As the Jewish people slowly begin their preparation to enter and conquer the land of Israel, Moshe informs them that, of course, God will be there to help along the way:
וְנָשַׁל֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהֶ֜יךָ אֶת־הַגּוֹיִ֥ם הָאֵ֛ל מִפָּנֶ֖יךָ מְעַ֣ט מְעָ֑ט לֹ֤א תוּכַל֙ כַּלֹּתָ֣ם מַהֵ֔ר פֶּן־תִּרְבֶּ֥ה עָלֶ֖יךָ חַיַּ֥ת הַשָּׂדֶֽה׃
The LORD your God will dislodge those peoples before you little by little; you will not be able to put an end to them at once, else the wild beasts would multiply to your hurt.
What an odd form of assistance, though. Why little by little? Why would God not remove the enemy nations from the midst of Israel all at once? And why would the Jewish people have to fear an animal uprising; could God not take care of animal control issues as well? Worse still, the fact that the conquest of Israel would apparently be taking place in baby steps would mean that the keeping of all the various mitzvos that could only be performed once the land was in fully Jewish hands would have to be pushed off. Is this alone not then reason enough for God to miraculously, and instantly, turn the land of Israel over to the Jewish people?
Ibn Ezra (23:29), for one, would argue that God was not wont to perform miraculous events willy nilly, and reserved such things for exceptionally particular historical moments. Echoing a similar sentiment to Rambam (and, indeed, most all Rishonim), Ibn Ezra states that God would only “create” a new miracle if it was for the express purpose of strengthening belief in prophecy. Other than such extenuating circumstances, God prefers to keep the natural order of things.
Still, would not the conquering of the land of Israel, and the more hasty performance of the mitzvos dependent on just that, be a worthwhile enough cause for a miracle? Perhaps not. Perhaps Ibn Ezra is wholly correct. But R. Dovid Hofstedter (Dorash Dovid pg. 309) suggest an alternative, or simply additional, approach based on what the conquest of the land of Israel truly was all about. While, of course, the taking of the land of Israel was a physical conquest, it was just as much a spiritual conquest of the land as well. Whatever impurities and idolatry existed in the land of Israel as the Jewish nation moved to enter it needed to be uprooted so as to convert the land, so to speak, into the land of Godliness and holiness it was destined to be. This being the case, the conquest of the land was contingent on the level and stature of the Jewish nation. Thus, the conquest simply could not occur instantly, but would rather have to take place little by little, step by step — as all true growth occurs. According only to the level of holiness and spiritual perfection of the nation would the land of Israel be converted to holiness and spiritual perfection. It was therefore surely to be a process.
This is also the idea behind the concern of an animal uprising, as it were. This was not merely a physical concern of some sort of bodily harm coming to the nation, but a spiritual measure as well. Rashi’s single comment on our verse — a comment that would at first glance appear particularly strange and of little relevance — makes complete sense in this context, as he explains as follows:
פן תרבה עליך חית השדה. והלא אם עושין רצונו של מקום אין מתיראין מן החיה, שנאמר (איוב ה, כג) וחית השדה השלמה לך, אלא גלוי היה לפניו שעתידין לחטוא:
LEST THE BEASTS OF THE FIELD INCREASE UPON THEE — But is it not a fact that if people perform the will of the Omnipresent they will not have to fear the beasts, as it is said, (Job 5:23) “And the beasts of the field shall be at peace with thee”?! But it states this because it was manifest before Him that they would in future sin.
So long as the Jewish people followed in the ways of God and the Torah, they did not have to fear the animals. The very existence and purpose of animals in the land of Israel was as a measure of the nation’s spiritual progression and standing. So long as the Jewish people followed the ways of God and exercised that which made them human and separate from the animals — the mental faculties, ability to contemplate and connect to the Divine, the tzelem elokim — they would indeed be separate from the animals and need not fear them. Should they descend to the level of the animals, however, disregarding the Torah and the morality that separates humans from animals, then they would likewise find themselves amongst said animals (see Gemara Shabbos 151b, Maharshah there and on Sanhedrin 38b).
This is all also the reason why the pushing off of the mitzvos contingent on conquering the land of Israel was not of concern. After all, these mitzvos were only meant to be performed in the land of Israel once the land had reached the requisite spiritual standing. Until the land was fully holy — and made such by the Jewish nation itself — the mitzvos were not ready to be performed in the first place.
What emerges from all of this is the very real and very crucial understanding that the religious value in settling the land of Israel is not merely one of physicality, but of spirituality as well. One does not fulfill settling the land of Israel merely by eradicating any potential enemies that might dwell therein. One similarly does not settle the land of Israel simply by moving one’s place of residence there. No, the fundamental aspect of the settling of the land of Israel is rather the fulfillment and keeping of God’s Torah and mitzvos. Indeed, and to conclude, R. Nathan Lopes Cardozo recently wrote as such:
When I contemplate the future of the State of Israel and its inhabitants, I realize more and more that religious Judaism must become its primary driving force so as not merely to survive but to actually flourish. Without Judaism, Israel will not make it. It will slowly disintegrate and eventually cease to exist. No army or government, however powerful and brilliant, will be able to guarantee Israel’s future unless Judaism is its central component.