There is a tragic misconception which haunts a very large segment of the Jewish People today. Millions of Diaspora Jews think that the Land of Israel is just like any other country in the world. They may understand that it is the ancient Jewish Homeland. They may understand that it is a place where you can do more mitzvot, see signs in Hebrew all over, feel more Jewish and find kosher products more readily in the supermarkets, but other than its being filled with Jews of all types and its boasting more Jewish history, they believe that Eretz Yisrael is a land like any other. Many enjoy their visit but don’t feel its special holiness at all. And many more have simply never bothered to come.
In the first chapter of his book, “Orot,” Rabbi Kook points out that this superficial orientation to Eretz Yisrael is a tragic mistake.
Eretz Yisrael is not like any other country in the world. Rather, it is a totally different entity, on a totally different level of existence, in a totally different sphere. In simple terminology, it is like a completely different planet – the Planet of the Jews.
We speak about “going up” to Eretz Yisrael. The Land of Israel is a totally higher realm of existence. While it is physically attached to the planet Earth, it is qualitatively completely different. If there were a Geiger counter which recorded holiness, you could walk all around the globe with the device turned on and it wouldn’t emit a peep. But once you crossed the border into Israel it would begin to crackle frantically. A person who is deeply connected to Eretz Yisrael actually experiences the tremendous difference between the Land of Israel and the rest of the world. Rabbi Kook writes:
“The more a person is incapable of tolerating the air outside the Land of Israel; the more one feels the impure spirit of defiled lands - this is a sign of a more interior absorption of the Kedusha of the Land of Israel, of the sublime kindness which will never abandon the person who has merited to take refuge in the clear umbrage of the Land of Life, even in his distant journeys, even in his exile, and in the lands of his wanderings. The strangeness that one feels outside of the Land of Israel causes a greater bond with the inner spiritual desire for Eretz Yisrael and its Kedusha” (Orot. 1:6).
People who don’t enjoy a deep inner connection to Eretz Yisrael will reads these words and not understand them. They will not experience the difference between the air in Israel and the air in Chutz L’Aretz -outside of the Land. Nonetheless, the difference is real.
To use an analogy – Jews and non-Jews physically look the same. But in fact, as our Sages teach, a Jew is a totally different species from a non-Jew, in the same way that a plant is a different species than a stone. To explain this very deep matter in the most simple way, in addition to the normal vivifying soul which all humans share, the Jewish People possess a special Divine soul which non-Jews don’t have. In effect, as the classic treatise of Jewish Faith, “HaKuzari,” makes clear, Jews are a separate creation (HaKuzari, Ch. 1). So too the Land of Israel.
For this reason, Jewish Life in the Land of Israel is not the same as Jewish Life in foreign lands. The mitzvot performed in the Land of Israel are not the same mitzvot performed outside the Land. Torah study is not the same (Orot HaTorah, Rabbi Kook, Ch. 13. Sifre Ekev: “There is no Torah like the Torah of Eretz Yisrael,”). Indeed, the Jew who lives in the Land of Israel is a different breed of Jew. Over this point at least, most people will agree – an Israeli is clearly different from a Diaspora Jew. As Rabbi Kook points out, in his being a part of the coagulated Nation in Israel, attached to the life of the Clal, a Jew becomes much more complete and everything he does is magnified by his attachment to the entire living Nation in Israel (Orot, 1:7).
Arguably one of the Top Ten books on Judaism ever written, “The Kuzari,” by Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, is universally accepted as a classic of Torah scholarship. Written in the form of a conversation between a Rabbi and a gentile king who is looking to find the true religion, “The Kuzari” lucidly explains the foundations upon which Judaism is based. After the Rabbi explains the role of the Jewish People in the world as Hashem’s Chosen Nation who are commanded to live a holy national life of Torah in the Land especially chosen and favored by G-d, the King of Kuzar asks: “I understand what you mean about His People, but less so about His Land.”
After the Rabbi’s long explanation about the unique spiritual character of the Land of Israel and the transcendental value of living there, the king of Kuzar chastises him, saying:
“If this be so, thou fallest short of the duty laid down in thy Law, by not endeavoring to reach that place, and making it thy abode in life and death. Is it not the gate of Heaven? All peoples agree on this point. Christians believe that the souls are gathered there and then lifted up to heaven. Islam teaches that it is the place of the ascent. All the Jews turn to it in prayer. Thus thy bowing down and kneeling in its direction is either mere appearance or thoughtless worship.”
The Rabbi answers in shame and disgrace:
“This is a severe reproach, O king of the Kuzars. It is the sin which kept the Divine promise with regard to the Second Temple from being fulfilled. Divine Providence was ready to restore everything as it had been at first, if they all had willingly consented to return. But only a part was ready to do so, whilst the majority and the aristocracy amongst them remained in Babylon, preferring dependence and slavery, unwilling to leave their mansions and their affairs. Had we been prepared to meet the G-d of our forefathers with an honest mind, we would have found the same salvation as our fathers did in Egypt. If we say in our prayers, ‘Worship at His holy hill; worship at His footstool; He who restoreth His glory to Zion,’ and other words of this nature, this is but as the chattering of the starling and the nightingale. We do not internalize what we say by this sentence, nor others, as thou has rightly observed” (HaKuzari, 2:22-25).
For readers who may not be familiar with the book, here is the ending:
“The Rabbi was then concerned to leave the land of the Kuzars and to betake himself to Jerusalem. The king was loath to let him go, and spoke to him in this sense as follows: ‘What can be sought in the Land of Israel nowadays, since the Shechinah is absent from it, whilst with a pure mind and desire, one can approach G-d in any place. Why wilt thou run into danger on land and on sea, and among the various peoples living there?’”
The Rabbi answers: “The Land of Israel is especially distinguished by the L-rd of Israel, and no religious function can be perfect except there. Many of the Jewish laws do not concern those who do not live there; and heart and soul are only perfectly pure and immaculate in the place which is specially selected by G-d. The danger one runs on land and sea does not come under the category of, ‘You shall not tempt the L-rd,’ which refers to risks which one takes when traveling with merchandise in hope of gain. However, he who incurs even greater danger on account of his ardent desire to reach a state of cleanliness in his service of G-d is free from reproach….”
The Rabbi concludes: “This means that Jerusalem can only be rebuilt when the Jewish People yearn for it to such an extent that they embrace her stones and dust.”
The dust of the Planet of the Jews.
Tzvi Fishman was awarded the Israel Ministry of Education Prize for Jewish Culture and Creativity. Before making Aliyah to Israel in 1984, he was a successful Hollywood screenwriter. He has co-authored 4 books with Rabbi David Samson, based on the teachings of Rabbis A. Y. Kook and T. Y. Kook. His other books include: "The Kuzari For Young Readers" and "Tuvia in the Promised Land". His books are available on Amazon. Recently, he directed the movie, "Stories of Rebbe Nachman."