We have seen that the teachings of Rabbi Kook establish beyond any shadow of a doubt that Israel is the natural, optimum, healthy place for a Jew. But it is not enough to dwell in the Land of Israel as if it were anyplace else – we must also live here in a holy fashion. This week’s Torah reading is a perfect place to begin our discussion of sexual modesty and its connection to the Land of Israel and to healthy Jewish living.
Not only are we to avoid all of the sexual prohibitions described in the Torah, but we are also called upon to sanctify our behavior while engaging in things which the Torah permits
At the end of the Torah portion, "Achare Mot," the Torah cites a long list of sexual prohibitions, including familial incest, adultery, sexual relations with non-Jews, homosexuality, bestiality, and the like. The section concludes with a warning: "Do not defile yourselves in any of these things; for in all of these doings the gentile nations were defiled and I cast them out before you; and the Land was defiled; therefore do I punish its iniquity upon it; and the Land vomits out its inhabitants" (Vayikra, 17:24-25).
The great Sage and Kabbalist, the Ramban, explains that Eretz Yisrael is not like other lands. The Land of Israel has a living soul that cannot tolerate sexual transgression. When the Land of Israel is defiled by sexual wrongdoing, it vomits out its inhabitants. To live in the Holy Land, one must live in a holy fashion, according to the precepts set down in the Torah. This is because, the G-d of the Jewish People is more zealous toward sexual sin than any other transgression (Zohar, Bereshit 66b).
The Ramban explains that G-d created a special holy nation for Himself, the Jews, and gave them a special Holy Land, the Land of Israel. We saw in the essays of Rabbi Kook how G-d divided the world between nations and gave each nation a land suited to it. He fashioned and formed the nation of Israel, and set it in the land particularly suited to its holiness. Eretz Yisrael enjoys a special relationship with the Almighty, as the verse attests: "For the Lord has chosen Zion; He has desired it for His habitation. This is My resting place; here I will dwell" (Tehillim, 132:13-14). A special Divine Providence graces Eretz Yisrael to the exclusion of all other lands. It is, "The Land where the eyes of the Lord our G-d are always upon it, from the beginning of the year till the end" (Devarim, 11:12).
Certainly, G-d reigns the world over. However, as the Ramban explains, G-d has placed angelic forces to rule over all other lands. Only in the Land of Israel is G-d's Providence direct, without any intermediary angels (Ramban on the Torah, Vayikra, 18:25). Only in Israel is the worship of G-d pure without any barriers or impurities. This is how the Ramban explains the Gemara's startling declaration that "All who live in Eretz Yisrael resemble someone who has a G-d, and all who live outside the land of Israel resemble someone who has no G-d" (Ketubot 110B). Outside of the Land of Israel, the worship of G-d only reaches the level of the celestial angels, whereas in Eretz Yisrael, Divine service is direct to G-d Himself, with no interference whatsoever.
As we have seen in previous blogs, this unique, life connection between G-d and the Jewish people in Israel has very real physical and spiritual advantages. For instance, Eretz Yisrael is the only place on earth where the Torah can be observed in all of its fullness. The commandments themselves were only given to be performed in Israel. As the Ramban explains, the commandments which we perform in the Diaspora are only to serve as reminders, so that we don’t forget them until we can return to Israel to observe them properly (Sifre, Ekev, 11:18). The true value of the mitzvot is only in Eretz Yisrael. Outside the land, the precepts have an educational value, but the Torah repeatedly tells us that Eretz Yisrael is the place for their performance. Accordingly, our Rabbis have told us that dwelling in Eretz Yisrael is equal in weight to all of the commandments of the Torah (Sifre, Reah, 80).
Because of the special relationship between G-d and the Land of Israel, the Land will not tolerate sexual transgression. Should the measure of sexual wrongdoing become full, the Land vomits out is inhabitants. We can readily understand this when we remember that G-d’s gift of the Land to the Jewish People was made dependent on safeguarding the Covenant of Circumcision, known as the Brit. In reward for keeping the Brit, G-d promises to Avraham in the Torah: "And I will give to thee, and to thy offspring after thee, the Land in which thou dost sojourn, all the Land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their G-d." (Bereshit, 17:8). This Covenant did not merely mean circumcising Jewish children, but also safeguarding the laws of sexual purity, as the Zohar repeatedly stresses . This is what guarantees our settlement of Eretz Yisrael. Should we violate this Covenant, and defile the Land with sexual sin, G-d forbid, the Divine punishment is exile from the Land, as this week’s Torah portion makes clear.
The importance of sexual holiness is reinforced in this week’s other Torah reading, "Kedoshim." The portion begins: "The L-rd spoke to Moshe, saying, Speak to the entire assembly of the Children of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I, the L-rd your G-d am holy" (Vayikra, 19:1). The Torah commentator, Rashi, explains that the command, "You shall be holy," means to be removed from sexual prohibitions and sexual sin. Because the Nation of Israel is holy, we must be removed from the perverse sexual practices that characterize the other nations. Sexual purity is the mark of our holiness as symbolized by the sign of the Brit. Not only are we to avoid all of the sexual prohibitions described in the Torah, but we are also called upon to sanctify our behavior while engaging in things which the Torah permits (Yevamot 20A).
For example, regarding the command to be holy, former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu, writes:
"This holiness is expressed not only by distancing yourselves from forbidden relationships, but also in distancing yourselves from things that are permitted. For the Torah has not come to grant those driven with lust room to wallow in their lechery and to be degenerate with the permission of the Torah.... Someone who does not need to have relations in order to quiet an aroused sexual passion, since his urge is not pressing him, but rather purposefully arouses his lust and excitement just to fill himself with the lusts of this world, then his behavior is not a mitzvah. The opposite – this is the counseling of the evil inclination. From the permitted he comes to the forbidden, as it says, ‘Whoever purposefully arouses his sexual organ to excitement will be banished’ (Niddah 13A). This resembles a man who is satiated, but nevertheless eats and drinks in abundance until he is drunk and vomits up what he ate.... Thus a man must strengthen himself, and overcome his passions, and battle to save himself by subduing his lusts, so that his soul will reign over his animal nature which knows no limits in seeking to fulfill its lusts." ("Darke Tahara," Laws of Modesty, Pg. 178-182).
Thus, while the marital act is a supreme mitzvah, our Sages have warned that a man shouldn’t be like a rooster with his wife. In the upcoming blogs, we will continue to discuss the vital importance of sexual holiness to the Jewish People, both in the Land of Israel, and for our brothers and sisters still stuck in the unholy lands of the Diaspora.