Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedPR photo

The Torah was given to Israel for them to study it and observe its mitzvot in Eretz Yisrael, and as a result, the entire world receives blessings. This is because in Eretz Yisrael the Kingdom of God, His Torah, and His blessings are revealed, to the point where our Sages said that one who lives in Eretz Yisrael is considered as one who has a God, while one who lives outside of the Land is considered as someone who worships idolatry (Ketubot 110b).

Accordingly, our Sages said that the mitzvah of Yishuv Ha’Aretz (settling the Land of Israel) is equivalent to all the mitzvot (Sifri, parshat Re’eh 80).

Not only this, but the main obligation of the mitzvot is in Eretz Yisrael, as written: “These are the laws and rules that you must carefully observe in the land that God of your ancestors, is giving you to possess, as long as you live on earth” (Deuteronomy 12:1). Indeed, in exile we were commanded to observe mitzvot of the Torah so that we would not forget them when we return to Eretz Yisrael, as our Sages said (in Sifri) in parashat ‘Ve’hi’yah im she’mo’ah’ (‘And it will be, if you hearken to My commandments’), as quoted in Rashi (Deuteronomy 11:18):

“Even after you have been exiled, make yourselves distinctive with My commandments: Put on tefillin and make mezuzot, so that these will not be new to you when you return. Similarly, it is said “Set up markers for yourself (Jeremiah 31:20).

The Profound Difference

In Eretz Yisrael we observe the mitzvot because of their intrinsic value, while in chutz la’aretz (abroad) – we observe them so that we remember them fior when we return to Israel. Indeed, the value of remembrance is also extremely important, and it must include deep content that creates identification, but still, it is a matter of remembering, and not something with intrinsic value.

Consequently, any depiction of life in chutz la’aretz is of a bediavad (after the fact) situation, one of survival in a difficult reality. On the other hand, life in Eretz Yisrael is le’chatchilla (ideal). Observing the mitzvot in chutz la’aretz is in spite of the surrounding reality, whereas observing the mitzvot in Eretz Yisrael is on account of the surrounding reality. In chutz la’aretz miracles are essential, because there, nature does not suit us, whereas in Eretz Yisrael, nature itself is central, because through it, the Creator of the heavens and the earth is revealed.

“It is a land which your God looks after, on which your God always keeps an eye, from year’s beginning to year’s end”(Deuteronomy 11:12).

The Difference between Stories of Chutz la’aretz, and Stories of Eretz Yisrael

Recently, I was looking for stories about the love of Torah to tell to children and teenagers for the holiday of Shavuot. To that end, I listened to a few recordings, and read some books. For example, I will relate two stories.

The Story of the Merchant Who Set Times for Torah Study

In the city of Aleppo, there resided Torah sages and scribes who had a tremendous influence on all the residents of the city. They were all believing Jews, who fulfilled the verse in the Book of Psalms: “He who walks blamelessly, does righteousness, and speaks truth in his heart.”

One of these persons was Reb Aharon, an innocent, righteous man, who never went a day without engaging in Torah. He would arise in the morning before sunrise, and after prayer, would remain in the synagogue to study ‘Chok le’Yisrael’ with Rashi. After that, he would study a page of Gemara, and a section in the Shulchan Aruch. Around ten o’clock, he would go home, have a little something to eat, meticulously recite Birkat Ha’Mazon word for word, and only then, turn on his way, and open his shop.

He was an expert in precious stones and marbles – he knew exactly the worth of each stone, and who was interested in buying it – but he himself was middle class. His wife would always badger him, arguing: ‘Who leaves his house at ten o’clock to open his shop?! Who will come to you at a time like that?! Why don’t you go out earlier, and make a profit like the hardworking merchants?!’ And every time, he would answer her: ‘God, blessed be He, provides for every living thing, and everything is in His hands.’

One day, as was his sacred custom, he arose early in the morning and after finishing his prayers and studies, arrived at his shop at his usual time, and behold, sitting outside his shop was an Arab from the Land of Israel with a large turban on his head. When Reb Aharon asked who he was, he answered: ‘I am from Hebron. I’ve been waiting for you for an hour. I was told you are a faithful man – that is why I have put my trust in you, and not in anyone else. Let’s go inside. Lock the door, and we’ll talk.’

Apprehensively, Reb Aharon opened the store, and they entered. The Arab took the big turban off his head, and placed it on the table. It consisted of ten cloth windings, one on top of the other. As he unraveled it, the Arab began to count. Between the ninth and tenth layer, a very expensive diamond was revealed – its light filled the entire store. ‘Please tell me, how much it is worth’, the Arab asked.

Reb Aharon answered: ‘Sir! This diamond is extremely expensive, worth more than a million! It would be very difficult to find a buyer who can pay you its price. I suggest you tell me where you are staying, and in course of the day, I will investigate and ask around, and if I find a rich person who wants to buy it, I will set up a meeting, and you will pay me one percent for the commission.’

The Arab replied: ‘OK, it’s on my head!’ He returned the diamond to between the ninth and tenth layers of the turban, refolded it, and put it all back on his head. He told Reb Aharon, ‘I’m staying at the ‘Fouad Hotel’. That’s where you can find me.’

Reb Aharon was very busy that day with a number of customers, and in the interim, forgot to look for a buyer for the diamond.

The next day, he got up as usual, prayed at sunshine, studied ‘Chok le’Yisrael’, Gemara and Shulchan Aruch, ate, said Birkat Ha’Mazon, and went off to his store. The ‘Fuad Hotel’ where the Arab was staying was on his route to his shop. As he was passing, he noticed a large gathering of people near the hotel. He approached them, and asked what was going on? They told him that an Arab who had come from Palestine, and had eaten and drunk there for a month, had a heart attack the previous night, and passed away. The hotel owner called the police, and complained that he had not been paid. The officer who investigated asked how much his bill was, and in order to retrieve the money, decided to sell his belongings and clothes at an auction.

The officer took the Arab’s garment, his kaftan, placed it on a high pole, and started shouting, ‘Who wants to buy this garment’? One man stood up, and shouted: ‘Five Bishlik!’ – a small amount of a few pennies. A second man stood up, and said: ‘Ten Bishlik!’ A third yelled out: ‘Fifteen Bishlik!’ They reached the sum of twenty Bishlik, and no one offered anything higher. The officer announced: ‘First time, second time, third time, sold!’ The “winner” paid the money, and received the garment. And in this manner, they sold one garment after another.

They finished selling his clothes, took his shoes, put them on the pole, and sold them as well. Finally, they got to his dirty, disgusting turban, hung it on the stick, and began the selling. Reb Aharon got up, and said: ‘Ten Bishlik!’ Another man stood up and said: ‘Fifteen Bishlik!’ The auction continued until they reached the sum of thirty Bishlik. No one added to Reb Aharon’s proposal, and he won. The officer was dying for a laugh, called for Reb Aharon to come and take this strange turban, and placed it on his head. Everyone laughed and clapped, but as they say “he who laughs last, laughs best”… Reb Aharon paid the money, and left.

He opened his shop, and like the Kohen Gadol entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, ‘he entered the place he entered, and stood at the place he stood’, and as his heart pounded, counted the layers of the turban one by one… and when he reached between the ninth and tenth layer, the diamond appeared, and illuminated the entire shop with a precious light. He sold it, and received not only a single percent, but all the money, and became incredibly rich.

This is the power of the Torah! ‘Whoever fulfills the Torah in a state of poverty, will be enabled to fulfill it in a state of wealth!” One must have faith.

The Children’s Reaction

Should this story be told in honor of Chag Shavuot? To test the reaction of listeners, I told it in my regular Shabbat study with my grandchildren. Although the story fascinated them, they did not like it. They argued that it was impossible that in such a way all merchants who set times for Torah study would get rich. One of my granddaughters even claimed, ‘It’s not fair! Why would he get rich at the Arab’s expense, and not look for his children to give them their inheritance?’ (I explained that it would have been very difficult to find his heirs, and it also entailed a certain danger, since it was possible he was a robber, and therefore, came to sell the diamond far from his home, etc.).

The Cause of Traders’ Losses

I also told my grandchildren what I heard in one of the recorded sermons I listened to, about one of the eminent rabbis from Poland, who wondered why in the past, merchants were considered rich, and did not complain about their livelihood, while today, everyone complains that their livelihood is tight.

He explained that in the past, when their store was empty of customers, merchants used to study Torah, or saying Tehillim (Psalms), and the ‘bal-dover’ (Satan) would see this and get angry, and send them buyers to stop them from studying or saying Tehillim, and that’s how they got rich. But today, while the store is empty, the merchants read newspapers and novels, and the ‘bal-dover’ is satisfied, and does not wish to interrupt them with buyers.

My grandchildren didn’t like this story either, because it implies that the best thing is not to earn a living diligently, but rather, to engage in Torah and recite Tehillim, and only because the ‘bal-dover’ is not satisfied with this, he sends them buyers, and they are “forced” to get rich… In other words, one who earns an honest living is an inferior person that the ‘bal-dover’ managed to catch in his net. And worst of all is that life is managed by the ‘bal-dover’ and not by Divine providence, according to which, if we listen to the voice of God and keep His commandments, the Land will yield its crops, and we will become rich.

Stories of Eretz Yisrael are Missing

Apparently, after many years of exile, we became used to stories from chutz la’aretz, in which reality is bediavad (after the fact), and life exists due to miracles. The Gedolim, the eminent rabbis, wanted to encourage their listeners, who, in any event, were craftsmen who worked hard for their livelihood, and in order to encourage them to set times for Torah study, they spoke about miracles that happened to those who engaged in Torah; they were unable, though, to speak about the complete blessing of the Torah.

However, our role in Eretz Yisrael is to engage in yishuvo shel olam (development of the world) according to the Torah and its mitzvot, and thereby add a blessing to the world. All the stories about miracles and wonders are liable to cause a person to be negligent in accepting responsibility for his own life. We must find stories that teach how through the study of Torah and observance of mitzvot, work was blessed, and society as a whole was enhanced, and enriched.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.