Rabbi Moshe Kaplan
Rabbi Moshe Kaplan Courtesy

There was a great revelation many years ago on Shavuot night - not the one at Sinai before all of Am Yisrael, but before a few Torah Giants who were studying in the home of Rav Yosef Karo on this special night in Turkey. Rav Shlomo Alkabetz (author of Lecha Dodi) wrote an account of this occurrence which is cited in the classic work, “Shl"a HaKadosh” (Massechet Shavuot, Amud HaTorah. Excerpts appear this week in Tzvi Fishman’s INN article “Prophecy and Divine Inspiration Today"). There we are told that a heavenly voice was heard through the mouth of Rav Karo telling the Rabbis that their study of Torah was very important and they "should continue studying - and make aliyah to Eretz Yisrael!"

These great Torah Scholars were learning diligently all night – but something was missing! How does being in Eretz Yisrael bring them to a higher level, a level they could not attain while in Galut?

A deep connection exists between the Torah and Eretz Yisrael. This connection must be clear before we can achieve a true understanding of the Torah and the mitzvot. Rashi points this out in his opening commentary to the Torah: "Rabbi Yitzchak said: The Torah should have begun with 'This month shall be to you the first of the months,' (Shmot 12:2)" which is the first mitzvah given to Israel. Since Torah is the guide to life for the Jewish People, Rabbi Yitzchak asks why the Torah begins with the book of Breishit and not with the first commandment given to the Nation. He explains: "Because 'He declared to His people the strength of His works in order that He might give them the heritage of the nations.' For should the peoples of the world say to Israel: 'You are robbers, for you conquered the lands of the seven nations of Canaan,' Israel may answer them: 'All the earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He. He created it and gave it to whom He pleased. When He willed, He gave it to them, and when He willed, He took it from them and gave it to us.'"

Immediately, at the very beginning of the Torah, Rashi wants us to know that a special Divine Connection exists between Am Yisrael and the Land of Israel. Before we can approach the mitzvot in the proper light, we must clarify the unique bond between the Chosen Land and the Chosen People. We learn from this that Eretz Yisrael is the basis and precondition to the Nation, to the Torah and to the mitzvot. This is why the Torah commences with the book of Breishit and the history of the Land of Israel and with Hashem’s promise to give the Land for all eternity to our Forefathers.

Similarly, prior to the reading of the Torah on Shabbat, when we open the ark, we pray, “Father of Mercy, do good in Your favor to Zion and build the walls of Yerushalayim.” What does the building of Yerushalayim have to do with the Torah we are about to read? Here again we see that the Land of Israel is the foundation for the receiving of Torah.

The Torah itself stresses that Sinai was not to be the ultimate goal, for Hashem told us at Sinai: “You have dwelt long enough at this mountain. Turn and take your journey, come to the mountain of the Emori... to the land of the Cana’ani... go in and possess the Land...” (Devarim 1:6-8). The Torah was given at Sinai but only in order to be kept in Eretz Yisrael (Alshich HaKadosh and Kli Yakar). Accordingly, when the Spies, the leaders of the Tribes, wanted to observe the Torah in the wilderness and not venture onward to Eretz Yisrael, Hashem calls them rebels and destroys their generation (Ibid, Ch.1).

We continue the prayer before the Torah reading, declaring the central role of Eretz Israel to the life and mission of the Nation. “From Zion shall go forth Torah and the Word of G-d from Yerushalayim.” We learn from this that the Land of Israel is the vehicle which receives Torah and spreads it to the world. In the language of the Zohar, the Land of Israel is “the heart of all the lands” (Zohar III:161, 221a; Yoma 54b). The greatest sanctification of Hashem's Name comes when the Torah goes forth from the Land of Hashem. Conversely, the greatest desecration of Hashem's Name comes when the Jewish People reside in the lands of the Gentiles, as the Prophet Ezekiel proclaims: “And when they came amidst the nations into which they came, they desecrated My holy Name, in that heathens said of them, ‘These are the people of the Lord and they have gone out of His Land’ (Ezekiel 36:20).

The Chatam Sofer points out that the word “Morasha” (inheritance) is written only twice in the Torah. Once in reference to the Land and once in reference to the Torah. "I will bring you into the Land which I swore to give to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaacov, and I will give it you for a Morasha” (Shmot 6:8). Also, "Moshe commanded us a Torah, the Morasha of the congregation of Yaacov" (Devarim 33:4). What is the essence of this connection between the Torah and the Land?

Our Sages succinctly stated: "There is no Torah like the Torah of Eretz Yisrael, and no wisdom like the wisdom of Eretz Yisrael" (Breishit Raba 16).

For many people this is a surprising statement. The Torah was learned for thousands of years in Chutz l’Aretz (outside the Land). What is missing in the Torah of the Diaspora which caused our sages to so emphatically proclaim the superiority of the Torah of Eretz Yisrael? After all the same Torah is studied the world over. Nonetheless there exists a great qualitative difference.

One might assume that the difference lies in the additional commandments which can be performed only in Eretz Yisrael. If this advantage was quantitative alone, one might contend that today the advantage of Eretz Yisrael no longer exists, since many of the extra commandments that can only be performed in the Land of Israel are not observed at all today since we have neither Temple nor sacrifices. This understanding, however, is quite unfounded, for in regard to the mitzvot unique to Eretz Yisrael our Rabbis do not say “the Land which depends on the mitzvot,” rather “the mitzvot which depend on the Land.” The holiness of the Land does not stem from the greater number of mitzvot which can be kept only in Eretz Yisrael. To the contrary, these special mitzvot stem from the inherent holiness of the Land which therefore requires special mitzvot (Rav Shlomo Alkabetz, Brit HaLevi Hagada; Kaftor V'Ferach, Ch.10; Rav Kook, Shabbat HaAretz, Preface Ch. 15).

The advantage of Eretz Yisrael is not simply in the fact that more mitzvot can be fulfilled here. It also does not lie in the fact that it is easier to keep the mitzvot in Eretz Yisrael, or in the additional support and comfort of being among Jewish brethren, or other subjective and psychological reasons, true as they may be. The true value of Eretz Yisrael is not in its being a means for some other ideal: as a means to keep the nation together or to defend itself; or even as a means to further spiritual goals. Rather its true value is its “holiness in and of itself” (See Rabbi Kook, Orot, Eretz Yisrael 1).

The difference is a qualitative one, stemming from the intrinsic holiness of the Land (Chatam Sofer Responsa Y.D. 234) and the unique connection of Hashem to the Land. This is the “Land which the Lord your God cares for: the eyes of the Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year” (Devarim 11:12). The Divine attributes of the Land itself provide an altogether distinct Torah vision unattainable outside of Eretz Yisrael. To understand this deeper level of perception let us see some words of our Sages.

In the Tractate Bava Batra there is a discussion regarding the rights of inheritance. Rabbi Zeira differs with Rabbi Eila. The Gemara states that when Rabbi Zeira went up to Eretz Yisrael he changed his opinion and agreed with Rabbi Eila. The Gemara concludes: "We learn from this, that the air of Eretz Yisrael makes wise" (Bava Batra 158b). The Rashbam explains: "Rabbi Zeira retracted his original view since he came up to Eretz Yisrael and stood on the truth of the matters."

What special element exists in the air of Eretz Yisrael which produces wisdom? Our world is made up of diverse elements with a myriad of people and events. It is difficult to find the connecting unity behind the seemingly random events of history. The diversity conceals the underlying goal towards which all of history is directed. The Torah comes to guide us to find the Divine Content concealed in all aspects of reality, that is, to see the Shechina in our world. This vision enables us to recognize the Divine ideal function of everything and to use it for its proper purpose, the goal for which God created it. By doing so, all of creation works together in perfect harmony and is aligned with the Divine Ideal, bringing all to their perfected state. Rabbi Yossi gives advice to his son on how to attain this penetrating and unifying vision. "Rabbi Yossi bar Chalafta said to Rabbi Yishmael his son: 'If you wish to see the Shechina in this world, learn Torah in Eretz Yisrael'" (Midrash T’hillim 105).

It requires special eyes to find the hidden Divine spark and purpose of everything in this world, a world in which the spiritual light is concealed and the Oneness of God is hidden. The Divinely created means which enables this special vision, this spiritual talent, is Eretz Yisrael with its unique characteristics. The Land which is the "gate to Heaven," enables seeing the white light before it is diffracted through the prism – seeing the Divine Content, the Shechina, the One that transcends and precedes the external diversity.

To help understand the superiority of Torah understanding in Eretz Yisrael let us picture two people possessing the same degree of eyesight. The one standing on the top of a great mountain sees farther than the one at the foot of the mountain. Both individuals may be equally learned - it is the place which makes the difference (“HaMakom Gorem”). Eretz Yisrael is like this great mountain peak. It possesses a superior vantage point which enables the “seeing” of the Divine Oneness, the Divine Hand and content in all. The air is clearer in Eretz Yisrael with no barriers between it and the Divine. For this reason it is the Land of Prophecy (Kuzari I:95, II:12, 14).

Eretz Yisrael is the necessary condition for this higher vision. Just being in Eretz Yisrael, however, does not guarantee this perspective. If ones refuses to open his eyes and utilize his advantage he will not see the bigger picture, even when standing on the top of the mountain. Nevertheless, in Eretz Yisrael this vision is available, whereas in foreign lands the vision of Torah is clouded by spiritual darkness and pollution. (Orot, Eretz Yisrael, 4).

[To be continued…]