Rabbi Yakov Haber
Rabbi Yakov Haber

Uniqueness of the Land; Uniqueness of the Jewish People

"This is the land that will fall to you as an inheritance..." (Mas'ei 34:2). On this verse the Midrash (B'Midbar Rabba 23:11) comments:

What does "to you" mean? To you it is appropriate. An analogy can be given to a king who had male-servants and female-servants. He originally would marry them off to members of another family. Then he reasoned to himself, "The male-servants are mine and the female servants are mine; it is better that I marry off my own to my own!" So too HKB"H, so to speak, said, "The Land is Mine as it states, 'To Hashem is the Land' ... and Israel is Mine as it states, 'For to Me are the children of Israel servants'; it is better that I bequeath My Land to My servants; Mine to Mine."

The Midrash continues:

That which the verse states, "[Of] the might of His handiwork he informed His people": HKB"H said to Israel, "I could have created a new land for you; rather, in order to show you My might, I will smite your enemies before you and give you their land." [This] fulfills [the above verse], "[Of] the might of His handiwork he informed His people, in order to give them the inheritance of nations."

Rav Chaim Yaakov Goldwicht zt"l, the founding Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh, notes (Asufas Ma'arachos, Mas'ei) that the two parts of the Midrash seem to contradict each other. The first part implies an ontological, unique bond between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel calling this match, "Mine to Mine". The second passage though implies that G-d just as easily could have created a new land, but gave the Land of Israel to the Jews for some other reason. Furthermore, the question can be raised as to how these two reasons fit with each other. Was Eretz Yisrael given to the Jewish people because it is a "match made in heaven" or was it given to Klal Yisrael to demonstrate Hashem's power?

Rav Goldwicht's answer to these questions provides an important insight as to the nature of living in the land of Israel and indeed of all of avodas Hashem. Here we present his approach with some expansions. When the Midrash comments that G-d could have easily created another land and given it to the Jewish people, it does not mean to imply that Eretz Yisrael is not uniquely destined for them in the world as we know it. Rather, Hashem could have created, meaning, originally arranged the world in a way in which a different land would have these properties - a land which would not have the seven nations residing there, thus not necessitating warring against them and chasing them out. But Hashem arranged that they should reside there in order to demonstrate His power in conquering them.

When Hashem refers to Eretz Yisrael as "Mine", this is meant to convey that unlike regular farming activities consisting of working land which run the risk of leading a person to "earthiness" (artizyus) and diminishing his connection to the spiritual, the working of the Land of Israel has the potential to elevate and connect us to Hashem. In the words of Bilam, "Who can count the dirt of Jacob?" (Balak 23:10). On this verse Rashi comments from the Midrash, "Who can count the mitzvos which they do with the land?" Eretz Yisrael was designed by the Creator of the world to reveal within it the fact that all aspects of the world can be elevated to serve the Maker of all. Yisrael is also call "Mine" since they are uniquely suited to uncover the sanctity within all aspects of the world. Thus the joining of Eretz Yisrael with B'nei Yisrael was a fantastic "shidduch".

Chasam Sofer (Sukka 36a) has a remarkable insight as to the nature of living and working in the land. The Talmud (Berachos 35b) records a debate as to the proper lifestyle one should lead. Whereas R' Yishmael maintains that one should combine Torah study with a profession, as the verse states, "And you shall gather your grain", R' Shimon bar Yochai maintains that one should ideally devote all of his energies to Torah study, and then he will be assured that his work will be done by others. (See Bei'ur Halacha (156 s.v. "sofa") as to who should follow which approach.) Chasam Sofer suggests that even R' Yishmael only idealized working the land together with Torah study in the land of Israel where the very working of the land is a mitzvah. Just as one cannot abandon other mitzvos for Torah study, one should not ignore the mitzvah of working the land for Torah study.[1] He further writes that even other trades perhaps also fulfill the mitzvah of yishuv ha'aretz. But in the exile, where working the land or engaging in a profession does not fulfill a specific mitzvah, even R' Yishmael would agree with R' Shimon bar Yochai that a Torah-alone lifestyle is preferable.[2] These words highlight the very nature of the land: in it, all activities can be uniquely elevated when performed with the right intentions.

My father-in-law, Rav Yitzchak Handel shlit"a, would often cite the verse in Yirmiyahu (2:2) read in last week's haftora, "I remembered the kindness of your youth ...your following me in the desert, in a land not planted (lo zaru'a)". He homiletically would read this verse as referring to the land of Israel, a land planted with "lo" ("do not"). Meaning, unlike outside of the land where some activities are holy and some are mundane, every aspect of the land has a mitzvah attached to it. "Do not work during shemitta." "Do not forget to take terumos uma'asros." "Do not plant mixed seeds," etc. In the words of Rav Zev Leff shlit"a, in Eretz Yisrael even the fruits wear a yarmulke!

Based on this, Rav Goldwicht explains the connection between the two parts of the Midrash. The Canaanite nations were the most corrupt and depraved of nations to the extent that the Torah (Acharei Mos 18:3) specifically adjures us not to mimic their evil ways. Why then did G-d arrange it that precisely this land is the one we would inherit? The answer is that the existence of such nations in the land precisely indicates the uniqueness of the Land. Kabbalistically, even the greatest of depraved acts is connected to a spark of sanctity; otherwise, it could not exist. The existence of such abhorrent acts in the land of Israel demonstrated the fact that the land had such great potential for its inhabitants to uncover all of its inherent sanctity and channel all of its enormous spiritual energy regarding all aspects of life in the land for avodas Hashem and kedusha.

Thus the two approaches of the Midrash are interrelated. Eretz Yisrael is called "Mine" because of its uniqueness in fostering the revelation of sanctity in all aspects of life. And the fact that G-d chose to bestow a land to his nation which was inhabited by corrupt, depraved Canaanties also demonstrated the Land's inherent ability to foster sanctity in everything, as explained above. The words of the Midrash "to show My might" can be interpreted to mean to demonstrate that Hashem's sanctity pervades all aspects of the world, even the seemingly most physical aspects. The sanctity of the land would emerge precisely from the darkness of the evil which existed in it before the Jewish people's entry and was expelled from it.

The yishuv in Eretz Yisrael today manifests a broad fulfillment of the Chasam Sofer's and Rav Goldwicht's words. Besides the enormous flourishing of Torah study and religious development in Eretz Yisrael, the land has been developed agriculturally; the economy has burgeoned to the extent that Israel is a world-wide exporter; much of worldwide technology is developed in the land of Israel. All of these Divine blessings allow for a previously unimagined fulfillment of the mitzvah of yishuv ha'aretz. But herein lies the test. Will these blessings be utilized to bring sanctity to the land bringing the Torah's mitzvos and values to bear on all of these productive activities? Will the Jewish people realize its unique role among the nations - to be a beacon of light and a shining example of Torah morality to the whole word? Or chas v'shalom will the blessings be utilized to repeat the mistakes of our ancestors who when entering the land fell into the evil ways of the prior inhabitants, misusing its blessings and not properly revealing the sanctity within it. Although here we have stressed Eretz Yisrael's unique role in imbuing sanctity into everything, the concept of elevating the mundane, of permeating all aspects of life with sanctity is of course not unique to Eretz Yisrael. This theme serves as a major pillar of all of avodas Hashem. Therefore, this struggle is ultimately relevant to worldwide Jewry. As a popular expression here in Israel goes, "'Am hanetzach lo m'facheid miderech aruca - the eternal Jewish people is not afraid of a long journey", but the long journey begins with one step at a time. The Jewish people will of course eventually realize all of these lofty goals. When and how long their achievement will take depends on us.

As the Bein HaMetzarim period transitions into the more heightened mourning period of the "Nine Days" leading to Tisha B'Av when we lost our right to the land, this is an opportune time to reassess and deeply contemplate the purpose of our uniqueness as a nation in general and the purpose of the gift of the Holy Land specifically. In the words of Yeshayahu (43:21 quoted by Rav Goldwicht) "Am zu yatzarti li, t'hilasi y'sapeiru - this nation which I have formed for Myself, they shall recount My praise."


[1]The existence of Sheivet Leivi and by extension Torah scholars who are "honorary members" of Sheivet Leivi (see Rambam, end of Hilchos Sh'mitta v'Yoveil) directly indicates that this approach would not be for everyone. The select few would indeed be best suited in their service of Klal Yisrael with a Torah-alone lifestyle. The Chasam Sofer would presumably agree.

[2]This idea is a tremendous chiddush for life in the exile and is seemingly against the simple ruling of Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 156). The topic obviously requires a much broader treatment. Here we focus on the aspect of the Chasam Sofer's chiddush relating to Eretz Yisrael.

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