Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
Rabbi Michael Rosensweig

Reflections on Yom ha-Atzmaut: Eretz Yisrael as a Framework for Kedushah and Spiritual Opportunity

The mishneh (Keilim 1:6-9) begins to delineate the ten levels of kedushat makom (sanctity of place) by declaring that "Eretz Yisrael mekudeshet mi-kol ha-aratzot" (the land of Israel is the most sanctified land). The fact that that the korban ha-omer (brought on the second day of Pesach), korban shetei ha-lechem (brought on Shavuot), and bikkurim (the first fruits) require the produce of Eretz Yisrael is invoked to demonstrate Israel's singular sanctity.

This mishneh presents numerous difficulties. Why is Israel's sanctity in this context exemplified specifically by these korbonot rather than by the more obvious and ubiquitous category of mitzvot ha-teluyot ba-aretz (mitzvot dependent upon the soil of the land) that includes terumot, maasrot, shemitah etc, and that are referred to in the mishneh in Kidushin (36b) (see Mishneh Rishonah and Eliyahu Rabbah, Keilim, ad loc)? Moreover, the mefarshim note that the hierarchy of geographic sanctity recorded in the mishneh actually includes eleven locations (see Rash ad. loc)! R. Hai Gaon (cited in Aruch and Bartenura Keilim 1:9) posits that Eretz Yisrael is actually not counted but serves as a framework or context for the subsequent ten levels. He supports this conclusion by noting that while the sanctity of the other venues is exhibited by the restricted access of various populations or the exclusion of forms of tumah (ritual defilement), the kedushah of the land is demonstrated in a very different manner by virtue of the fact that it provides the ingredients of various korbonot. The Rambam (Hilchos Beit ha-Behirah 7:12-13) apparently adopts R. Hai Gaon's perspective as he divided and restructured the mishneh. He first records Israel's special status and only then enumerates the ten levels of sanctity within Eretz Yisrael.

According to R. Hai Gaon and the Rambam, apparently the mishneh intended to fundamentally distinguish the respective sanctities of Eretz Yisrael and the ten levels. Each of the ten levels represents a quantitative rung in the ladder of kedushah, as expressed by ever more rigorous, elite standards of avodat Hashem. Thus, the ten constitute a single hierarchal list and each successive level is increasingly exclusive. The sanctity of Eretz Yisrael, however cannot be conveyed by a list as it is qualitatively distinct. Furthermore, Eretz Yisrael constitutes the indispensable framework for all kedushat ha-makom. The Pesach haggadah conveys that while Eretz Yisrael's stature is independent of Jerusalem's (dayeinu), the idea of kedushat makom (such as Jerusalem) outside the framework of Eretz Yisrael is simply inconceivable. Perhaps the Rambam projects this idea by reformulating the mishneh to accentuate that all ten venues are necessarily located within the confines of Eretz Yisrael. [This would also provide an answer to the question raised by the Melechet Shlomo as to why the mishneh did not also focus on the special status of Syria among diaspora countries. ]

Moreover, Eretz Yisrael's sanctity is not expressed or experienced by exclusiveness or elite ritual standards that limit participation, but by providing wide opportunities for spiritual growth, as symbolized by its facilitation of the omer, shetei halechem, and bikkurim, as noted by R. Hai Gaon. The Teferet Yisrael remarks that according to Biblical law there may be no differences between Eretz Yisrael and the diaspora regarding tumah, reinforcing R. Hai's insight. [The Mishneh Rishonah speculates as to why tumat negaim is not cited to symbolize Israel's sanctity. Perhaps, however, the mishneh intended to emphasize only positive spiritual opportunity!] This perspective is consistent with the theme, developed previously (Torah Web- "Eretz Yisrael: The Heritage of the Jewish People"; "The Central Role of Eretz Yisrael in Jewish Life") that Eretz Yisrael is the focal point of national Jewish life, and thus, necessarily inclusive.

Perhaps the mishneh did not prove Eretz Yisrael's sanctity by invoking the category of soil -oriented mitzvot precisely because it intended to accentuate a more comprehensive contribution to avodat Hashem. Precisely because the omer and shetei ha-lechem do not inherently relate to the soil of Eretz Yisrael, the Eretz Yisrael requirement accurately reflects the pervasive and impactful character of kedushat Eretz Yisrael. This broader function is also related to Israel's role as a necessary enhancing framework for the other sanctified venues and the values they embody. [The issue of bikkurim is more complex. See Tosafot Baba Basra 81a, and Gera and Eliyahu Rabbah on Keilim]. Thus, the framework for successively more intense and elite individual avodat Hashem stems from the foundation of national sanctity that is both inclusive and comprehensive.

The comprehensiveness of Eretz Yisrael's contribution to Jewish life and to the framework of advanced and elite kedushah is also reflected by the range of omer and shetei ha-lechem (and bikkurim).  Omer is a unique barley offering brought in the context of the cherut (liberation) of Pesach that removes the severe dietary prohibition of chadash (eating from the new grain crops), which according to many authorities applies to Diaspora grains, as well. The wheat-grained Shtei ha-Lechem, by contrast, is brought on Shavuot, commemorating Klal Yisrael's commitment to Torah law. It is an extraordinary korban in that it is a chametz offering (contrast also to Pesach context of omer) which is not offered on the Temple alter. Its significance lies in its inauguration of the new crops specifically for Temple use. The fact these widely divergent offerings must originate in Eretz Yisrael is striking, attesting to the wide range of Eretz Yisrael's role. The mitzvah of sefirat ha-omer, which commences with the omer and concludes before the shetei ha-lechem (see Emor- Vayikra ch. 23), bridges these two obligations and the ideals they embody. The counting devolves upon each individual (mitzvah lekol echad ve-echad), but it is addressed to the collective nation- "u-sefartem lachem" and is perceived by many as symbolizing a process of growth in avodat Hashem, in which the contribution of Eretz Yisrael is crucial.

As we celebrate Yom ha-Atzmaut, the founding of the modern state of Israel, it is important that we revisit Israel's historical-halakhic role. It is particularly crucial that we underscore Israel's status as a framework for more intense and elite avodot even as we emphasize its profound connection to all Jews as a national headquarters and as a vehicle for spiritual opportunity and growth. The return of Jewish sovereignty in our homeland has enhanced the entire wide-ranging population of Klal Yisrael . Even secular Jews, unfortunately ignorant of and distant from matters of kedushah and avodah, have been profoundly impacted by the existence and heroic struggles of the Jewish state. For vulnerable diaspora communities, the state has been a safe haven in times of persecution. For a multitude of Jews, pride in and identification with Israel is the foundation of their Jewishnes. For Torah Jews, the flourishing of Jewish life in a modern state is particularly meaningful. The efflorescence of Torah study and various levels of spiritual achievement in the framework of Medinat Yisrael attest dramatically to the theme of "Eretz Yisrael mekudeshet hi mikol haaratzot" in its dual theme.

The challenge of integrating halakhic life and values in a modern and diverse state are particularly exhilarating and daunting. There have been many attainments and unfortunately disappointments, as well.

Yom ha-Atzmaut is a time to pause and take stock. It is a time of hallel to Hashem and hakkarat ha-tov (appreciation-gratitude) to those whose dreams, aspirations, faith and sacrifice have enabled the dream of a renewed yishuv ha-aretz.

Copyright © 2007 by The TorahWeb Foundation. All rights reserved.