The Mitzvah of Israel

This week’s Torah portion includes the commandment for the Jews to take possession and to settle in the Land of Israel. Our Sages have discussed this precept at length.

“The Holy One, Blessed Be He said, `The Land of Israel is more dear to me than any other land… and the Jewish people are dear to me… I will bring the Jewish people who are dear to me, into the Land of Israel which is dear to me’” (Bamidbar Rabbah 23).

“Anyone who lives in Israel, speaks the Holy Language, eats his fruit in purity and reads the Shma in the morning and evening, shall be declared a ‘son of the world to come’” (Shekalim 3).

“And behold, Hashem who is exalted… is the G-d of the entire world, but the Land of Israel, the center of the world is the inheritance of G-d and and is dedicated to Him. He did not appoint angels as its heavenly rulers, He gave it as an inheritance to his own people who declare the unity of His name, the descendants of those who loved G-d (The Patriarchs and Matriarchs). As it states (Shmot 19:5) ‘You shall be my treasure from amongst all the nations, for the whole world is mine’” (Ramban, Commentary on Vayikra 18:25).

“And every Jew must make an unwavering, firm commitment in his heart to ascend to live in the Land of Israel (at least when he has found sufficient sustenance… in order to dwell in the Holy Land…) and he should should aspire to merit to pray there before the palace of the King, which the Divine Presence has never left even though it has been destroyed…” (Rav Yaakov Emden, Siddur Beis Yaakov, Sulam Beit-El 6).

The Land of Israel plays a central role in the Torah, for a number of reasons. Israel was, first of all, the location of most of the events recorded in the Tanach (Bible). The Patriarchs and Matriarchs lived in Israel and were buried there. It was an intrinsic part of the covenant between G-d and Abraham. The books of Joshua, Judges, Kings and the Prophets center around events in Israel and the Tabernacle, First and Second Temples existed there for 1270 years. The Jewish people lived as an independent nation in Israel for over 1000 years and maintained a continuous presence there even during the time of Exile. Present renewal of Jewish life in Israel continues a 3,500 year connection between  the Jewish people and their land.

Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi writes (Kuzari 2:8-14) that just as every country has unique physical characteristics, so too, every country has unique spiritual characteristics. Israel is the only land that is conducive to the development of the faculty of prophecy. All of the prophets either received prophecies in Israel, or prophecies that related to the Land of Israel. For example, Abraham’s only prophecy outside Israel was the command to go there; Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel received their first prophecies in Israel, and their prophecies outside Israel were related to the Exile, and the Redemption.

Living in Israel also adds a new dimension to the observance of every mitzvah (Ramban, Commentary on Vayikra 18:25 and Devarim 12). Most of the commandments are only applicable when the majority of the Jewish people are in Israel; during the time of Exile, only 270 of the 613 mitzvot can be fulfilled.  (Pachad Yitzchak, Rosh Hashanah 4, quoting Shnei Luchot Habrit) The Jewish people can only be a “light unto the nations” when living a complete national life in Israel governed by the Torah in all aspects (Kuzari 2:16).

Rav Eliyahu Dessler (Michtav Meeliyahu, III, pp. 193-196) explains that even in our times, one who lives in Israel will experience extraordinary Divine assistance in the study of Torah and in spiritual growth in general. Rav Dessler continues, that one who lives in Israel can experience a higher level of tranquility and lack of fear than can be experienced anywhere else in the world; and that the Divine Providence in Israel is so manifest that people there are confident that miracles will happen for them (as have in fact happened many times in recent history). As Rav Dessler writes, “Chazal stated `There is no Torah like the Torah of the Land of Israel’, `The air of the Land of Israel imparts wisdom’… in our own generation we can see how young people who study Torah in Israel develop successfully…”

There is another halachic dimension to the Land of Israel, aside from the many mitzvot that are only applicable there. Many authorities maintain that there is an independent mitzvah to live in the Land of Israel. We will present here, some relevant sources and discussion regarding this dimension.

“And you shall possess the land and dwell in it, because I have given the land to you as an inheritance” (Bamidbar 33:53).

The Ramban maintains that this verse teaches us that there is a mitzvah to settle in the Land of Israel, and that this mitzvah is applicable even in times of Exile. “We have been commanded to inherit the land that the Almighty One gave to our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; not to leave it in the hands of other nations and not to leave it desolate…. It is obligatory in all generations and everyone is obligated in it even during the time of the Exile” (Book of the Mitzvot, Positive Mitzva 4, according to the Ramban. See also Ramban on Bamidbar 33:53). The Ramban stresses the importance of the mitzvah of living in Israel throughout his writings, and describes in many places the unique spiritual characteristics of Israel.

The Rambam, however, does not count this mitzvah in his listing of the 613 commandments, despite his statement in the Mishneh Torah  that “one should always dwell in the Land of Israel”, and despite his numerous statements regarding the greatness and sanctity of the Land (Melachim 5:9-12).

One school of thought in the commentaries posits that the opinion of the Rambam is that the mitzvah of settlement in Israel ceased to be applicable after the Babylonian Exile; since the commandment was limited to the original conquest of the land under Joshua, the prophets, King Saul and King David. (Megilat Esther, Sefer Hamitzvot, Positive Mitzvah 4, according to the Ramban. There are other schools of thought among the commentaries who maintain that even according to the Rambam living in Israel is a mitzvah. There are views that the mitzvah is obligatory only on an individual level but not on a national level, cf. Peat Hashulchan 1:3. For a thorough investigation of the various opinions refer to Eretz Chemdah, by Rav Shaul Israeli).

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