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The Mitzvah to Live in Israel

By Tzvi Fishman
4/21/2009, 12:00 AM

As Israel Independence Day approaches, it is an appropriate time to review some basic understandings and laws that are often neglected in the Diaspora. This neglect is due to the fact that for nearly 2000 years, we were scattered over the world, without a national homeland of our own, and without a state of our own. We lived as individuals and unconnected communities. The emphasis of Judaism became focused on the private mitzvoth that we could still perform in the exile, rather on the true national character of the Torah.

However, the Torah is not just a list of individual commandments affected a person’s daily life – it is the national constitution of the Jewish Nation. Thus, the life goal of our greatest spiritual leaders, like Moshe Rabanu, Yehoshua, and King David, was to establish the nationhood of Israel in Eretz Yisrael.

Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook (center) just after the conquest of the Old City

This national essence of the Torah was emphasized by Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook, and by his son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda, and became the distinguishing feature in their teachings as the Jewish Nation began to return to its homeland during the last century. Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda would stress that G-d created the world and apportioned the lands to the different peoples He created. In doing so, He created one special Holy Land and gave it to the Jews. Eretz Yisrael is our Land. This is where G-d wants us to be. The Torah can only be truly fulfilled here.

Therefore, when G-d chose Avraham to be the founder of a unique holy nation, He commanded him to go to Israel. G-d’s master plan is that His word to the world come, not just through chosen individuals, but through a chosen NATION. Everyone can understand that a nation needs its own land. Therefore, the Jewish Nation and the Jewish Land go hand in hand.

"Get yourself forth to the Land"

“A single man can drift from place to place,” Rav Tzvi Yehuda taught, “but a people, a nation, has to be rooted in a fixed, permanent position on the globe. Therefore, the Almighty told Avraham to journey to Eretz Yisrael, which would become the eternal homeland of the great nation that Avraham would father.”

Thus, when G-d leads the Jewish People out of Egypt, He commands Moshe to bring them to Israel. In preparation for beginning their new life as an independent nation, Moshe gives the Jews a review of the Torah, the Book of Devarim, known as the “Mishna Torah.” Moshe begins by recounting everything that has happened until then, and then he explains the Torah with his own unique illumination, as it says, “Moshe began to explain this Torah.” What is the first thing that Moshe tells them?

“The L-rd our G-d spoke to us in Horev, saying, ‘You have dwelt long enough in this mountain. Turn and take up your journey! Go and posess the Land!” (Devarim, 1:6-8).

This true understanding of Torah that the Jewish Nation is Divinely commanded to live in the Land of Israel faded during the long and bitter exile from the Land. It wasn’t possible, so it wasn’t learned. The focus of Torah learning became on the individual commandments and not on the commandments affecting the Nation in Israel – subjects which comprise over two-thirds of the Mishna.   

Thus Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook reminded his students that living in the Land of Israel was the fundamental basis for the entire Torah:

“It is well known that the Ramban establish a fundamental halachic ruling that living in the Land of Israel and conquering the Land are commandments of the Torah which apply in every age (Supplement to the Sefer HaMitzvot of the Rambam, Positive Command #4). Among the supporting he cites is the verse, ‘Rise up and possess the Land.’ The Ramban emphasizes that this is a command. In contrast to this, the rejection of the precept is a rebellion against Hashem, as the Torah itself states: ‘And when the L-rd sent you from Kadesh Barnea saying, Go up and possess the Land which I gave you, and you rebelled against the L-rd your G-d, and you did not believe in me, and did not listen to My voice,’ (Devarim, 9:3). They didn’t listen to Hashem in conquering and settling in the Land. Settling the Land is a mitzvah, and the opposite is a rebellion against Hashem.”

The Torah is eternal. The Torah doesn’t change. The commandments in the Torah do not depend on who happens to be the Prime Minister of Israel at the time, or on how many religious politicians sit in the Knesset. What was true in the time of Moshe is true for us today. For 2000 years, we didn’t have the physical possibility of re-establishing the nation in Israel, so we were prevented from doing the mitzvah, but the moment the opportunity returned with the establishment of the State of Israel, then the commandment to live in Israel returned in all of its force.

I know. It is inconvenient to learn these matters. It is easier to bury one’s head in the sand and pretend things are otherwise. It is more comfortable staying put where one is in Vienna and Brooklyn and clutching on to hundreds of excuses and less challenging interpretations of the Torah.

As Israel Independence Day approaches, just open your eyes and see that it is G-d who has done this miracle of rebuilding in Israel. Why not hop aboard? Come along on the ride of your life! This is your destiny. As a member of the Jewish People, this is what you were created for.   

(To be continued)