By Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald
In parashat Behar… we learn of the special relationship that the Jewish people have to the land of Israel, and of the special obligations that apply to those who dwell in the Holy Land.
Parashat Behar details the mitzvot of Shmita, the sabbatical year in which the land lays fallow every seventh year, and Yovel, the jubilee that is observed in the fiftieth year. The Torah, in this parasha, also mandates the practice of redeeming the land in the jubilee year, outlines the regulations regarding the purchasing of resident houses in walled cities, calls for the establishment of cities for the Levites and pronounces guidelines for preventing poverty.
After warning the people against lending money on interest, the Torah boldly states, in Leviticus 25:38, “Ah’nee Hashem Eh’lo’kay’chem ah’sher ho’tzay’tee et’chem may’Eretz Mitzrayim lah’tayt lah’chem et Eretz Canaan, leeh’yoht lah’chem lay’lo’keem,”I am the L-rd, your G-d, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be G-d onto you. The juxtaposition in this verse of receiving the land of Israel as a Divine gift, and the peoples’ relationships with G-d, is seen by many commentators as an obligation upon the people who live in Israel to be a sanctified people. Residents of Israel are expected to follow the instructions of the Torah, no matter how challenging they may appear to be, such as not taking interest on loans and allowing the land to lie fallow–unworked for an entire year.
In his comments on this verse, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) underscores the specialness of the land of Israel, and the relationship of the Jewish people to the land. Citing a Midrash from Torat Kohanim 54, and a Talmudic statement in Ketubot 110b, Rashi says that whoever resides in the land of Israel, “I [G-d] am a G-d to him, and whoever leaves the land of Israel, it is as one who worships idols.”
The Torah Temimah (written by the famed author, Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein, 1860-1941) records the full citation from the Talmud in Ketubot 110b.
Our rabbis stated that a person should always live in the land of Israel, even in a city where the majority of the residents are gentile, and not live outside of Israel, even in a city where the majority of the residents are Jews. For those who dwell in the land of Israel are like those who have a G-d, while those who dwell outside of Israel are like idolaters. As it states (Leviticus 25:38), “To give you the land of Canaan, to be a G-d to you.”
To further substantiate the Talmudic citation, the Torah Temimah cites another verse, from I Samuel 26:19, where King David states, “For they have driven me out this day from being joined to the inheritance of G-d, saying, ‘Go worship other gods.’ Who, after all, forced King David to worship other gods? Rather, the verse comes to underscore that anyone who resides outside of Israel is regarded as worshiping alien gods.
The Torah Temimah explains that G-d’s relationship with the people of Israel is very much dependent on their dwelling in the land of Israel, where the Divine Presence itself dwells. Israel is a land that is especially chosen for prophecy and holiness. As the Bible states, in Deuteronomy 11:12, “A land that the L-rd your G-d seeks out at all times.” That is why G-d is often referred to as the “L-rd of the land.”
Ramban (Nachmanides, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator), as well as other Bible commentators, regard the verse in Numbers 33:53 as a positive Torah commandment to reside in Israel. The verse reads, You shall possess the Land and you shall settle in it, for to you have I given the land to possess it. In fact, the Midrash (Sifri, Re’eh 12:29) regards this mitzvah as so significant, that it regards the one mitzvah of dwelling in the land of Israel as equivalent in value to all the other Torah mitzvot combined.
According to Maimonides (the Rambam, the great medieval Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204) and several other halachic authorities, dwelling in the land of Israel is not a Torah requirement, especially for those born outside of the land of Israel. Clearly, those who are fortunate enough to live in the land of Israel fulfill a great mitzvah and have the opportunity to observe many mitzvot that apply only in the land of Israel and cannot be fulfilled outside of Israel. Nevertheless, living in Israel is not a Torah mandated commandment.
The importance of dwelling in Israel, even visiting the land, is dramatically underscored in the Talmud (Ketubot 111a) which states: One who walks four cubits in the land of Israel will merit a portion in the World to Come.
According to the Kabbalah, Jews were purposely dispersed throughout the nations of the world in order to reveal and elevate all the sparks of holiness that exist. Therefore, those whose destiny it is to live outside of the land of Israel have a great responsibility to make certain that the holy sparks are revealed, and make possible the elevation of all people.
There are those who maintain that the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s rationale for remaining in the Diaspora was based on his belief that it is necessary for leaders to serve as a positive influence on others, to learn Torah, perform mitzvot and to serve as Jewish role models. Moving to Israel, which at this time according to the Rebbe is an optional mitzvah, would be a selfish act, especially if leaving the Diaspora would have a negative spiritual impact on those who are left behind without proper leadership.
Originally appears on YU Torah