Do Not Corrupt the Land
Do not corrupt (tacḥanifu) the Land where you (plural) are, for bloodshed corrupts the Land, and there can be no atonement for the Land because of the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of the person who shed it. And you (singular) shall not defile the Land where you reside, in which I dwell, for I am the Lord Who dwells among the Children of Israel.
Questions on the Pesukim
On the simple level (p’shat), these pesukim (verses), which conclude the Torah’s presentation of the cities of refuge and the prohibition of murder, indicate that we must be as vigilant as possible to prevent bloodshed within Eretz Yisrael, since bloodshed corrupts and defiles the Land. However, reflection on the pesukim leads to numerous questions.
1. Rashi and Onkelos translate “tacḥanifu” as “make wicked” or “convict.” How is it possible to convict the Land and make her wicked? The Land herself is not party to the act of bloodshed. The posuk should have stated “You shall not be wicked within the Land,” rather than “You shall not make the Land wicked.” It is even more astonishing that the Torah requires atonement for the Land - “… and there can be no atonement for the Land because of the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of the person who shed it.” How can the Torah state that the Land herself requires atonement?
2. Why does the second posuk state “And you shall not defile the Land,” after having stated “Do not corrupt the Land?”
3. Why does the Torah switch from plural in the first posuk to singular in the second?
4. Why does the first posuk state “The Land where you are,” while the second is worded “The Land where you reside?”
5. The second posuk first states “The Land in which I (God) dwell” and then declares “I am the Lord Who dwells among the Children of Israel.” Does God dwell within the Land or within the Children of Israel?
The Primal Sin of the Land
In order to understand our pesukim, we must go back to the story of creation, which will indicate the Land’s sin in the context of our discussion.
On the third day of creation, God commanded the land to bring forth fruit: "Let the land sprout vegetation, seed yielding herbs and fruit trees producing fruit according to its kind in which its seed is found.” [Bereishit 1:11] However, when the land produced fruit it was “Trees producing fruit, in which its seed is found.” [ibid. v.12] Rashi notes the difference in wording between the pesukim: the Divine command was for “Fruit trees (to) produce fruit according to its kind,” while in practice it was “Trees producing fruit.” Rashi explains that the land sinned; God decreed that the trees should have the same taste as their fruit, while the land simply yielded “Trees producing fruit,” the trees did not have the taste of their fruit. For this sin, the land was punished and cursed after Adam ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, as the verse states “Cursed be the ground for your sake; with toil shall you eat of it all the days of your life. And it will cause thorns and thistles to grow for you, and you shall eat the herbs of the field.” [Bereishit, 3:17-18]
Why Was the Land Cursed Along with Adam?
Concerning Rashi’s comments, the question which begs asking is if the land sinned by not fulfilling the Divine command, why was it not punished immediately on the third day of creation? Why was the land’s punishment delayed until Chava and Adam ate the fruit of the forbidden tree on the sixth day?
Rabbi Kook zt”l [Orot haKodesh, part 3 Mussar haKodesh 97] provides an answer:
The sin of Adam was alienation from his essence; by accepting the suggestion of the serpent, he lost himself, and was unable to answer God’s question “Where are you?” [Bereishit 3:9] since he lost his understanding of his own soul, Adam had lost his authentic selfhood. … The land sinned as well by denying its essence, thereby limiting its power and failing to utilize the full power inherent within it to fulfill the Divine command to produce trees whose taste was that of its fruit. The land’s sin was looking outside itself and entertaining foreign considerations.
Rabbi Kook explains that the land’s sin and Adam’s sin are both rooted in the failure to recognize their individual essence. Due to this failure, the land did not properly fulfill the Divine command and Adam accepted the words of the serpent.
We may assume that Rabbi Kook is not simply stating that Adam’s sin and that of the land are comparable, but asserting something much deeper: Adam was influenced by living on the land which was alienated from itself, and this caused him to be alienated from himself.
This exposition of Rabbi Kook’s comment allows us to understand the reason the land is punished along with man – on some level, it is the land which brought man to sin, thus when man sinned the land was cursed along with him.
The Essence of Dwelling in Eretz Yisrael
Returning to our discussion, we may say that God chose Eretz Yisrael as the dwelling place for Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel) in order to rest His Shechina upon them within her. Chazal (Our Sages) teach that the climate of Eretz Yisrael imparts wisdom [Bava Batra 158b]. Bacḥ [Shulḥan Aruch, Oraḥ Ḥayyim 208] writes that eating the fruit of Eretz Yisrael is spiritually elevating. When God brought Am Yisrael to Eretz Yisrael, it was in order to elevate and uplift us. The diametric opposite of this purpose is bloodshed, which ends a life and prevents manifestation of the Shechina. For Am Yisrael to be within its Land and allow acts of bloodshed instead of living a Godly life according to Torah, which would bring the Shechina into our midst, indicates that the climate of Israel is not imparting wisdom, that Am Yisrael’s presence within the Land does not elevate the nation, as God wished.
This being the case, the Land is culpable in the sin of bloodshed, since the nation within her is influenced by the Land herself. Bloodshed while Am Yisrael lives in its Land indicates that the Land herself requires atonement “For bloodshed corrupts the Land.”
Two Implications of Bloodshed
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch [commentary on Bamidbar 35:34] writes that there are two implications of the influence of bloodshed on the Land. The first is connected to the physical land; since the Land has sinned, she cannot produce the yield of which she is capable, and in its place, “thorns and thistles will grow.” This is the punishment God gave the Land for its sin in not fulfilling His command. The second influence is on the social and spiritual fabric of the Land, which becomes defiled, as explained above. Rabbi Hirsch suggests that the Torah addresses both of these influences, and it is for this reason that the posuk adds “And you shall not defile the Land” after having stated “Do not corrupt the Land.” The first posuk deals with the tangible - physical influence of bloodshed on the Land, while the second refers to the spiritual effects. Rabbi Hirsch adds that this is also the reason the first posuk states “The Land where you are,” while the second is worded “The Land where you reside.” The first verse relates to the physical Land, which is affected by the sin of bloodshed, while the second refers to Israel dwelling within the Land, since it relates to the socio-spiritual impact of bloodshed.
And You Shall Not Defile the Land
Based upon our comments and those of Rabbi Hirsch, we can understand as well why the Torah employs the singular in stating “And you shall not defile the Land.” Ibn Ezra explains that while the verb t’tamei (defile) relates to the second person masculine singular, it also is the form of the third person feminine singular. Thus, the posuk can be understood to mean that it is the corruption of the Land resulting from bloodshed which defiles the Land. As Rabbi Hirsch explained, there are two stages: bloodshed corrupts the Land and this corruption defiles her.
Defiling the Land results in exile from her, as the Gemara [Shabbat 33a] teaches: “Due to the sin of bloodshed, the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple) is destroyed and the Shechina leaves Israel; as the posuk says ‘And you shall not corrupt the Land … And you shall not defile the Land where you reside, in which I dwell.’ If you defile the Land, you will not reside in her and I will not dwell within her.” Defiling the Land results in exile because it demonstrates that Am Yisrael is not yet worthy of the Land, for if they were, the nation would not transgress such a severe sin as bloodshed.
Or HaChayyim [commentary on Bereishit 12:1] explains that Am Yisrael’s exile from the Land also brings the “exile of the Shechina,” since “the Shechina rests only on the Children of Israel when they are within the Land.” [Quoted from Midrash Sifrei] Thus the Torah adds the words “In which I dwell, for I am the Lord Who dwells among the Children of Israel” – God, as it were, dwells in Eretz Yisrael because He dwells within His nation; therefore, when Israel is not worthy of dwelling in its Land, the Shechina is then partially present in the Land.
May it be God’s will that our return to the Land after almost two-thousand years of exile will lead to the realization of the lofty level to which the Land can raise us, and may we merit the presence of the Shechina within Am Yisrael which dwells in Eretz Yisrael. Amen.
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