Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
Rabbi Michael Rosensweig

The Central Role of Eretz Yisrael in Torah Life

The Torah begins with the account of Creation. While the Ramban (1:1) and others note that that the theological and philosophical implications of Divine creation ex nihilo (creation from nothing) constitute an ideal opening, Rashi, citing the midrash, perceives the choice as problematic.

Rashi notes that it would have been more appropriate to begin the Torah with the commandment of sanctifying the new moon. The Sifsei Chachamim elaborates Rashi's perspective. He explains that the Torah is essentially a halakhic work, not a historical chronicle or even a theological-philosophical treatise. Thus, one would have anticipated that halakhic norms would set the tone from the outset. He further explains that kiddush ha-chodesh (contrasted with milah and gid ha-nasheh) constitutes the first mitzvah addressed to the Jewish people as a community, qualifying it as the proper halakhic institution to initiate the Torah narrative. Elsewhere (TorahWeb.org, Parshat ha-Hodesh, 5761) we have suggested that kiddush ha-hodesh epitomizes Klal Yisrael's input and responsibility in the halakhic process. This mitzvah, then, conveys the ideal of a halakhic partnership with Hashem, certainly a worthy foundation for all of Torah. In any case, Rashi concludes that the selection of the history of creation rather than kiddush ha-chodesh as the first chapter of the Torah was designed to unequivocally establish our rights to Eretz Yisrael by underscoring Hashem's creation and sovereignty.

Rashi's approach raises some fundamental questions. Does the fact that our claim to Eretz Yisrael has been challenged by other nations justify the need to project the basis of our sovereignty as the very first principle of the Torah, even at the expense of establishing the Torah's halakho-centricity? Moreover, even if it was necessary to ground our rights to Eretz Yisrael by means of the creation narrative why did the Torah not immediately return to the theme of kiddush ha-chodesh to accentuate the pivotal role of public halakhic institutions and of the collective status and stature of Klal Yisrael?

Upon further reflection, however, it appears that the urgency to establish our rights to Eretz Yisrael is precisely due to the centrality of Eretz Yisrael in the halakhic and hashkafic identity of Klal Yisrael. It is surely no coincidence that Eretz Yisrael is also the subject of the first imperative ("lech lechah") addressed to Avraham Avinu, the father of the nation ("av hamon goyim"), and that the first individual to be born as a Jew, Yitzchak, was destined to live his entire life in Eretz Yisrael.

Eretz Yisrael plays a major role in several crucial halakhic contexts. Though it equally affects all of the Jewish world, the determination of the halakhic calendar through the institution of kiddush ha-chodesh is itself ideally linked to Eretz Yisrael. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 11b; Berachot 63b) cites various pesukim ("Ki mi-Tziyon teitzei Torah"; "le-Shichno tidrashoo " etc.') that convey the general impact and potential of life in Eretz Yisrael as the basis of this conclusion. A parallel phenomenon exists with respect to the halakhic institution of semichah (rabbinic authority) which is indispensable to communal Jewish life. Semichah produces rabbinic judges who may adjudicate in any Jewish community (Makkot 7a), but it can only be bestowed in Eretz Yisrael (Sanhedrin 14a). The gemara in Sanhedrin (43b) concludes that the extraordinary responsibility that one Jew has for another (areivut), which stems from the concept of community that every Jew shares, began only when the nation entered its homeland, Eretz Yisrael. The gemara (Horayot 3a) rules that only the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael represents the collective community of Klal Yisrael with respect to the laws of par helem davar shel zibbur (the single korban brought for the entire community when the majority living in Israel succumb to a judicial error of the great Sanhedrin), though the effects of this law, too, extend to Jews in all geographic locations.

It is possible then that the emphasis on our rights to Eretz Yisrael right at the beginning of the Torah exemplifies the transcendent halakhic and hashkafic role of the community of Klal Yisrael, as this theme embodies the very values that make kiddush ha-chodesh an ideal introduction to the Torah. The role of Eretz Yisrael in kiddush ha-chodesh and its centrality in other pivotal institutions that affect all of Jewish life and that have little or nothing to do with the technical sanctity of the soil of the Land stems precisely from the same idealistic concept of Jewish communal life that symbolically qualify kiddush ha-chodesh for a central role! Thus, the Torah did not abandon the motifs of halakho-centricity and of the opportunities and aspirations of halakhic national life by first grounding our claim to Eretz Yisrael, but actually reinforced these principles. The Torah conveys that our identification with our homeland is a component that is critical to our identity and to our spiritual-halakhic aspirations as a people.

The Sifrei in parshat Eikev (also cited by Rashi and Ramban Devarim 11:18) strongly implies that our performance of halakhic norms outside of Eretz Yisrael serves a preparatory function as we await a return to a more ideal life in our national homeland. This perspective seems puzzling, as the mitzvot cited as examples- tefilin, mezuzah - do not have any obvious link to Eretz Yisrael. Indeed, the Gera (Kol Eliyahu, Eikev) and others (Beit ha-Levi 3:1) proposed alternate explanations of the Sifrei. However, it is possible that the Sifrei needs to be understood precisely within the context of the second section of keriyat shema where it appears. It is evident as Rashi (11:13) also notes that this section (contrasted with the first part of Shema in Vaetchanan), which focuses on kabbalat ol mitzvot (Berakkhot 13a- the commitment to implement the Torah's norms), is addressed collectively to the entire nation. Even mitzvot that devolve upon individuals are enhanced in a national-collective setting. The Sifrei declares that this communal dimension of personal mitzvot is primarily attained only in Eretz Yisrael, although as individual performances there is no particular link to the Land. [The fact that areivut applies to the performance of individual mitzvot, as evidenced by the rule of yatza motzi reflects this enhanced collective dimension.]

The Ramban (Behalotekhah) postulates that there might not have been an obligation of korban Pesach in the desert, (with the exception of the first anniversary). He does not explain why this mitzvah should be confined to Eretz Yisrael. [Although this perspective fits the Ramban's general position developed throughout his commentary on the Torah and in Sefer ha-Mitzvot regarding the overriding centrality of Eretz Yisrael in the halakhic and historical life of the Jewish people.] However, there is abundant evidence that korban Pesach reflects the national commitment of the Jewish people to the berit (covenant) with Hashem that parallels the mitzvah of berit milah on an individual plane. If so, the link to Eretz Yisrael, the exclusive national headquarters of the Jewish people, is compelling.

The crucial role of Eretz Yisrael in Jewish life, established according to Rashi in the very beginning of the Torah, has never been more evident than in our own era. The multiple pivotal roles that the reborn State of Israel has played in the aftermath of the Holocaust and in subsequent decades must not be taken for granted. The absorption of distressed and threatened Jewish communities, the restoration of Jewish hopes and aspirations, the identification of marginally committed Jews with the State, the efflorescence of Jewish learning in Eretz Yisrael and the Diaspora have transformed Jewish life in our time.

Ironically, the most recent historical chapter of the overriding, even incalculable impact of the national center of Jewish life has occurred in an environment in which the international community has doggedly persisted in questioning our claim to our homeland.

At this crucial juncture in our history when Israel is being subjected to many pressures, it is vitally important that we remain vigilant in our efforts to safeguard the military and political integrity of our national homeland. Our commitment to Eretz Yisrael transcends even the importance of a particular mitzvah or group of mitzvot. It constitutes a litmus test of our dedication to the totality of our halakhic-spiritual aspirations as a nation. This is the Torah's first and most enduring lesson.

Copyright © 2004 by The TorahWeb Foundation. All rights reserved.