Devarim: Belonging to the Land
By Matthew Mausner
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“…You have dwelt long enough at this mountain.Turn and
journey, and come to the mountain of the Amorites and to all its neighboring
places, in the plain, on the mountain, and in the lowland, and in the south and
by the seashore, the land of the Canaanites, and the Lebanon, until the great
river, the Euphrates River. See, I have
set the land before you; come and possess the land which the Lord swore to your
forefathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them and their
descendants after them.” 
The idea of belonging runs deeply throughout the Torah, and
particularly in this week’s Torah portion, Devarim. For the Jewish people,
belonging is not only manifested in the sense of belonging to a people, but
also a very deep sense of this people belonging to a land. We belong to Eretz
Yisrael (the land
of Israel), and only here
can a deep aspiration for wholeness in our homeland be fulfilled, and can we
truly manifest as a nation. While being a light unto the nations may sometimes
require us to bring messages of healing from slavery and spiritual brokenness
and exile to the farthest corners of the earth, the essence of our tikun
(repair of ourselves and of the world) is strong Jewish life in the Jewish
Reading Torah as an organic whole, a message stands out:
This is how the world needs to be fixed - You, the Children of Israel, need to
live according to the mitzvot (Divine commandments), not just anywhere, but “in
the land which I will show you." That is to say, the world will be
fixed by the Jewish people doing G-d’s will in the land in which G-d gave us to
One such expression of G-d’s will is caring for the Land of Israel. To live in exile is to live a
contradiction. If a person does not
live in his or her homeland, if one has no concrete expectation that his or her
descendants will be living on the same land, then what reason is there to treat
the land right, to live sustainably, and to ensure that the resources and health
of the land will be there for future generations? Human beings are hard-wired
with instincts to protect and feed our children; these instincts can and should
reinforce our attitudes towards our land. We should feel just as strongly that
our land and its health must be protected. We should know in our bones that
they are one and the same. But when we do not live in our land, when we are
separated from that deeper commitment, then we are disconnected from the
wholeness of our instincts.
To do the 'right' thing according to Torah, and to do the
right thing according to secular morals or science, are often seen in
opposition.  But even to make a
separation between the environment and society, or to separate nature from the
world of human interaction, speech, morals, and behavior, is a classic example
of the mentality of dualism so prevalent in Western culture.  Yet as Jews we
know that the spiritual environment is not separate from the natural
environment. People who treat other people horribly while seeking to protect
land or sustainability are not doing anything laudable; the Nazis, for example,
were big proponents of organic gardening. 
American Indians have a saying: decisions should be made for
the 'seventh generation'. Conduct in a land, the way one treats the
environment, is best determined by having in mind what will be best for one’s
descendants.  One’s great-grandchildren, it is presumed, will be living in
and dependent on that very same land. Deep
ecology from the family outward: the only truly responsible way to make
decisions is to have the seventh generation in mind—and the many, many
generations of microorganisms, plants, insects, and animals who constitute the
web of life on which all depend. In Devarim, the Torah is trying to clue us in
to this logic, but is rightly placing a deeper rationale above any simple
self-interested rationalism (or nationalism).
We learn that not only our own health and prosperity, but
the health of the land, depends on our conduct: “And it will be, if you hearken
to My commandments that I command you this day to love the Lord, your God, and
to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, I will give the rain
of your land at its time, the early rain and the latter rain, and you will
gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil.And I will give grass in your
field for your livestock, and you will eat and be sated. Beware, lest your
heart be misled, and you turn away and worship strange gods and prostrate
yourselves before them. And the wrath of the Lord will be kindled against you,
and He will close off the heavens, and there will be no rain, and the ground
will not give its produce, and you will perish quickly from upon the good land
that the Lord gives you."
This is really an environmental concept: our national moral
conduct helps make it rain, helps the soil be healthy, helps bring the
blessings of the Divine on all life in the land. This is a holistic
prescription: if we fulfill our role, shalom (peace) will envelop Israel, its
land, its people, and the entire world. 
The fabric of life on earth is interwoven and
interdependent. Our conduct, our self-control over the numerous collective
human efforts that create and pollute—is essential to maintaining the health of
this fundamental web of life on which we all depend.
Jews are meant to be a light unto nations: by living in an
exemplary way, by fully and proudly manifesting our mission in our national
homeland, by conducting ourselves in ways that respect both the eternal laws
revealed in Torah, and the natural laws on which life on earth depends. To be
ecologically responsible, to be spiritually responsible, and to be politically
responsible: these are all really the same thing at root. The Torah teaches us
again and again how must treat trees, plants, animals and individual people. In
Devarim, we learn how we must relate as a nation to our land.
Suggested Action Items:
- Live in or visit Israel
- Keep Shemitta and Trumas/Maiser in Israel.
- Walk around eretz Yisrael (every four amot—every few
steps—is a mitzvah).
- Plant or tend a garden—get your hands dirty in your own
Matthew Mausner is a historian, teacher and writer in Jerusalem. He is
currently completing a thesis on tribal identity and belonging at Israel’s Bar Ilan University. He teaches for Jewish Agency
programs and for the Eco-Beit Midrash at Yeshivat Simchat Shlomo, and is
helping create the New Jerusalem Talmud, a Gemara-shaped blog that discusses
environmental subjects from many perspectives.
 Deuteronomy 1:6-9.
 Genesis 12:1
 See “The Genesis of Faith: The Depth Theology of Abraham
Joshua Heschel” by John C. Merkle, pp. 3-18, or Spinoza, “Principles of
Cartesian Philosophy”, pp. 28-41.
 See Robert
Godwin, “One Cosmos Under God: The Unification of Matter, Life, Mind and
Spirit”, pp. 12, 156 for example.
 See George
L. Mosse, “Nazi Culture, pp. 104-130 for example.
 See, for
example, John Gneisenau Niehardt Black Elk Speaks, pp. 94-103, or Jerry
Mander’s In The Absence of the Sacred, pp. 211-220, or Dee Brown’s Bury My
Heart At Wounded Knee, pp. xi, 308, etc.
 Deut. 11:13-17; this passage is the second paragraph of the
Shema prayer. (translation from website of chabad.org).
 This is a
general theme found in the writings of both Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook and
Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag.