“They ascended in the South, and he came until Hebron. And Achiman, Sheshai, and Talmai, children of the giant were there. Hebron was built seven years before Tzo’an of Egypt.” (Bamidbar 13:22)

The route of the spies, dispatched by Moshe, is carefully recorded in the Torah. The verse indicates that “he”, a lone member of the group of spies, came to Hebron. Rashi, citing the Sages, explains that this was Calev, of the Tribe of Yehudah. Early on in the mission, he realised that his colleagues had an evil agenda, so he took his leave of them for a while and travelled to the city of the patriarchs to pray at the burial cave in Machpelah. We are then informed; almost parenthetically, that Hebron was built seven years before the city of Tzo’an in Egypt. Rabbi Steinsaltz writes, “Tzo’an was a city in Lower Egypt. According to Onkelos and the Septuagint, it is the city of Tanis. Tanis was the capital of Egypt between the eleventh and seventh centuries BCE. From the sixth century onwards, it decreased in importance due to the expansion of the Nile Delta which caused Tanis to be farther from the Mediterranean. Contemporary scholars identify ancient Tzo’an with a site near San al-Hagar, in the Delta northeast of Tanis, or with Avaris, the capital of Egypt during the seventeenth to fifteenth centuries BCE, located slightly further south.” This verse underscores the importance of the ancient city of Hebron by stating that it was founded even earlier than Tzo’an.

The Torah is clearly singing the praise of the Land of Israel by stating that Hebron was built before Tzo’an.  But why is that praiseworthy? There are many cities that were established before other cities and often the newer city is much more splendid. New York is considerably younger than London but it is larger and far more populous than the British capital! Rashi (citing the Talmud, Sotah 34b) explains that the verse means that Hebron was seven times better and more fertile than Tzo’an. The Torah selected Hebron when praising the Land of Israel because, of all places, Hebron is extremely rocky and seemingly unsuitable for agriculture.   It is for this reason that the early inhabitants of the Land chose Hebron as a place for burial. Despite this apparent deficiency, Hebron was very fertile, far more than even the capital city of Tzo’an.

Later in the Torah (Devarim 11:10-12), Moshe makes a further comparison between Israel and Egypt: “For the land that you are coming there to take possession of it is not like the land of Egypt, from which you emerged, where you would sow your seed, and water it on foot, like a vegetable garden. Rather the land that you are crossing there to take possession of it is a land of mountains and valleys; according to the rain of the heavens, it drinks water. A land that the Lord your God seeks; always the eyes of the Lord your God are upon it, from the beginning of the year until year end.” At first glance, one gets the impression from theses verses that Israel is worse than Egypt. Egypt has a regular and reliable water source – the river Nile – whereas Israel is dependent on rain. Rashi states that this is not so. Egypt might have a reliable water source, but irrigation in that country is difficult. The water has to be channelled from the river to the fields.  Moreover, flat areas are more easily irrigated than high areas. A great deal of effort must be expended to ensure that the crops are irrigated. Not so Israel. When it rains, all areas are irrigated, be they valleys or hills.  Moreover, no effort is required. “You sleep on your bed and the Holy One, blessed is He, waters the low and high places at once.” (Rashi)

The Chatam Sofer (in Torat Moshe) writes that Israel and Egypt are like the good and wicked sons of the king. The king gives his wicked son a large amount of money as befits a prince and sends him on his way.  Not so, the good son, who will eventually sit upon the throne. This son needs to learn about leadership and thus the king gives him a small stipend, every now and again, until he is fitting to be a king. The good son, who is still immature, will envy his brother and wonder why his father is treating him differently. But with time he, will realise the wisdom of the king’s behaviour and that his father’s strategy was to keep him nearby so that he will learn from him. The same is true of Israel, “a land that the Lord your God seeks”.  At first, He gives rain in small measure so that if the Nation serves Him properly, He will grant them His full blessing. Not so, Egypt, God gives the inhabitants of that Land all they desire at once, but in so doing, He severs His relationship with them.

We see a similar idea in the Pesach Haggadah. There we cite a section from the book of Joshua (24:2-4), “And Yehoshua spoke to the whole people: Thus has Hashem, God of Israel, spoken: Your fathers dwelt in olden times beyond the River (Euphrates), Terach, the father of Avraham and the father of Nachor, and they served other gods. And I took your father Avraham from beyond the River and led him throughout all the land of Canaan and I multiplied his seed and gave him Yitzchak. And I gave to Yitzchak, Yakov and Esau; and I gave to Esau Mount Seir, to possess it, and Yakov and his sons went down to Egypt.” This appears patently unfair. Avraham, Yitzchak and Yakov were loyal servants of Hashem and followed His ways. Esau was a wild hunter who wanted to kill his own brother. To Esau, God granted a portion of land, Mount Seir, which he possessed in his own lifetime. Yet, Yakov was forced to go into exile in Egypt where his descendants were persecuted for over two hundred years before the exodus. Only forty years later did the Israelites take possession of Canaan. Yet, based on the Chatam Sofer’s analogy, this makes perfect sense. Esau gets what he wants immediately but then he has no relationship with God. The family of Avraham have delayed gratification but this gives them the privilege of a close relationship with God, who remains at their side through good times and bad times.

This also helps us understand the different punishments of the original serpent and the original man. The serpent is cursed, “Upon your belly you shall go and dust you shall eat all the days of your life” (Bereishit 3:14). Man, on the other hand, seems to receive a much greater curse (ibid verse 19), “by the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread.” The snake gets to eat dust (or things that crawl in the dust) which is in ready supply. But man must plow and sow and reap and thresh and mill and knead and bake his bread. It does not seem fair! Once again, the same principle applies: God gave the snake what he needed and sent him away.  But man must earn his livelihood with toil. And while he toils, he will call out in prayer to God for assistance.  And when God assists, he will thank Him. Thus, what at first is a curse is transformed into a blessing as man realises God is still with Him and desires his closeness.

Good Shabbos

Rabbi Liebenberg

Link to Rabbi’s YouTube message for the parsha:

* Monday 19 and Tuesday 20 June – Rosh Chodesh Tammuz

Tammuz contains the fast of the 17th Tammuz (Thursday 6 July) when the walls of Jerusalem were breached. This fast marks the beginning of the Three Weeks of Mourning that conclude on the ninth Av. The Molad (appearance of the new moon) is on Sunday 18 June at 15h36 and 15 chalakim (a chelek, literally a “portion”, is a Talmudic measure of time equal to one-eighteenth of a minute, or 3 and 1/3 seconds).

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