensive that our enemies will be unable to settle her, and this seems to be the understanding of Rashbam, Chizkuni and Ibn Ezra. Ramban, in apparent disregard of the simple meaning, explains that our posuk (verse) is not part of the curse, quite the opposite, it conveys a blessing.
If one’s home is stolen from him, he is likely to be sad for two reasons: the first because his home is no longer his, the second because someone else is using his home. In many instances, the second reason is the greater source of pain. At times, people are unable to watch others using their personal property, such as their home. There are stories of those who sold their homes and moved who are unable to visit the area of their old home, though it was sold legally, due to the feeling that someone else is using the house which had been theirs. Obviously, such feelings are magnified when the house was stolen, and the current tenants entered it illegally. Ramban asserts that God promised to save Israel from experiencing such pain, because no other nation will be able to settle our Land. Our enemies who come to the Land will be desolate within her and will be forced to leave her. Thus, “your enemies who come to live there will be appalled by it” is not part of the curse, rather good tidings.
The Approach of Sifra and Rashi versus Ramban
Apparently, Ramban’s source is Midrash Sifra:
“I will devastate the Land” – this is a good measure, that Israel will not say “Now that we are exiled from our Land our enemies will enter her and find contentment within her, therefore the verse states “your enemies who come to live there will be appalled by it;” the enemies who come after your exile will not find contentment in the Land.
Rashi on our posuk makes a similar comment.
However, reflection on Ramban’s words will indicate that he presents a very different comment than Sifra. Sifra describes the pain which we discussed above, a person’s pain of seeing another enjoying what had been his home; God promised to spare Israel this pain since our enemies will not find contentment within the Land. Ramban speaks of something altogether different; not that our enemies will not be content within the Land, but the Land will not be content with our enemies: “our Land does not accept our enemies.” According to Ramban, the blessing is greater than that presented by Sifra; not only will our enemies be unable to settle the Land, but she herself will despise them. We may compare this to one who has been separated from his fiancée. One blessing to such a person is that no one else will court her during their enforced separation and she will await his return. This is the blessing which God gives Am Yisrael according to Sifra and Rashi. However, it is possible to bless that person that even though others court his fiancée, she will reject the other suitors and await his return. This blessing is significantly different than the first, and it is God’s blessing to Israel, according to Ramban.
This elucidation of Ramban’s comment is consistent with his comments on the destruction of Sedom, which we discussed in an earlier dvar Torah. Eretz Yisrael is a living organism, capable of feeling. She spits out those who sin within her; she “quakes four hundred parasangs by four hundred parasangs” [Gemara Megilla 3a] when iniquity is done within her. On the other hand, the Land knows how to express joy “joy to Your Land and rejoicing to Your city” [High Holiday prayers]. As the Land knows how to spit out the evil and to rejoice, she also knows how to remain faithful to her nation. Eretz Yisrael is connected exclusively to Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel), which is the only nation she will accept. If another nation wishes to settle the Land, she will deem it inappropriate. Like the fiancée in our parable, so too the Land awaits the return of her fiancé, the Nation of Israel, from its exile. Only when Am Yisrael returns to her will the Land be ready to blossom and prosper again.
Ramban’s Proof Throughout History
Ramban presented a proof to his assertion. Eretz Yisrael is described by the Torah as being filled with all good: “A land with brooks of water, fountains and depths, that emerge in valleys and mountains, a land of wheat and barley, vines and figs and pomegranates, a land of oil producing olives and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, you will lack nothing in it, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose mountains you will hew copper.” [Devarim 8:7-9] In contrast, for centuries, those who visited the Land described her as desolate and a place which produces nothing. Likely, the best example is Mark Twain’s comments in his book Innocents Abroad, describing his visit to Israel in 1867:
Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince. The hills are barren, they are dull of color, they are unpicturesque in shape. The valleys are unsightly deserts fringed with a feeble vegetation that has an expression about it of being sorrowful and despondent. … Every outline is harsh, every feature is distinct, there is no perspective–distance works no enchantment here. It is a hopeless, dreary, heart-broken land. ….. A desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds… a silent mournful expanse…. a desolation…. we never saw a human being on the whole route…. hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive tree and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country.
In contrast, in our times, with the return of Israel to its Eretz Yisrael, the Land is again blossoming and prosperous, both agriculturally and economically. In the one-hundred eighteen years of its existence, the Jewish National Fund has planted approximately a quarter billion trees in Israel. Israel is the only country in the world which has more trees that it did a century ago. Israel is among the world leaders in agricultural patents. We see the Land’s beautiful vistas, the amazing variety of forests, deserts, sea shores, lakes and rivers. In terms of building, the Land is developed, and her population is impressive given her small size. As Ramban wrote, more than seven hundred years ago, we can see that when the Nation of Israel is within the Land she blooms and prospers, while when gentiles were within her she was desolate.
“Your Enemies who Come to Live There will be Appalled by it” in Contemporary Times
Though we have returned to the Land, we can see a contemporary example of Ramban’s approach. Before the expulsion of Jews from Gush Katif, its Jewish communities were an agricultural power, having developed unique techniques for growing vegetables in the difficult conditions of the area. Today, when Israel no longer controls that area, we can see how it reverted to desolation and destruction. While the fact of our expulsion from Gush Katif is painful, it does focus our attention on the truth of Ramban’s comment and the Divine promise that our Land will accept our enemies.” As we noted, this is because Eretz Yisrael is a living organism which loves its nation and only when Israel is within her is the Land ready to bloom and prosper.
May it be God’s will that we be privileged to see the Land prospering in all aspects, when the entire nation returns to her.