For over forty years I have been teaching the deeper significance of the amazing Redemption process of our times and the writings of Rabbi Kook in the English- Division of the Machon Meir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. The students come from all over the world.
One of the most difficult concepts for them to fathom is the uniqueness and centrality of Eretz Yisrael. So adamant were the Sages in their praise of Eretz Yisrael they went so far as to denounce the Galut (the Exile) as “bitul Torah” – meaning a nullification of the Torah. On the verse in Yirmiyahu (13:17), the Talmud states:
“And my eye shall shed tears and tears, and run down with tears, because the flock of G-d was taken into captivity.” Rabbi Elazar said: Why are there three expressions of tears? One for the destruction of the First Temple; one for the Second Temple; and one for the People of Israel who have been exiled from their place. And others say: One for bitul Torah (the loss of Torah). It makes sense according to the opinion that one is for Israel who have been exiled, that is why it says: “Because the flock of G-d was taken into captivity.” But according to the opinion that it was for bitul Torah, how do you explain the verse: “The flock of G-d was taken into captivity”? Since Israel was exiled from its place you have no greater bitul Torah than this. (Talmud Bavli, Chagigah 5b).
We see from this that the very existence of the Jews in the Diaspora is considered a negation of Torah. How can this be? The Jews continued learning Torah all over the world, especially in the great Torah centers of Bavel, so how could the Sages of the Gemara say that the Torah learning in chutz l’Aretz (outside of the Land), including their own, was a nullification of Torah? On the verse, “He has made me dwell in dark places as those who are long ago dead” (Lamentations, 3:6), Rabbi Yirmiya said: "This is the Talmud of Bavel" (Sanhedrin 24a). How are we to understand this?
As we explained in a previous essay, the Torah is addressed to the healthy, complete Nation of Israel (Maharal, Tifferet Yisrael Chs. 17, 21), in order to guide it to its destiny of being “A Kingdom of Priests and A Holy Nation.” When the Jews are in Exile there can be no full expression of Torah life.
Exile means much more than being in a foreign country with the inability to fulfill the mitzvot of the Land. When we are scattered amongst the Gentile nations, the whole structure of national Israelite life is destroyed and non-existent by definition. There is thus no "address" to receive and express the Torah and this constitutes a bitul Torah. This is not referring to the book learning which can be done also outside of Israel. Exile means we are no longer a living “Holy Nation” with all the frameworks of a nation including our own government, army, agriculture, industry, educational system, national Jewish calendar, and all the other collective functions of a self-sufficient, enterprising people.
These functions are in the hands of the Gentiles and their governments. We saw that the absence of the Divine Ideal in these realms constitutes a great Chillul Hashem – a Desecration of G-d’s Name (Yehezkiel 36). This is considered bitul Torah because the Torah is G-d’s Name (see Ramban, Intro. to Commentary on the Torah), meaning His revelation in the world, and in the Diaspora this revelation is unable to be fully expressed in all of its national wholeness.
We can understand this idea on a deeper level. What is the content, the essence of that Torah guidance revealed in the national life of Am Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael?
The Torah is not only a book. Torah is the absolute Will of G-d, the ultimate, infinite ideal of Good He planned for all Creation even before there was Creation. It is therefore an ideal totally free from the limitations of this world. Our Sages teach us that Torah preceded the world and that Torah is the supreme goal to which all of existence will rise. The soul of Am Yisrael also preceded the world. The Sages inform us that the two, Torah and Am Yisrael, are one and the same in their spiritual essence and root (Nefesh HaChayim 4). Thus, outside of the Land of Israel, not only is the Nation of Israel in exile, Torah is in exile as well.
Am Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael is the living testimony of G-d’s Presence in this world and the Divinely created conduit through which His Good, light and blessing come to the world. Only when the unified Nation of Israel lives its vital national life in its own Land can the Torah, the total Divine Illumination, the soul of the nation, be revealed.
The Zohar (I:216b) teaches, “The Shechinah does not rest in a broken place”. Just as in the individual, the soul is fully revealed only in a healthy body, so too the national soul (called by the Rabbis: the Shechina), which infuses all the different elements of national life with meaning and infinite value, can only come to full expression when the Israelite Nation is healthy in its Land.
Furthermore, our national soul is not only the soul of the Nation -it is the absolute Divine Ideal of all existence. Therefore, the infusion of these Divine ideals and blessing into the world depend on Israel being in its Land. As we saw in a previous article, this is summarized in the Mincha prayer of Shabbat and expounded upon in the Zohar – G-d is One, and His Name is One, revealed through the nation that is one in the Land. When in the land He is One! When Am Yisrael is scattered and out of its place, then this soul of the universe, or the Name of G-d, which is the Torah, is unable to come to full expression in this world (see Sfat Emmet, B'shalach 5644).
Thus "since Israel was exiled from its place you have no greater bitul Torah (the cancellation of the Divine Ideal) than this." For the same reason the Prophet Yehezkiel calls the exile a Chillul Hashem - His Name, the Divine Ideal for the world is made void, empty (from the Hebrew word “challal”) in its being withheld from full expression when the Jewish People are outside of Eretz Yisrael. This is a tragedy for all of mankind.
In addition to the objective inability to express the Divine Ideal when we are scattered in foreign lands, there are also ramifications on the level of the individual Torah scholar, the method of Torah study and the content of that study. With the help of Hashem, we shall expand on this in our next essay.