Eretz Yisrael – The Focal Point of Torah

Anyone  observing the plain sense of this week's Torah portion (this past Shabbat in Israel and the coming Shabbat in the Diaspora) cannot fail to notice the central place of the Land of Israel.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, | updated: 12:20

מצווה. הרב מלמד
מצווה. הרב מלמד
פלאש 90

The Exaltedness of the Land of Israel

“The foundation of Israel’s exile and low stature that continue on this earth are due only to our failure to publicize Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel), it’s worth and wisdom. Moreover, we do not rectify the sin of the spies, who slandered the Land, with a response of equal measure: to make known to the whole world the glory and majesty of the Land, its holiness and splendor. Following all of our trespasses in the other direction, we should only merit to express even one ten-thousandth of the Land’s delight, the luminance of its Torah, the glory of its wisdom, and the holy spirit that reigns in its midst (Rabbi Kook, Iggeret 96).”

The Example from Rabbi Teichtal HY”D

The entire Torah is filled with praise and appreciation of Eretz Yisrael, but without being taught to take notice, and when the majority of the gedolei lamdanim – well-informed, sharp-minded Torah scholars – came to define holiness, they failed  to take this into account.

An illustrative example of this comes from the preface of Rabbi Yissachar Shlomo Teichtal HY”D, who was one of the most brilliant Torah scholars of the generation, learned and sharp-minded, author of the halakhic responsa “Mishneh Sachir”. Nevertheless, he felt there was no mitzvah to immigrate to Israel and also minimized the value of non-observant Jews, and consequently, strongly opposed cooperation with the Zionist movement which was led by non-religious Jews.

During the events of the Holocaust, Rabbi Teichtal re-examined the issues of the nation and the Land, found that he had erred, and wrote an entire book about it - "Eim HaBanim Semeichah.” The book itself testifies to the author, who was a gaon (genius), a superlative expert, and extremely sharp-minded. He wrote most of the book from memory while fleeing and hiding from the fear of the Hungarian regime that collaborated with the Nazis. All the thousands of sources he cited in his book from the Written and Oral Torah, the revealed and hidden sides of Torah, the Rishonim and Achronim he knew well and memorized, but before recognizing the value of the Land of Israel, did not merit learning them properly. Apparently, like many lamdanim, he learned the external aspects of the Torah in depth but ignored its inner meanings.

He wrote in the introduction to his book: "I must confess the truth and declare my sin. I, too, despised the rebuilding of the Land, because I heard unqualified statements made by many Haredim, which became firmly implanted in my heart. I did not concern myself with this matter at all, because I was preoccupied with learning, teaching, and writing volumes on the Talmud and its commentaries, as well as responses to questions regarding the word of Hashem. I only delved into this halakha after we suffered afflictions in this bitter exile. Hashem enlightened me, and I saw that I and all those who opposed this movement were mistaken. I admit and say…that which I previously told you was mistaken. When rabbis admit their mistake, they are praiseworthy. Thank God, I have no qualms about publicly expressing the truth that is in my heart."(Pri Ha'aretz edition (Heb.), p. 21; Kol Mevaser edition (Eng.), p. 28).

He also cites quotations from the Geonei Ha’Dor (the eminent Torah scholars of the generation) who encouraged Aliyah to Eretz Yisrael, and even to collaborate with the secular Jews for the purpose of the mitzvah. Before that, however, he had ignored them, because this was the accepted practice in his circles.

Abundant References in the Torah

Every year we read all of the Torah portions, and a person unaccustomed to pay attention to the significance of the Land of Israel will be astonished at the abundance of the numerous and important references it has in the Torah.

Occasionally, I encounter learned Haredi or Modern Orthodox people who claim that we exaggerate in the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz (the settling of the Land). Instead of arguing, I prefer to ask them to pay attention during the coming year to the place the Land of Israel has in each week's Torah portion. If they are honest, they are amazed at how ignorant they were and admit that despite the fact they had read the Torah numerous times, they never paid attention to the central place of Eretz Yisrael.

After understanding the significance of the Land in the Torah, one can understand why our Sages said: "Whoever lives in the Land of Israel may be considered to have a God, but whoever lives outside the Land may be regarded as one who has no God” (Ketubot 110b), and, "Settling the Land of Israel is equal to all the commandments in the Torah" (Tosefta 77: 4, 3, Sifrei, Re’eh 53).

From the point of view of halakha, as well, this is the only mitzvah in which fulfilling it, lives are endangered, for we were commanded to conquer the Land, and the Torah does not command to rely on miracles (Minchat Chinuch 425,604; Mishpat Kohen 143).

Revealing Faith in All Spheres of Life

And still, the detractors argue: How can the Torah, which is completely holy and spiritual, give central status to a physical land? However, the foundation of Jewish faith is that God gives life to everything, and therefore the guidance and blessing of Torah must be revealed in all aspects of life, spiritual and material, in all fields of science, in all types of emotions and talents, in the life of the individual, family, community, and nation. All of this can only be revealed in the Holy Land, where heaven and earth connect; where on its’ mountains and countryside the Prophets prophesied about Tikkun Olam (perfection of the world) in the Kingdom of God, and on whose land grow holy fruits that require terumot  (heave offerings) and maaserot (tithes) to be taken, and in whose center the Holy Temple was built, where all the sacred values are revealed in a concise and concentrated form.

Eretz Yisrael is not pitted in the struggle against the rest of the nations – on the contrary – the role of the Nation of Israel is to reveal kedusha (holiness) in Eretz Yisrael, and, as a result, light and blessing will spread out to all peoples, and countries. However, the stipulation for all this is yishuv ha’aretz, living in Israel, and consequently, wherever the Torah refers to the Geulah (Redemption), the foundation is the return of the People of Israel to its Land, the building of the ruined cities, and the flowering of the deserts.

On the other hand, when Jews attempt to reveal emunah (faith) while ignoring the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz, they thereby transgress the sin of avodah zara (idolatry). They deny the Divine light revealed in all the sciences and all the literary and artistic talents, deny the image of God in man and in the value of His work and His preoccupation with yishuvo shel ha’olam (the welfare of society).

They deny that the One God created and sustains the entire world, and deny the Torah, which guides us to see the Divine light in everyday life and deny the value of the mitzvot which instruct us how to reveal God's blessing in all areas of life. For that reason, they are considered idolaters, for they prevent emunah from illuminating the world, and adding blessing to it. In other words, idolatry is the separation of emunah from all its breadth, and as a result, even a spiritual conception becomes idolatry when it disconnects the believer from the Divine unity revealed in all the universe.

The Sin of the Spies

Accordingly, one can understand the terrible severity of the Sin of the Spies, more severe than the sin of the Golden Calf, as punishment for which, death was decreed on all members of the Dor HaMidbar (Generation of the Desert). And even Moshe, the faithful shepherd, was caught in their sin, and the two Temples were also destroyed because of it.

As long as we fail to correct the Sin of the Spies, the punishment still hangs over our heads. Therefore on the Shabbat in which we read the Torah portion of ‘Shlach Lecha’, we must be especially motivated to speak in praise of the Land of Israel.

Are there Gedolim who Oppose Yishuv Ha’aretz?

Q: How can it be that there are Gedolei Torah (eminent Torah scholars) who oppose yishuv ha’aretz and the value of Israeli nationalism?

A: It is impossible for a gadol in Torah to deny this because the entire Written Torah and the words of our Sages are full of clarifications of the value of the Nation of Israel and the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz. And if there are people who are well versed and sharp-minded in details of Torah who are not aware of the important status of the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz, or the value of Israeli nationalism, it is proof they did not understand the Torah correctly. At best, one can say they are gedolim at understanding some of the Torah's details, and in this respect, they are gedolei Torah, but they are not gedolei Torah in the full sense, let alone Gedolei Ha’Dor.

What distinguishes a gadol in Torah from someone who is not, is that the gadol understands the fundamentals of the Torah, the roots from which the branches emerge, and thus, all the details are properly understood. However, someone who is not gadol, does not understand the fundamentals, and consequently, understands large parts of the Torah superficially, but does not understand their meaning.

It should be noted that even among the extreme Haredim, few reject the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz, and the value of nationalism. However, there are those who belittle the value of these mitzvot, in the sense of the Sin of the Spies, and thus in their reasoning oppose yishuv ha’aretz. Consequently, it is inappropriate to consider them Gedolei Torah.

The Full Significance of the Mitzvah

Without the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz, all the values ​​and mitzvot in the Torah become detached and severed, and their entire fulfillment is in the sense of remembrance so they won’t be new to us when we return to Eretz Yisrael (Sifrei, Ekev 37).

People can speak beautiful words about the values ​​of Torah and morality as long as they have no responsibility for the existence of the state. But what do we do when there are enemies? How do we settle the land while adhering to moral principles? How do we resolve the apparent conflict between heaven and earth, between the mitzvah to study Torah and the mitzvah to develop agriculture, manufacturing, sciences, economics, etc., and instead of confrontation, reveal the kedusha in all walks of life, and create interaction between all them? How do we solve the tension between the value of commitment to mitzvot and the value of the freedom God granted to each person?

The mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz, which includes establishing governmental and legal systems, obligates us to discuss all this beyond the accepted practice in the Diaspora-oriented yeshiva learning halls. The mitzvot between man and his fellow man are also learned to their fullest extent when required to be carried out among an entire nation.

Thus, we find that by observing the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz, it requires us to reconcile all of the Torah and mitzvot with reality, for more than all other countries, Divine governance is revealed in Eretz Yisrael compelling the nation of Israel, at every turn, to contend with the fulfillment of Torah and mitzvot. This is the plain meaning of the verse: "It is therefore a land constantly under God your Lord's scrutiny; the eyes of God your Lord are on it at all times” (Deuteronomy 11:12).

Not only that, but by complete fulfillment of the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz, the word of God will also be revealed to all peoples, and ‘from Zion will go forth Torah, and the word of God from Jerusalem’, to perfect the world in the Kingdom of God, as expressed in the words of the Torah and Prophets. In light of this, we can understand why Talmidei Chachamim (Torah scholars) who fail to understand the value of Eretz Yisrael cannot be considered gedolei Torah.

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




top