Eretz Yisrael – The Supremacy of the Land

     “Whoever lives in Eretz Yisrael is like one who has a God, and whoever lives outside the Land is like one who has no God (Kesuvos 110b).”

I.  The Perception of Holiness

The universe is full of God’s glory. Everything proclaims it from the mightiest galaxy to the frailest blade of grass to the sub-microscopic organism. Can one even imagine that God is limited to the Temple Mount or the Holy Land? But human beings are trapped in a material world that obscures His existence and they must grope to find traces and rays of the holiness that is everywhere.

So.. where is God? He is everywhere, but some people see and others don’t. And some places more readily provide the spiritual illumination for those who wish to see.

Of all the countries on earth, Eretz Yisrael is uniquely suited to the perception of holiness. Whoever lives outside Eretz Yisrael is ‘like’ one who has no God. Lacking the holy atmosphere of the Land, the conditions created by God to serve as the habitat for His Temple and His prophets, a person may fail to see the Godliness in every aspect of his existence.

This is what our Sages mean when they say that one who lives in Eretz Yisrael is ‘like’ one who has a God, but one who lives outside the Land is ‘like’ one who is Godless. The key word is ‘like’. Both have a God. Every person has a God and He is everywhere. But there is a place where He is easily accessible to all who seek, a place where, because people find Him, He is present. That place is the Land whose very atmosphere conveys the wisdom of fear of God, whose hills and valleys echo with the footsteps of the Patriarchs, the words of the prophets – the handiwork of Him Who said, ‘Let there be a universe.’ One who lives in Eretz Yisrael and allows his spiritual eyes to remain open – sees; one who lives outside the Land denies himself that unique perception. Compared to the one who basks in its holiness and sees the hand of God caressing every blade of grass and infusing every thought, he is ‘like’ one who has no God.

Every huiman being was created with his own set of talents and handcaps, they are the tools give him to carry out his spiritual mission. His measure of potential is uniquely his, it is the measure of holiness which he was created to reveal and thus contribute to the fulfillment of the universe. Since Eretz Yisrael is symbolic of the recognition of God, every Jew has a share in Eretz Yisrael. For, in essence, Eretz Yisrael is not a geographical entity; its mountains and valleys, plains and seas, are but the physical manifestations of its spiritual being. It is a Holy Land because it is a Land of Holiness. Every Jew is charged with bring to fruition his portion of holiness, his own Eretz Yisrael, wherever on earth he lives. Therefore, our Sages taught the legal principle that “There is no man who does not have four cubits in Eretz Yisrael (Bava Basra 44b).

Even the Jew who has never set foot in Eretz Yisrael, much less purchased a lot of its land, is considered the owner of four cubits (the minimum amount of space in which a person can function)(Bava Mezia 10a). The Sages understood that if the Jew can only attain his highest level of spiritual attainment in Eretz Yisrael, then it is inconceivable that part of the Land is not his. This being so, the principle that the Holy Land allows the Jew to develop his spiritual capacities to their maximum dictates that every Jew have his share in Eretz Yisrael. And because each person is an individual with a potential like no other, his own four cubits are his, and none other’s. Exactly where in Eretz Yisrael those particular square inches are does not matter – they are his!

Understood this way, much that the Sages have taught takes on deeper significance and meaning. Over the course of his lifetime, man is presented with many opportunities. Each is a test.

The person raised to a new position enters a new realm of responsibility and judgment. The old standards no longer apply. If he rises to the occasion with a new sense of dedication and the prayer that he not fall short of the challenge presented him, then he indeed merits that his earlier sins be forgiven. His new position was the cause of repentance. His old world disappeared when he was elevated to a new dimension of responsibility. The first accomplishment of the new mantle was to change the person upon whom it fell. He has changed, grown, repented – and so his sins are forgiven.

But if he fails to discharge his new responsibilities properly, he is held responsible for the lack of accomplishment that resulted from his negligence. The emperor who fiddles while his city burns is not judged by the quality of his concerto. He is held responsible for the destruction of homes and the ruin of lives, and for the tragedy of human resources squandered on the clearing of rubble when they could have been building palaces.

He who was granted the privilege of living in Eretz Yisrael has the challenge of utilizing the capacity it provides him for spiritual growth. Being there is a challenge, and like all challenges, it carries with it the possibility of success – or failure. As in all matters of the spirit, God provides an even balance. Opportunity is equal with pitfall. The enormous good that can be done by one who is elevated to greatness – good of such enormity that it can wipe away his sins and set him in a new world – is balanced by the evil that becomes his responsibility if he fails to meet the challenge – or if he misuses his new power.

Rav Saadia Gaon says that Israel without Torah, is like a body without a soul; we may say the same of Eretz Yisrael: without the observance of the commandments, it, too, is like a body without a soul. But when it is host to a people that obeys the word of God, the potential of the Land is unlimited.

The Khuzari goes on to portray the greatness of the Land. Every prophet prophesied either in it or concerning it – otherwise, no matter how great the person, he could not hear the world of God. Cain and Abel contended over Eretz Yisrael; the brother chosen by God would gain the gift of prophesy and possession of the Land, the other would be subservient to him like the shell of a fruit. And when Cain, murderer of his brother, was banished from the Presence of Hashem (4:16), it was from Eretz Yisrael that he was forced to go, for God’s Presence is in His Chosen Land. Ishmael’s strife with Isaac was over the same inheritance, and so was Esau’s with Jacob. In Eretz Yisrael the Patriarchs erected their altars, and there God heard their prayers. Atop its Mount Moriah Abraham bound his son to the altar, the same mountain where David built an altar and where the Holy Temple stood and will stand again. And just as a farmer who finds a lovely tree in the wilderness will tenderly dig it up and transplant it in his finest soil, so too, when God found a treasure in Ur Kasdim and Charan, he brought him to Eretz Yisrael, tested him, found him worthy, sealed a covenant with him, made him father of His chosen nation, and gave him a new name, Abraham. Great though he was, even Abraham could not achieve fulfillment until he was brought to Eretz Yisrael.

II.  The Unforgiving Land

Because Eretz Yisrael is so saturated with holiness, it demands higher standards of behavior than does any other corner of earth. Just as Israel’s nature is unlike that of any other people, so the nature of its Land is unlike that of any other. Ramban deals at length with this phenomenon. The following exposition is taken almost in its entirety from his commentary to Leviticus 18:25.

After citing the full catalog of forbidden immorality (Leviticus 18:1-24), the Torah strongly urged Israel not to defile itself with these offenses, for the Canaanite inhabitants of the Land had done so with the result that “The Land became impure, and I recalled its sin for it and the Land vomited out its inhabitants” (verse 25).

Israel was warned not to imitate the Canaanite abominations lest it too defile the land and be vomited out by it (verses 26-30). The verses are truly striking. Israel is warned against immorality not merely because it defiles Israel’s own holy nature and deviates its mission as the Chosen People of God, it cannot abide immoral inhabitants and because the Land will expel immoral inhabitants just as they body vomits putrid food. The implication is clear – sin is forbidden everywhere, but in the Eretz Yisrael it is worse.

The same is true of Israel, the nation. Israel is judged by a double standard. It is God’s nation and He demands more of it. It cannot complain that it is judged more harshly than the nations for the same sins for its greatness demands that it adhere to higher standards than they. By the same token, its rewards for fulfilling its obligations as the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as the nation that stood at Sinai and accepted the Torah, are higher – no! they are of an entirely different order – than those of any other nation no matter how pious and noble it may be. For the Land and the Nation share one unique characteristic – they are the special province of God.

The Patriarchs recognized this connection. Their souls were so attuned to holiness that they could sense the affect of every deed. They knew that upon arising in the morning, one must accept upon himself the yoke of God’s kingdom, that different species were not to be mixed, that work was not to be done on Sabbath, that certain marriages were incestuous. They complied with the entire Torah before it was given to Israel.

Israel was commanded, exhorted, and warned to be moral in it’s Land. The expulsion of the Canaanites was not in punishment for their immorality. Egypt, too, was immoral, and Israel was instructed to avoid their lack of moral restraints which were no less than those of Canaan (Leviticus 18:3). But no matter how much the immorality of Egypt may have been a factor in the plagues and punishment, its land did not vomit out sinners. Only Eretz Yisrael did that.

The fate of the seven nations of Caanan was sealed long before Joshua’s armies carried out God’s command to decimate them. They had long since been doomed: the Torah says, the Land vomited (past tense) its inhabitants (Leviticus 18:25). Their immorality had condemned them; Israel was but the vehicle to carry out the decree. Had it not been Israel’s time to enter its Promised Land, we may be certain that some other nation would have driven out the Canaanites. It was the Land that could not endure them, just as the Land would expel sinful Israel from its midst in the tragic days of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. For the Land of Israel on earth and Jerusalem on earth are reflections of Eretz Yisrael and Jerusalem on high. They are not geographical points on a map, but physical manifestations of spiritual levels. One does not commit immoral acts in heaven; one does not commit immoral acts on heaven on earth.

The entire story of creation is beyond human comprehension. After reading the story of the first week of human history can we claim even a vague understanding of the process by which a vacuum was transformed into the universe? Nevertheless, God gave us the Torah, including the narrative of creation, and the succeeding story of mankind’s sins, punishments, conquests, migrations, and most importantly, the story of Abraham and his offspring. The entire Book of Genesis and the first eleven chapters of Exodus, fully sisty-one chapters in a Book, where every word, letter, and even the ‘crowns of letters’ are dissected for meaning and interpretation – all of this was transmitted to man only to make unmistakably clear that the Master of the Universe destined a corner of His creation for His nation. In early times it might be occupied by the Canaanites and Emorites. Later it would become the conquest of Babylonians, Romans. Moslems, Christians, Arabs, Turks, Britons. The catalogue of conquerors could be long and varied, but the Owner of the Land remains He Who created it. It was He alone Who could determine its destiny, and in His Torah He made clear that it would be the possession of Israel and none other.

A not insignificant measure of Israel’s tragic history is how much of its existence has been spent exiled from its Land. The nineteen centuries of the current exile alone are longer than the total number of years that Israel was true sovereign of all its Land. But even during the bitterest years of exile, there was no more eloquent testimony to Israel’s eternal ownership of that slim strip of heaven on earth than the Land itself – the very Land that had banished, regurgitated, Israel as unworthy of its sanctity – that very Land testified that Israel is the single nation on earth that can claim title to its hills and valleys. “And I will lay the Land waste, and upon it, your enemies who inhabit it will be desolate” (Leviticus 26:32).

The Land that expelled Israel would welcome none other. Your enemies will inhabit your Land, but they will be desolate upon it. The Land that flowed with milk and honey for Israel would become dry and bitter. Valleys that were lush, plains that were green, would turn to wasteland and desert. No nation would find prosperity there. The grieving Land would wrap itself tight in its mourning shroud and refuse to nurse the children that came to replace her own. She would weep and wait.

No nation has ever succeeded in Eretz Yisrael – except for the Jews. The reason is clearly given by the Torah: the Land is Israel’s. For Israel it will flow with milk and honey. Let Israel fall short of its mandate, and the Land will expel it, but even when that happens, it will withhold its blessings from any other claimant.

Abraham could not even receive God’s blessings and covenant until he was in Eretz Yisrael. While he was still a resident of Charan at the age of seventy, he made a brief trip to Eretz Yisrael where God appeared to him and made the Covenant Between the Pieces. Abraham returned to his father’s home and was not bidden to make the final break with his past until five years later when he was commanded to go to the land which God would show him. Despite his already proven greatness, Abraham could not even receive God’s promise anywhere but in the Holy Land, much less begin the long process of laying the foundation for the Chosen People.

Indeed, the first time Abraham journeyed to Eretz Yisrael, he was not bidden by God to do so. He himself perceived the holiness of the Land and wished to be in it. Later, when God bid him to break with his homeland and family and travel ‘to the land which I will show you’ (12:1), Abraham immediately set out for Eretz Yisrael; he knew that it was God’s country and he believed implicitly that God could have meant no other place.

There is a way, albeit an imperfect one, to experience the exaltation of the Land even though one cannot be within it. The firm resolve to live as holy a life as humanly possible and the strong desire to live it as if one were truly on the sacred soil can be considered in some measure equivalent to being there. May this inspiring thought help elevate our thoughts and deeds until the time when hope and reality merge.

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