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Canaan and Egypt: An Agricultural Contrast

How can we discuss the promised land and the land of our slavery in the same sentence? Dr. Shula Laderman, lecturer in Judaism and the Arts at the Schechter Institutes of Jewish Studies, uses texts from the Talmud, as well as the work of contemporary Israeli artist Avner Moriah to help us understand why Moses chooses to make this comparison.

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Parashat Ekev focuses on the concept that the people of Israel must love God and keep His commandments to find the strength to take possession of the Promised Land. Moses tells them: “For the land that you are about to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come. There, the grain you sowed had to be watered by your labors like a vegetable garden; but the land you are about to cross and possess, a land of hills and valleys soaks up its water from the rains of heavens” (Deut. 11:10–11).

Why did Moses compare Canaan with Egypt in speaking of the wonders of the Promised Land? What was his purpose in comparing a country that sits on the Nile and is abundant with water with the arid land of Canaan, where one has to depend on rain to water one’s fields? How does all this support the message Moses wanted to convey?

The illustration that Avner Moriah created for this parashah hints at some answers. The painting is divided into two parts. The upper image depicts a typical agricultural scene in Egypt. The background has white pyramids set against dreamy pink skies, while in the foreground, we see the River Nile, imaged as a blue strip, with green fields along its banks. A scantily clad Egyptian farmer is standing at the bank near a donkey tied to a wheel to pump water from the river.

The lower image visualizes a farm scene in the land of Canaan, with a background of yellow arid hills against cloudy white skies. An Israelite farmer is fully dressed in a striped gown, standing in a field behind an ox, holding what might be a plow. The farmer has plowed and sown his field and is now looking in awe and gratitude at the sight of the falling rain, which will water his crops, ensuring a good yield for the coming year.

Comparing the two portrayals, we can understand why Moses chose to contrast irrigation in Egypt with the way the Israelites will water their crops in Canaan. His intention seems to have been twofold. First, he was determined to impress upon the Israelites that despite the abundance of water in Egypt, irrigation there required effort from the farmer, whereas in Canaan rain will come down from the heavens, falling everywhere and watering the fields. Moses warns the people that once in Canaan, the rain will only fall if they follow His commandments. This idea is reinforced by our sages in the oral Torah. The Babylonian Talmud, (Tractate Shabbat, 31: a) refers to the verse in Isaiah (33:6) that lists six words that apply to the six tractates of the Mishna beginning with the word ”אֱמוּנַת” which is translated as “Faith.” The Talmud quotes Resh Lakish saying: What is meant by this verse in Isaiah, “and there shall be “faith” in thy times, strength, salvation, wisdom and knowledge?” These are the six orders of which the Mishna and the Talmud are composed. The first one,

“Faith”, refers to the order of “Zera’im” “Seeds” because it requires great “faith” in the almighty to sow little seeds in the ground and have the hope of rain falling so that crop could grow. According to Moses’ words in our parashah, the Israelites’ reliance on the rain will make them fully cognizant of their limitations and of their need to have “faith” in God to fulfill His promise of having: “a land which the Lord your God looks after, on which the Lord your God always keeps His eye from year’s beginning to year’s end” (Deut. 11:12).

Shavua tov, from Schechter

Dr. Shula Laderman worked for many years as a computer programmer and planner at Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem. While working there, she studied at  the Hebrew University in Jerusalem towards her Ph.D.,  which she received in  2000. Her topic of research is the “Artist as an Interpreter” – visual interpretation of the Bible in Jewish and Christian Art. She is the author of: Images of Cosmology in Jewish and Byzantine Art- God’s Blueprint of Creation and is co-author with the artist Avner Moriah of: The Illuminated Torah. She taught for many years at Bar Ilan University as well as at the Schechter Institute, where she continues to teach in the Judaism and the Arts track (which she directed in the past).

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