Rabbi Avira expounded: “What is meant by ‘And the child grew, and was weaned (Va-yiggamel)?’ The Holy One, blessed be He, will make a great banquet for the righteous on the day He manifests (yigmol) His love to the seed of Yitzḥak.
After they have eaten and drunk, the cup of Grace will be offered to our father Avraham, that he should recite Grace, but he will answer them, “I cannot say Grace …”
Then Yitzḥak (Isaac) will be asked, “Take it and say Grace,” “I cannot say Grace,” he will reply …
Then Ya’akov (Jacob) will be asked: “Take it and say Grace,” “I cannot say Grace,” he will reply ...
Then Moshe (Moses) will be asked, “Take it and say Grace,” “I cannot say Grace, because I was not privileged to enter Eretz Yisrael either in life or in death.”
Then Yehoshua (Joshua) will be asked: “Take it and say Grace,” “I cannot say Grace,” he will reply …
Then David will be asked: “Take it and say Grace,” “I will say Grace, and it is fitting for me to say Grace,” he will reply, as it is said, ‘I will lift up the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord.’ ”
Exposition of the Gemara
The Gemara teaches that in future the Holy One, blessed be He, will host a banquet for the righteous, and at its conclusion, the cup of Grace will be passed among those in attendance, first offered to our father Avraham, who will refuse, deeming himself unworthy. In turn, the cup will be offered to Yitzḥak and to Ya’akov, each of whom will present his reason for refusing to take the cup. When Moshe is asked to take the cup, he will refuse, because he was not privileged to enter Eretz Yisrael, neither in life nor in death. Finally, the cup will be offered to King David, who will accept and lead the Grace.
We shall analyze Moshe Rabbeinu’s comment and thereby attempt to delve into the significance of entering Eretz Yisrael.
Then Moshe will be asked, “Take it and say Grace.” He will reply “I cannot say Grace, because I was not privileged to enter Eretz Yisrael either in life or in death.”
Moshe Rabbeinu’s words relate to entering Eretz Yisrael on two levels, in life and after death, implying that the virtue of entering the Land even in death is so great that had he been privileged to do so, Moshe would have accepted the cup of Grace even though he was not privileged to enter the Land in life. In essence, Moshe words imply that entering the Land after death would be compensation for being unable to enter her alive.
(We must note that Moshe Rabbeinu’s comment refers to entering western Eretz Yisrael, which has a higher level of sanctity than the Land east of the River Jordan, since he indeed was in eastern Eretz Yisrael.)
What is the Virtue of Burial within the Land?
Moshe Rabbeinu’s words seem astonishing: is the virtue of being buried in the Land truly so great? While we have numerous comments of Chazal (our Sages) concerning the importance of burial within the Land, as well as the requests of Ya’akov and of Yosef to be buried in Eretz Yisrael, nonetheless it is surprising to assume that entering the Land after death is so significant as to constitute “atonement” for not having entered her in life.
It is clear that there is a mitzva to settle the Land and live within her, but can this mitzva be fulfilled in death? Is it conceivable that a Jew who never donned tefillin in his life can fulfill the mitzva by having tefillin put on him after his death?
We shall examine some of our sources which deal with the virtue of burial within the Land, and through them try to understand its greatness.
Talmud Yerushalmi: The Land Will Atone
Talmud Yerushalmi relates a story which conveys the significance of burial within the Land:
Rabba bar Karya and Rabbi Elazar were strolling in the street when they saw coffins arriving from outside the Land. Rabba bar Karya said to Rabbi Elazar “What have they accomplished? Concerning them the verse says “You made My inheritance detestable” – in your lives, “You defiled My Land” [ibid.] – in death. Rabbi Elazar responded: “When they arrive in the Land, a clump of soil is placed on their coffins, as the verse states ‘The Land will atone for the nation.’”
Upon seeing coffins of Jews from abroad being brought to burial in the Land, Rabba bar Karya applied the verse “After you entered, you defiled My Land; you made My inheritance detestable” – “You defiled My Land” by not ascending to her in life; “You made My inheritance detestable” by coming to her in death. Rabbi Elazar responded that there is a purpose – a clump of soil of the Land is put on the coffin and this effects atonement, as the verse states “The Land will atone for the nation.”
Burial Within the Land Atones
Rabbi Elazar’s statement in the Yerushalmi teaches that someone who was never in Israel in life but is buried within her – though he is reprimanded for not being in the Land while alive – achieves atonement through the soil of Eretz Yisrael. The Babylonian Talmud makes a similar comment:
Rabbi Anan said: Whoever is buried in the Land of Israel is considered to be buried under the altar; since in respect of the latter it is written in Scripture, “You shall make an earthen altar to Me” and in respect of the former it is written in Scripture, “The Land will atone for the nation.” Ketubot 111a
The Gemara connects the two pesukim (verses) and learns that burial within the Land is the equivalent of burial under the altar. The clear conclusion is that as the altar effects atonement, so too does the soil of Eretz Yisrael.
This comment explains Moshe Rabbeinu’s words: had he been privileged to enter the Land after his death, his sins, including that at Mei Meriva (for which God decreed that Moshe does not enter the Land), would have been forgiven. Had this been the case, Moshe would have accepted the cup of Grace.
However, this presents a revolutionary concept. How is it possible that technical placement of soil of the Land erases a person’s sins? Is it indeed possible to achieve atonement without repentance in life or through suffering which achieves atonement?
Sins – Because of the Exile
Rabbi Avraham HaCohen Kook zt”l, Israel's first Chief Rabbi and the iconic leader of Religious Zionism, explains that the root of all sins is in the exile from the Land and the impurity of the lands of the nations. It is only because of these factors that the reality of sin exists. The atmosphere of a place is affected by the actions of its residents, and in turn, the place conveys that influence to the entire surroundings.
The inclination to sin is like airborne bacteria: upon reaching practical expression, it is likely to infect everyone in the vicinity, knowingly or unknowingly. Therefore, outside the Land, where we are subject to the influences and pressures of the exile, surrounded by nations which do not always act in a proper manner, we are likely to sin. In contrast, Eretz Yisrael herself, which has a pristine and pure atmosphere, is not inherently subject to sinning. For this reason, the Land casts out sinners , in order to protect the pure atmosphere from spiritual pollution.
Thus, explains Rabbi Kook, it is clear that the nations which surround us in exile have a significant negative impact on our spiritual level. Therefore “He will take vengeance on His adversaries; He will purify His Land and His people,” as Chazal (our Sages) taught [Yalkut Shimoni Yeshaya 506] “The Holy One, blessed be He, will take all the sins of Am Yisrael and place them on the head of the ministering angel of Esav.” Retroactively, the culpability of the nations for the sins of Am Yisrael will be revealed.
However, as long as we have not merited the complete redemption (physical and spiritual) we ourselves bear responsibility for not being redeemed through the virtue of our actions, as Chazal taught “Any generation in which the Beit HaMikdash (Temple) is not rebuilt is considered as the generation in which the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed” .
Rabbi Kook’s words allow us to understand the Talmud Yerushalmi‘s comment concerning the penitential quality of the Land. In essence, burial within the soil of Eretz Yisrael conveys the concept that the person’s sins were due to the external influences of the nations, but do not reflect his essential nature.
Someone who lived and was buried in the impure conditions of the lands of the nations is connected to that place and therefore was not redeemed in his life. However, return to the Land for burial indicates that the person was inherently free of sins – “The Land will atone for the nation.”
Thus, placing soil of the Land on the body of a Jew from abroad is not simply a technical act of moving the soil, but a substantive statement about the character of the Israelite. The soil of Eretz Yisrael affects atonement for the departed by revealing that from the outset, his sins were not exclusively his personal responsibility. Therefore, had Moshe been able to enter the Land after his death, he would have accepted the cup of Grace; entering the Land, even after death, would have revealed even more clearly his spiritual greatness.
Above we compared entering the Land after death to donning tefillin after death, questioning how actions after death can compensate for their absence during life. The Gemara [Rosh HaShana 17a] defines “The rebellious Jews who have sinned with their bodies” as referring to “The skull that did not don tefillin.” The Rif explains that this refers to a Jew who never donned tefillin, but one who donned tefillin even once in his life is not in the category of “The rebellious Jews who have sinned with their bodies.”
Our analogy to tefillinis significant: just as donning tefillin even a single time indicates the true character and essence of the Jew, so too does entry into the Land, even after death.
We began with the Gemara which relates that in the future God will pass the cup of Grace among the righteous, with each refusing to accept it because of his own spiritual flaw. Moshe Rabbeinu will refuse because he was not buried in Eretz Yisrael. Moshe’s words imply that the virtue of burial within the Land is so great that even one who never entered the Land in life is considered as having done so.
We wondered how entering the Land for burial compensates for not having come to her in life. We answered by noting the Talmud Yerushalmi and the Bavli in Ketubot which compare burial in the Land to burial under the altar, teaching that burial within the Land conveys atonement.
Noting Rabbi Kook’s comment that when Israel is in exile, it is influenced by the nations of the world, who share responsibility for Israel’s sins, we explained that placing soil of Eretz Yisrael on the body of a Jew brought to burial within her is not merely a technical act, but reveals the culpability of the nations in Israel’s sins and therefore effects atonement. Therefore, had Moshe been buried in the Land, his great spiritual level would have been clarified even more and the soil of the Land would have atoned for his sins.
Postscript: Rabbi Moshe Bassula was an Italian kabbalist, who ascended to Eretz Yisrael in the mid- sixteenth century, settling in Tzfat, where he became close to Rabbi Moshe Cordovero. In his book Sefer haMasa’ot, Rabbi Bassula described a gentile cemetery in Venice, in which the nobility of the republic were buried with soil brought from Eretz Yisrael!
"There is a place there (in Venice) to which many ships brought soil from Eretz Yisrael and in which they buried the nobility of earlier times; this is a clear sign that everyone recognized the sanctity of Eretz Yisrael."
How fortunate are we that even the gentiles recognize the loftiness and sanctity of Eretz Yisrael.