This Devar Torah may have great relevance to the situation in which we find ourselves today. The State of Israel was founded by a group of people who were not committed to the Torah, but who had a great connection with the Land of Israel, because most of those who were Torah Jews did not have such a connection to the Land. As time goes on, however, we can see that things are changing rapidly, and the time will soon arrive when the faithful shall finally inherit the Land.
VaYishlach: Ancient Agronomists
Inhabitants of the Land
The Torah reading of VaYishlach concludes with a listing of Esau's descendants and chieftains. Since Esau married into the Canaanite family of Seir, and settled into his hill country in the south, the Torah also lists the sons of Seir, "the inhabitants of the land" [Gen. 36:20].
What does this phrase, "the inhabitants of the land," mean? As the Talmud humorously asked, did everyone else live in the sky and only Seir's clan lived in the land?
The simple explanation is that Seir and his family were the original residents of that region, before Esau arrived. The Talmud, however, chose a different interpretation. According to Rabbi Yochanan, these Canaanites were true inhabitants of the land, for they were unparalleled experts in farming the land. They had an amazing sense of which crops were best suited for which fields.
"They would say: Fill this section of land with olive trees, fill this section with grape-vines, and fill this section with fig trees. They were called 'Chorites' because they could smell (merichim) out the land [to assess its suitability for crops], and 'Chivites' since they would taste the land like a snake (chivya)." [Shabbat 85a]
Why does the Torah mention the agricultural expertise of the Canaanites? In general, why did God place these idolatrous and immoral nations in the Land of Israel? Would it not have been simpler if the Jewish people could have gained possession of Eretz Yisrael without needing to conquer it from the Canaanite nations?
The First Settlers
God meant for mankind to work the land, "to till the ground from whence he was taken" [Gen. 3:23]. But acquiring an intimate knowledge of the land and its qualities requires sincere dedication to this area of study. How could human society gain the necessary skills to work the land when occupied with higher, spiritual goals? In order that the agricultural pioneers be successful, they needed to be unburdened by spiritual pursuits.
Therefore, these 'first settlers' (as Rabbi Yochanan explained the verse, "boundaries that the first settlers established" [Deut. 19:14]) worked and tilled the land before the light of Torah was revealed in the world. This way, they could connect to the earth with all their hearts. The Canaanites were truly "inhabitants of the land." The depth of their ties to the land enabled them to establish the foundations of an agrarian society, and prepare a solid economic basis for future - and more spiritually advanced - generations.
Their mastery of horticulture was so complete that, besides discovering general principles, they acquired a detailed knowledge of the best conditions for each crop. But why does the Talmud specifically mention their cultivation of olives, grapes, and figs?
Even farmers who share the Canaanites' total absorption in agricultural pursuits have a spiritual life of sorts, an earthy culture that appreciates physical beauty, festive joy, and sensual pleasures. For this reason, the Talmud mentions olives, grapes, and figs. The Canaanites were certainly experts in the basic staples such as wheat, barley, and other grains. Yet their expertise extended even to those agricultural products that highlight their cultural values. The olive relates to external beauty and aesthetics - "to make the face radiate from olive-oil" [Ps. 104:15]. The grape represents joy - "Wine gladdens a person's heart" [ibid]. And the fig, a natural source of sweetness, is a symbol of sensual pleasure.
Foundation for Future Generations
This intense connection to the land, of course, was not an end to itself. It was only a preparatory phase that set the stage for a more advanced society. These ancient agronomists were replaced, and 'freed' of their holdings, as the Talmud [Shabbat 85a] explains, "They are called 'Chorites' because they were freed ('bnei chorin') from their possessions."
Humanity was not to remain forever mired in earthiness. Lowly souls were created in order to establish a stable agricultural economy, but these souls were not meant to possess the land for all generations. They formed the foundation, upon which a much greater building was erected. As human society became more refined, it lost these deep ties to the physical land. The artificial freedom of a base, earthy culture is a freedom that brings with it exile, as it is replaced by a holier society.
Thus we find the psalmist [Psalms 69:36-37] speaks of two stages. First, agricultural settlement by the Canaanite nations: "God saves Zion and builds the cities of Judah, and they dwell there and take possession of it." And afterwards, the land's inheritance by the people of Israel: "And the seed of His servants will inherit it, and those who love His name will dwell in it."
[adapted from Ein Ayah vol. II, pp. 165-166]