By Rabbi Ari Kahn
Perhaps reading the parasha from a post-Pesach perspective impacts what we see, but there are one or two comments in this week’s parasha that are particularly apt for this time of year - after the seder, when all of us felt as if we had been redeemed from Egypt.
The book of Vayikra is almost completely devoid of chronological and geographical reference points, giving the book a certain feel of timelessness. Nonetheless, we do know that the context, both geographically and historically, is somewhere between Egypt and the Promised Land:
Do not follow the ways of the Land of Egypt where you lived, nor of the Land of Canaan, where I will be bringing you. Do not follow [any] of their customs. (Vayikra 18:3)
As an introduction to a set of laws that create a new morality, the Torah warns against the practices of these depraved nations, and then proceeds to list forbidden sexual relations and practices. At the end of the list, an additional consideration is introduced: Not only are these behaviors wrong from the Torah’s perspective, but the Land of Israel – the Holy Land - cannot tolerate depravity of this sort:
Do not let yourselves be defiled by any of these acts. It was as a result of these behaviors that the nations that I am driving away before you became defiled. The land became defiled, and I held them responsible for the sins committed there, and the Land vomited out its inhabitants…The people who lived in the land before you did all these disgusting perversions and defiled the land. But [you shall not cause] the land to vomit you out by defiling it, as it vomited out the nation that was there before you. (Vayikra 18:24-28)
There is a price to be paid for holiness; the spiritual constitution of the Land of Israel cannot tolerate sin – certainly not certain types of sin. It was this profound holiness, reflected in the laws unique to the Land of Israel (particularly the agricultural laws, designed to create a more caring and cohesive society) that scared off many a settler throughout the centuries. “Am I on a high enough spiritual level,” they wondered, “to live in such a holy place?” They additional laws, and the more exacting level of Divine scrutiny, were frightening. After all, this land is described as a place of unique character and characteristics:
The land you are about to occupy is not like Egypt, the place you left, where you could plant seeds and irrigate it by yourself, like a vegetable garden. Rather, the land which you are crossing into is a land of mountains and valleys, which can be irrigated only by the rain. It is therefore a land constantly under Almighty God’s scrutiny; the eyes of the Almighty your God are on it at all times, from the beginning of the year until the end of the year. (Dvarim 11:10-12)
God’s constant scrutiny is daunting; who could possibly live under such pressure? Who would willingly subject themself to that? Nonetheless, the tradeoff – the opportunity to live in “God’s palace,” to be close to the Divine, seems like an offer one cannot possibly refuse.
Those who make that leap, those who cross over and settle in the Promised Land, may be tempted see others in a harsh, critical light, and to hold them up to impossibly high standards: “Perhaps they are unworthy, perhaps they will cause all of us to be expelled.” Such self-righteous posturing was anticipated years ago by a famous Kabbalist, Rabbi Avraham Azzulai. Looking back at the verses in this week’s parashah, Rabbi Azzulai drew the opposite conclusion regarding the “others” who live in this land, those perceived as not that holy enough or deserving enough:
And you should know that every person who lives in the Land of Israel is considered a tzaddik (righteous person), including those who do not appear to be tzaddikim. For if he was not righteous, the land would expel him, as it says “a land that vomits out its inhabitants.” Since the land did not vomit him out, he is certainly righteous, even though he appears to be wicked. (Rabbi Avraham Azzulai, Hesed l’Avraham, ma’ayan 3 nahar 12)
The Land of Israel is indeed a holy land, and when we look at ourselves, each of us should make sure that we live up to God’s standards. In order to merit living in the Holy Land, we must reject the sordid behavior of the Egyptians and the Canaanites, and follow the way of God. However, when we look at others, we must never question their right to be in the Holy Land. The fact that the land “tolerates” their presence is proof enough that they are deserving, and holy.