Rabbi Yaakov Haber
Rabbi Yaakov Haber

Mitzvot and Eretz Yisrael

One who studies this week’s Parasha cannot help but feel the yearning of our teacher par excellence, Moshe Rabbeinu, to enter the Holy Land of Eretz Yisrael. “Let me just pass over the Jordan River and see the good land,” Moshe implores Hashem, implying even if not as the leader of Klal Yisrael, even if only for a short time. Hashem denies his heartfelt request for many reasons, some explicitly mentioned in the Torah Shebichtav and some in the Midrashim and subsequent commentaries. What is the mystery surrounding this land?

Our Parasha alludes to the answer. Chumash D’varim, as is well known, serves as Moshe’s farewell address to the B’nei Yisrael. In it, he reviews the tragic episodes during the forty-year sojourn in the desert in order that the new generation learn not to repeat the same mistakes. Moshe also reviews many of Hashem’s mitzvot, introducing many new ones as well. (See introduction of the Netziv to his commentary Ha’amek Davar as to the meaning of the alternate name of our Chumash -- Mishneh Torah.) Among these mitzvot are mitzvot ha’t’luyot ba’aretz -- those only applicable in Eretz Yisrael -- and mitzvot binding in all places and at all times. Yet, our Parasha stresses several times (4:5, 4:14) that these mitzvot are being commanded “to do in the land that you will enter” (see Ha’amek Davar to 4:5). The difficulty is obvious. Many of the mitzvot that follow are binding everywhere. Why, then, does the Torah indicate to fulfill them “in the Land.”

Rashi (next week’s Parasha 11:18), commenting on the juxtaposition of the threat of exile for disobeying Hashem’s commandments and the mitzvot of t’fillin, talmud Torah, and m’zuza, quotes a shocking Sifrei. One might have thought that in the exile, the mitzvot are not binding, therefore the Torah instructs us that even in galut, we must keep the above-mentioned mitzvot as well as all others not dependent on the Land. Why? As the prophet Yirmiyahu exhorts: “hatzivi lach tziyunim” -- “establish signs” for yourself in order to assure that you not forget their observance so that when you finally return to the Land of Israel that you know how to properly perform the mitzvot. Ramban, in his commentary to the same verse, alludes to his earlier statements on Chumash B’raishis where he elaborates on this theme and demonstrates that G-d is known as “Elokei ha’aretz,” and therefore only in Eretz Yisrael do His commandments achieve their full significance. Although mitzvot not dependent on the land are equally as binding by Torah law in Eretz Yisrael and Chutz La’aretz, the nature of their fulfillment is fundamentally different. In the former land, they are primary, in the latter they are reminders of how to fulfill them!

Indeed, when Avraham Avinu is chosen by the Ribono Shel Olam to found the nation which would eventually accept the Torah at Har Sinai, he is told by Hashem, “and to your children I will give this land” (Lech L’cha 12:7). Why didn’t Hashem first mention the giving of the Torah to his descendants before the promise of Eretz Yisrael? Rav Tzuriel suggests that they are one and the same. When Hashem promised the Land of Israel to Avraham, He was not merely giving him a homeland in which his children would live; He promised that his children would be given the opportunity to keep the Torah in the land designated for its fulfillment for that is the essence of Eretz Yisrael (see T’hillim 105:44-45).

There has been much discussion in recent years concerning the nature of the mitzva of yishuv Eretz Yisrael in times of galut. (See, for example, RJJ Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, Vol. 5, “The Mitzva of Yishuv Eretz Yisrael”, by Rav H. Schachter shlit”a and Contemporary Halakhic Problems, Vols. I-II, by Rav J. D. Bleich shlit”a.) Positions range from obligatory (mitzva chiyuvit) to optional (mitzva kiyumit) to not binding at all . It is not the intention of this article to indicate which position is the normative halacha. But, all would seem to agree as to the centrality of living in the Holy Land at all times in avodat Hashem. (See The Boundaries of the Land, by Rav H. Schachter, on TorahWeb.org for additional aspects of Eretz Yisrael.) A cursory glance at the Rambam in Hilchot M’lachim, based primarily on the G’mara at the end of K’tubot, highlights the immense spiritual value of dwelling in Eretz Yisrael. And this is true even though, according to some, the Rambam does not consider dwelling in the Land of Israel an obligatory commandment (although many authorities maintain that even the Rambam views it as obligatory but did not count it as a mitzva for technical reasons -- see the above articles for further discussion). This stresses that the ma’ala ruchanis -- spiritual benefit -- gained from living in the armon haMelech -- the palace of the King is quite independent from the binding nature of the mitzva of aliya (see Volume II of Contemporary Halakhic Problems for further discussion of this point). The current crisis in Eretz Yisrael, bringing to the forefront of our consciousness the fact that we cannot take this gift for granted, must motivate us to reexamine our commitment to these concepts. If the main place of kiyum hamitzvot is in Eretz Yisrael, does one have a right to remain in Chutz La’aretz? Sometimes the answer is yes for religious, family, financial, or other reasons (see Pischei T’shuva Even Haezer 75). But, oftentimes the decision to remain is made by lack of serious thought as to the centrality of Eretz Yisrael in our Torah. It behooves every religious Jew to investigate the feasibility of enhancing his avodas Hashem by seeking out ways and means to settle in Eretz HaKodesh.

In the words of Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld zt”l, famous Rav of Yerushalayim, every Jew will have to answer in heaven as to why he did not live his life in the Land of Israel. If these words were stated at the turn of the century, when living in Eretz haKodesh was fraught with difficulties in terms of finding schooling, employment, and medical care, then all the more so, should we, who have been zoche to see the yad Hashem in our Land becoming a world center of Torah learning and Yeshivos, as well as economically successful, consider these words seriously.

It is no wonder then, that Moshe Rabbeinu desired entry into the Promised Land even if for a short time. May we learn from our teacher’s example!

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