Ekev: The Biblical Significance of 'Matar'

This shiur provided courtesy of The Tanach Study Center In memory of Rabbi Abraham Leibtag

Who 'stops' the rain?

According to Parshat Ekev (and what we recite every day in the second 'parshia' of 'kriyat shema'), the answer is God Himself.   To better appreciate the Biblical significance of rain ['matar'], this week's shiur discusses the correlation between Divine Providence and the climate of the Land of Israel.


In the beginning of Parshat Ekev, the land of Israel receives what appears to be a very positive assessment:

"For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land... a land of wheat and barley (...the 7 species) ...a land which lacks nothing..." (8:7-9).

Yet, later in the Parsha, the Torah describes the land of Egypt as much better:

"For the land which you are about to conquer is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where when you planted your field you watered it with your foot... The Land which you are about to conquer, a land of hills and valleys, receives its water from the rains (matar) of the heavens" (11:10-11).

So which land is better, and on what do we base this comparison?  To answer this question, we take a closer look at various other instances where the Torah compares the Lands of Israel to the Land of Egypt.

The First 'Faucet'

We begin our study with the Torah's 'strange' description of how one would water his field in the land of Egypt:

"For [your] land is not like the land of Egypt... where you planted your field and watered it with your foot" (see 11:10).

For some reason, Egypt is described as a land that 'you water with your feet'?  To appreciate this rather strange depiction, and how it forms the basis of Egypt's comparison to the land of Israel, we must review a few basic facts of world history.

In ancient times, civilizations developed along major rivers, as they provided not only a means of transportation, but also the necessary water for agriculture and consumption.

If was for this reason that Egypt (developing along the Nile) and Mesopotamia (developing along the Tigris and Euphrates) became two of the greatest centers of ancient civilization.

To enhance their agriculture, the Egyptians developed a sophisticated irrigation system by digging ditches from the Nile to their fields.  Using this system to water his field, an Egyptian would open his local irrigation ditch by simply kicking away the dirt 'with his foot'.  To 'turn off' the water supply, he would use his foot once again to move the dirt to close the ditch.  [Consider this the first 'faucet' system.]

This background explains why the Torah describes Egypt as a land 'watered by your feet' (see 11:10).  In contrast, the Torah describes the land of Israel as:

"The land that you are going now to inherit is a land of hills & valleys, which drinks from the rains of Heaven" (11:11).

In contrast to Egypt, Israel lacks a mighty river such as the Nile to provide it with a consistent supply of water.  Instead, the agriculture in the Land of Israel is totally dependent on rainfall.  Therefore, when it does rain, the fields are watered 'automatically'; however, when it does not rain, nothing will grow for the crops will dry out.

[It should be noted that even though Israel does have a river, the Jordan - but it is located some 300 meters below sea level (in the Jordan Valley), and thus not very helpful to water the fields.  In modern times, Israel has basically 'solved' this problem by pumping up the water from the Kinneret into a national water carrier.]

Hence, even though the land of Israel may have a slight advantage over Egypt when it does rain [see Rashi 11:10], from an agricultural perspective the land of Egypt has a clear advantage [see Ramban 11:10].  Furthermore, any responsible family provider would obviously prefer the 'secure' option - to establish his home in Egypt, instead of opting for the 'risky' Israeli alternative.

So why is the Torah going out of its way to tell us that Egypt is better than Israel, especially in the same Parsha where the Torah first tells us how Israel is a 'great' land, missing nothing!  (See 8:9!)  Furthermore, why would Moshe Rabbeinu mention this point to Bnei Yisrael specifically at this time, as they prepare to enter their land.

To answer these questions, we must re-examine these pesukim in their wider context.

Three Parshiyot Relating to the Fear of God

Using a Tanach Koren (or similar Chumash), take a look at the pesukim that we have just quoted (i.e. 11:10-12), noting how these three pesukim form their own 'parshia'.  Note however how this short 'parshia' begins with the word 'ki' - 'for' or 'because' - which obviously connects it thematically to the previous parshia:10:12-11:9.  Therefore, we must first consider the theme of this preceding 'parshia' and then see how it relates to our topic.

Let's begin by taking a quick look at the opening pesukim of that 'parshia', noting how it introduces its theme very explicitly:

"And now, O Israel, what is it that God demands of you? It is to fear ('yirah') the Lord your God, to walk in his ways and to love Him... Keep, therefore, this entire 'mitzva'... that you should conquer the Land..." (see 10:12-14).

As you continue to read this parshia (thru 11:9), you'll also notice how this topic or the 'fear of God' continues, as it is emphasized over and over again.

Hence, the theme of our short 'parshia' (11:10-12), where the Torah compares the land of Israel to Egypt, must somehow be related to the theme of Yirat Hashem (fearing God).  But what does the water source of a country have to do with the fear of God?

To answer this question, we must read the Torah's conclusion of this comparison (in the final pasuk of our 'parshia'):

"It is a land which the Lord your God looks after ('doresh otah'), on which Hashem always keeps His eye, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year" (11:12).

This pasuk informs us that God Himself takes direct control over the rain that falls in the Land of Israel!  In contrast to Egypt where the water supply from the Nile is basically constant, the water supply in Israel is sporadic, and hence more clearly a vehicle of God's will.  Considering that one's survival in the Land of Israel is dependent on rain, and the rain itself is dependent on God's will, then to survive in the land of Israel,one must depend on God - a dependence which should have a direct affect on one's level of Yir't Hashem!

Who Stopped the Rain?

In this manner, the Land of Israel is not better than Egypt, rather it is different - for its agriculture is more clearly dependent on the abundance of rain.  A good rainy season will bring plenty, while a lack of rain will yield drought and famine. Hence, living in a land with this type of 'touchy' rainy season, dependent on God's will, should reinforce one's fear of God.

The next 'parshia' [i.e. vehaya im shamoa...' (11:13-21), the second parshia of daily 'kriyat shema'] not only supports this theme, it forms its logical conclusion:

"If you obey the commandments... I will grant the rain (matar) for your land in season... then you shall eat and be satisfied... Be careful, lest you be lured after other gods... for Hashem will be angry ... and He will shut up the skies and there will be no rain (matar)..." (see 11:13-16).

Thus, according to Sefer Devarim, the matar that falls in the land of Israel acts not only as a 'barometer' of Am Yisrael's faithfulness to God, but also serves as a vehicle of divine retribution.  God will use this matar to 'communicate' with His nation.  Rainfall, at the proper time, becomes a sign that is pleased with our 'national behavior', while drought (i.e. holding back the matar) becomes a sign of divine anger.

So which land is better?  The answer simply depends on what one is looking for in life.  An individual striving for a closer relationship with God would obviously prefer the Land of Israel, while an individual wary of such direct dependence on God would obviously opt for the more secure life in Egypt ['chutz la-aretz'].

To support this interpretation, we will now show how the connection between matar and Divine Providence had already emerged as a Biblical theme back in Sefer Bereishit.

Back to Avraham Avinu

At the onset of our national history, we find a very similar comparison between the lands of Egypt and Israel.

Recall, that when God first chose Avraham Avinu, commanding him to uproot his family from Mesopotamia and travel to the land of Canaan (see 12:1-3), his nephew Lot was consistently mentioned as Avraham's 'travel partner' (see 12:4-6 & 13:1-2).  As Avraham was childless and Lot had lost his father, it would only be logical for Avraham to assume that Lot would become his successor.  Nevertheless, after their return from a trip to Egypt, a quarrel broke out between them, which ultimately led to Lot's 'rejection' from Avraham's 'chosen family'.

One could suggest that the Torah's description of these events relates directly to this Biblical theme of matar.  To show how, let's begin with the Torah's description of that quarrel:

"And Avraham said to Lot, let there not be a quarrel between us... if you go to the right [=south], I'll go to the left [=north] (& vice versa)..." (see Bereishit 13:8-9).

[Note that Avraham suggested that Lot choose either North or South (13:8-9), not East or West as is often assumed!  See Targum Unkelos which translate right & left as 'south' or 'north' (see also Seforno).  Throughout Chumash 'yemin' always refers to the south, kedem - east, etc.]

In other words, Avraham Avinu, standing in Bet El (see 13:3), is offering Lot a choice between the mountain ranges of 'Yehuda' (to the south) or the hills of the 'Shomron' (to the north).  To our surprise, Lot chooses neither option!  Instead, Lot prefers to divorce himself from Avraham Avinu altogether, choosing the Jordan Valley instead.  Note, however, the connection between Lot's decision to 'go east' and his most recent experience in Egypt:

"Then Lot lifted up his eyes and saw the whole plain of Jordan, for it was all well watered (by the Jordan River)... just like the Garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt..." (13:10-12).

After his brief visit to Egypt (as described at the end of chapter 12), it seems as though Lot could no longer endure the hard life in the 'hills and valleys' of the Land of Israel.  Instead, Lot opts for a more secure lifestyle along the banks of the Jordan River, similar to the secure lifestyle in Egypt by the banks of the Nile River.

[Note especially how the Torah (in the above pasuk) connects between this river valley and the 'Garden of the Lord', i.e. Gan Eden (for it was set along four rivers, see Bereishit 2:9-14).]

Lot departs towards Sdom for the 'good life', while Avraham Avinu remains in Bet El, at the heart of the Land of Israel (see 13:14-16, see also previous TSC shiur on Matot/Masei).

Rashi, commenting on Bereishit 13:11, quotes a Midrash which arrives at a very similar thematic conclusion:

"Va-yisa Lot mi-kedem... [Lot traveled from kedem] - He traveled away from He who began the Creation ('kadmono shel olam'), saying, I can no longer endure being with Avraham nor with his God" ("iy efshi, lo be-Avraham, ve-lo be-Elokav").

As Rashi alludes to, this quarrel between Avraham and Lot stemmed from a conflict between two opposite lifestyles:

  • A life striving for a dependence (and hence a relationship) with God (=Avraham Avinu);
  • A life where man prefers to be independent of God (=Lot).

The path chosen by Avraham Avinu leads to 'Bet El' - the house of God, while the path chosen by Lot leads to 'Sdom'- the city of corruption (see 13:12-13).

Back to the Creation

This Biblical theme of matar is so fundamental, that it actually begins at the time of Creation!  Recall how the Gan Eden narrative (i.e. Bereishit 2:4-3:24) opens with a very peculiar statement in regard to matar:

"These are the generations of Heavens and Earth from their Creation...  And no shrub of the field had yet grown in the land and no grains had yet sprouted, because Hashem had not yet sent rain (matar) on the land, nor was there man to work the field..." (Bereishit 2:4-5).

It is rather amazing how this entire account of Creation begins with a statement that nothing could grow without matar or man!

Furthermore, this very statement is rather odd, for it appears to contradict what was stated earlier (in the first account of Creation [= 'perek aleph'] which implies that water was just about everywhere (see1:2,6,9 etc.).

Finally, this very statement that man is needed for vegetation to grow seems to contradict what we see in nature.  As we all know shrubs and trees (and especially weeds) seem to grow very nicely even without man's help.  Yet, according to this opening pasuk of the second account of Creation - nothing could grow without this combination of matar and man.

Nonetheless, Chumash emphasizes in this opening statement that both man and matar are key factors in the forthcoming story of creation.  To appreciate why, we must first very briefly review our conclusions in regard to the comparison between the two accounts in Sefer Bereishit.

The first account [perek aleph] focused on God's creation of all 'nature' in seven days.  God's Name - 'Elokim' - reflected its key point that all powers of nature - that appear to stem from the powers of various gods - are truly the Creation of One God.  To remind ourselves of this key point, we are commanded to refrain from all creativity once every seven days. ['olam ha-teva']

In contrast, the second account ['perek bet'] - focused on the special relationship between man and his Creator, as reflected in its special environment - Gan Eden - created by God for man to work and keep.  In that environment, man is responsible to follow God's laws, and His Name ['shem Havaya'] reflects His presence and involvement ['olam ha-hitgalut'].

[See TSC shiur on Parshat Bereishit.]

Therefore, this opening pasuk - emphasizing the relationship between matar and man - must relate in some manner to the special relationship between man and God.

The Midrash (quoted by Rashi), bothered by this peculiarity, offers a very profound interpretation, explaining this connection:

"Ki lo himtir...' And why had it not yet rained? ... because "adam ayin a'avod et ha-adama", for man had not yet been created to work the field, and thus no one had yet recognized the significance of rain.  And when man was created and recognized their importance, he prayed for rain.  Then the rain fell and the trees and the grass grew..." (see Rashi 2:5).

This interpretation reflects the very same theme that emerged in our discussion of matar in Parshat Ekev.  According to this Rashi, God created man towards the purpose that he recognize God and His Creations.  From this perspective, matar emerges as a vehicle to facilitate that recognition.

The reason for this may stem from the very meaning of the word matar.  Note that matar does not mean only 'rain'.  Rather, the 'shoresh' - 'lehamtir' - relates to anything that falls from heaven to earth.  Rain is the classic example; but even 'bread' or 'fire', when they fall from heaven, are described by the Bible as matar.

[In regard to bread, see Bereishit 19:24 re: the story of Sodom, "Ve-Hashem himtir al Sedom gofrit va-eish min ha-shamayim".  In relation to fire coming from heaven, see Shemot 16:4 re: the manna: "hineni mamtir lachem lechem min ha-shamayim" ).]

When man contemplates Creation, there may appear to be an unbridgeable gap between 'heaven' and 'earth'.  Man must overcome that gap, raising his goals from the 'earthly' to the 'heavenly'.  In this context, matar - a physical proof that something in heaven can come down to earth - may symbolize man's potential (and purpose) to bridge that gap in the opposite direction, i.e. from 'earthly' to 'heavenly'.

Hence, Biblical matar emerges as more than just a type of water, but more so as a symbol of a potential connection between the heavens and earth, and hence between God and man.

In the special spiritual environment created by the climate of the Land of Israel, as described in Parshat Ekev, matar serves as a vehicle by which Am Yisrael can perfect their relationship with God.  Even though others lands may carry a better potential for prosperity, the Land of Israel becomes an 'ideal' environment for the growth of this spiritual environment,