The following is an excerpt from Rabbi Doron Perez’s recently published book entitled “Leading the Way”, collected writings on some of life’s most important matters.
The mitzvah to strive to live in the Land of Israel
A spiritual blind spot
One of the most powerful statements as to the absolute centrality of Israel in Biblical thought is the very first dialogue between G-d and Abraham. I find it quite remarkable that the very first time that G-d spoke to Abraham, the first Jew, He told him the famous words of Lech Lecha – to uproot himself from his country, his birthplace and his father’s house and go to live in the land that G-d will show him, referring to the land of Canaan. What has always deeply perplexed me is why G-d chose as His first Divine message to Abraham the imperative of moving to the land of Canaan. Surely, G-d’s spiritual mission should begin with His moral and spiritual demands of Abraham – studying Torah, keeping the mitzvot, and perhaps even singling out the Shabbat or other central ideals. It seems absolutely clear that in order for Abraham and his children after him to fulfil their spiritual mission on earth it must take place within the spiritual framework of Eretz Yisrael. Only there will they become a great nation, as G-d Himself promises Abraham, and only there can their spiritual mission be ultimately fulfilled.
There are countless sources throughout the Tanach pointing to the absolute centrality of the land, but for the purpose of this article the above will suffice. Equally, there are many varied rabbinical sources which highlight the same point. I will focus on one. The Talmud remarks that there are only two things that every single Jew spiritually owns – the Torah and the Land of Israel. The Talmud continues that these two things alone are called a morasha – an inheritance for every Jew. In the book of Devarim, in the last parsha, VeZot Habracha, which we read on Simchat Torah, the verse there states: “Torah tziva lanu Moshe, morasha kihilot Ya’akov” – Moshe commanded us to receive the Torah as an inheritance for the communities of Jacob. So too with regard to Eretz Yisrael it is stated in Shemot (Chapter 6):
“G-d said to Moses: I will bring the Jews out of the land of Egypt to the land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as a morasha, (an inheritance). I am G-d.”
Clearly, both the Land of Israel and the Torah are part of who we are and form the basis of our identity and purpose. [In fact, these two themes are the central threads running throughout the entire Torah. The Jewish people are continuously on two different journeys, which in essence are one – a journey to Mount Sinai and ultimately the values of the Torah. Secondly, a journey to Mount Moria, the Land of Israel, the framework within which the Torah has lasting and ultimate meaning.] Perhaps the most telling of all accounts in the Bible with regard to the importance of Israel is in the episode of the Sin of the Spies. I find it quite incredible that perhaps the greatest sin committed by the Jewish people, the Sin of the Spies (Numbers 13 – 14) was a sin of not wanting to live in and conquer the Land of Israel. Without getting into the details of this episode, one thing is clear – 10 out of the 12 leaders of the tribes wanted to stay in the desert and convinced the people of their inability to conquer and live in the land. In fact, the sin was so grave that it was decreed upon that entire generation that they would not enter the land, but rather wander aimlessly in the desert for 40 years until their eventual demise. The Sages go so far as to say that there is not a generation that does not suffer to some degree because of this diabolical sin.
While studying in Yeshiva, I came across a book written by a primary student of the great Gaon of Vilna, one of the great rabbinical leaders of the last 500 years. Rav Hillel Mishklov, quoting his Rabbi, the Gaon of Vilna, made some comments that shocked me to the core of my being with regard to the Sin of the Spies. If this point had not been mentioned explicitly by Rav Hillel, I would not dare to express it in writing.
He states (Kol Hator, Chapter 5): “And as a result of our many sins, there are many who continue to commit the sin of despising ‘the desirable land’. Even many who are knowledgeable in Torah do not understand that they have been trapped by the Sin of the Spies and have been caught in the residue of this sin with all types of false ideas, refutable claims which have long been discarded by the Sages throughout the generations….”
It emerges clearly from Rav Hillel’s words that a klipa, a residue, of this sin exists in every generation, even within the Torah world. Notwithstanding the fact that the Land of Israel is such a central and inherent part of true Torah living and ideals, it has the potential to be overlooked and trivialised even by committed Jews. There seems to be some type of spiritual blind spot obscuring our vision with regard to the Land of Israel, even when we are able to see other issues clearly. In the words of the great Nachmanides with regard to the Land: “The more holy something is; the more potential it has to be defiled.”
The best kept secret in the Diaspora
Not only is living in Eretz Yisrael a clear mitzvah, command, in the Torah, but it is one of the most all-encompassing ones in the entire Torah. The Sages in the Midrash Sifrei, Parshat Re’ei, state as follows:
“The mitzvah of living in Eretz Yisrael is the equivalent of all the mitzvot in the Torah.”
Clearly the mitzvah of living in Israel does not, G-d forbid, preclude the other mitzvot in the Torah. At the same time, though, there is something about this mitzvah which encompasses in essence all of the mitzvot of the Torah. Such accolades about a mitzvah are mentioned very scarcely, which once again highlights the centrality of this mitzvah within rabbinical and halachic thinking as well. There is no doubt that the vast majority of poskim (halachic authorities) throughout the ages rule that this mitzvah is an obligation incumbent upon all Jews in every generation [Footnote 1]. The great author of the Pitchei Teshuva summarises this vast halachic discussion as follows:
“Therefore this mitzvah applies at all times as is explained in the works of all early (Rishonim) and later (Acharonim) halachic authorities.” [Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer (75,6)]
[Rav Yisrael Mishklov, quoting the Vilna Gaon in his book, Peiat Hashulchan, reaches the same conclusion as does the Chazon Ish and Rav Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld (See Zion – A Torah Perspective (Chapter 6) by Rav Yoel Schwartz as well as Rav Ze’ev Leff’s introduction to the book, To Dwell in the Palace by Feldheim, where he analyses this issue at great length.]
The great Rambam, Maimonides [Footnote 2], takes this one step further and rules as follows in his monumental halachic work, The Mishne Torah:
“The Sages say that anyone who lives in the Land of Israel has atonement for previous sins… Even one who walks four cubits in the Land of Israel merits a portion in the World to Come… A person should always live in the Land of Israel, even in a city full of idol worshippers and should not live in the Diaspora, even in a city having a Jewish majority, for whoever lives outside of the Land of Israel it is as if he is serving idols.” [Hilchot Melachim 5 (11 – 12)]
Clearly, the Rambam didn’t intend these comments literally that living in Israel atones for all previous sins and that one who lives outside Israel is serving idols. The above principle need not be absolute and applying to all situations, but it does clearly highlight the centrality of the land within halachic thinking. It almost seems that being in a foreign land is deeply missing a spiritual point and to an extent forms a type of foreign divine worship.
Perhaps the person who put it best was the great and revered Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, who passed away in recent years. I heard the following story from a Talmid Chacham, who heard it from Rav Shlomo Zalman’s mouth. A person who came from overseas to Israel was debating the issue with Rav Shlomo Zalman of what kind of mitzvah it is to live in Israel, if at all. He mentioned his doubts in this regard as it seemed to him to be quite a complex issue. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman retorted to him: “In truth,” he said, “it does not really matter what kind of mitzvah it is, because one thing is clear, this is definitely the place that Hashem wants the Jewish people to live.” I think this in a nutshell captures the essence of this article.
Even though the mitzvah to live in Israel according to most opinions, as was stated above, is a clear obligation on every Jew, I would like to make a few points in this regard. While the above is absolutely true, I don’t feel that every Jew of necessity is able to make this noble step immediately. Aliyah to Israel requires a lot of planning, focus and resolve and is not something which can be implemented equally by everyone. Some surely are in a fortunate position to do it sooner rather than later, while others require a lot more time in this regard, and may in fact never manage to get there. The main point that I am making though is that we dare not cease our striving to live in the land. Our practical inability to perform a mitzvah must not lead us to give up on it. When a noble aim cannot be implemented we ought not to be tempted to move the goalposts. Instead of coming up with superficial explanations and shallow excuses as to the application of the mitzvah, one should rather continuously be aware of the goal and strive and pray to merit the fulfilment of this most vital ideal.
Secular Zionists and the State of Israel
Many halachic Jews over the years have been perplexed how it could be that such a central tenet of Torah ideology was dominated by secular Jews – the Secular Zionist Movement. Secularism and many foreign ideals were brought en masse to the land of Israel and seemed to compromise its holiness. How could such a thing be understood from a Torah vantage point? I think the following story that I heard brilliantly explains this complexity.
Two well-known rabbinical leaders were once debating whether one should go and live in Israel, especially since there is a strong secular influence in the country. The one made the following comment. He said the Christians stole the Bible from us (Orthodox Jewry), the Maskilim stole the Hebrew language from us, and the secular Zionists stole the Land of Israel from us. To this the second rabbi brilliantly retorted as follows: the Christians stole the Bible from us because we stopped learning it, the Maskilim stole Hebrew from us because we stopped talking it, and the Zionists stole the Land of Israel because we stopped going there. There is no such thing as a spiritual vacuum. The Jews of the Diaspora were distanced from the land and with time stopped focusing on Bible study. The Bible depicts events and occurrences in different places in the Land of Israel which became, with time, increasingly difficult for Diaspora Jewry to relate to, having not lived there for generations. They rather focused on the Oral Torah: the details of the Talmud and halacha pertaining to personal living. Into this vacuum of scholarship stepped fundamentalist Christians who mastered it.
While in the Diaspora, we distanced ourselves from the Hebrew language. We spoke Yiddish and Ladino and other hybrid languages. Into this vacuum of spiritually the Maskilim stepped to revive the Hebrew language.
So too with Israel, since living in the land was confined to prayer and future messianic dreams, it was not acted upon. Into this vacuum of opportunity stepped the secular Zionists. It is true, by the way, that both the Gaon of Vilna and the Baal Shem Tov sent many of their students to Israel in the early 1800s to establish a strong and religious community there, as both these great leaders foresaw and believed in the unfolding of Jewish destiny that would take place there in the coming years. But it was the predominantly the secular Jews who inspired a political revolution, restoring Jewish sovereignty and inspiring a mass return. It seems clear that to the extent that we desire and seek out the Land of Israel, will we merit it.
While it is impossible to guess accurately the handiwork of Heaven, I would like to suggest the following. Perhaps the reason that the secular were so involved in the establishment of the State is to give every Jew an opportunity to be part of Jewish destiny. If only the religious had returned, perhaps the reality of living in a halachically run state would have been too daunting for the majority secular Jews. Events of the last century have dispelled such doubts and given rise to a unique opportunity to all Jews, regardless of religious, cultural and ethnic backgrounds.
“She is Zion and no one asks for her.” [Jeremiah 30]. “The implication is that Zion needs to be asked for.” [Rosh Hashana 30]
It is crystal clear that the future of Jewish destiny in general and the Land of Israel specifically depends largely on our desire and will for it. Many stumbling blocks stand in our way both politically – the Palestinian struggle – and spiritually – the dark shadow of the sinful residue of The Spies. We dare not take our eye off the ball by trivialising this most central mitzvah and allowing others to step into the spiritual vacuum. Our inability to achieve this lofty ideal in the near future must not cloud our vision to continually strive to merit it. The goalposts must remain intact. Creating a spiritual storm in a glass of water must not deter us from the ocean of opportunity, which awaits us in the State of Israel.
In the immortal words of Rav Yehuda HaLevi, the great medieval Sage and poet, in his poem, Tzion Halo Tishali: “Happy are they who wait to experience the rising of your light, over them your dawn shall break.”
Footnote 1 Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s comments in recent years are also very famous. While he agrees that there is definitely a mitzvah to live in the Land of Israel he defines this in a most innovative and unusual way. He says that it is not a mitzvah chiyuvit, an absolute obligation to live there, but rather a mitzvah kiyumit, a circumstantial mitzvah. [See Igrot Moshe, Even Haezer 1 (Chapter 102)] To put it simply, a person who lives in Israel most definitely fulfills a mitzvah, but a person who does not is not absolutely obliged to live there. Many rely on this against the interpretation of the majority of poskim as a reason not to live in Israel. I must make one comment in this regard. There is no obligation wear tzitzit. In fact, the precept of tzitzit is very similar to this above definition of Rav Moshe Feinstein regarding living in the land of Israel, as he himself points out. Only if a person wears a four-cornered garment is he obliged to put tzitzit on them. But there is certainly no obligation to wear one in the first place. Our clothing style today does not generally have four corners and there is certainly no obligation therefore to wear tzitzit. Yet I find it incredible that in all orthodox circles everyone is exceptionally scrupulous to put on an unusual four-cornered garment that they would never ordinarily wear just in order to place tzitzit on the corners. Here we see a typical example of the effort we should go to fulfil this circumstantial mitzvah. Yet I find it incredibly perplexing that when it comes to living in the land of Israel, which is as aforementioned in some ways equivalent to all the mitzvoth put together here the very same people rely on the minority and lenient opinions.
Footnote 2 While the Rambam does not list the mitzvah of living in Israel in his list of the 613 mitzvoth, it does emerge clearly in ten different places in his halachic work that such a mitzvah does exist. Many explanations are given to reconcile this contradiction and the majority of opinions clearly rule that living in Israel is an obligatory mitzvah according to the Rambam. A detailed account is beyond the scope of this article and please see the book Mitzvat Yeshivat Eretz Yisrael of Rabbi Yona Dov Bloomberg of Dvinsk who thoroughly analyses the Rambam’s opinion and reaches the above conclusion.