When the Jewish People were exiled from the Land of Israel, the Torah was shrunken into “four cubits of halachah” (Berachot 8A). Without a land and country of our own, the NATIONAL framework of Torah was shattered, and we were only left with a handful of ritual commandments, like kashrut, tefillin, shofar, tzitzit, and Shabbat, and the other personal commandments which a Jew can perform anywhere in the world.

The Place of Torah – The Land of Israel

by Tzvi Fishman

Remember the Spies in the Wilderness? Their terrible transgression was in not wanting to keep the Torah in the Land of Israel. They wanted to live by the Torah in some other place. Even though the Spies were Torah Scholars and leaders of their Tribes, Hashem called them rebels. In a sense the Spies wanted to practice their own form of Reform Judaism, for in rejecting the commandment to dwell in Eretz Yisrael the Torah is shattered and its true national essence is destroyed. Since there are many religious Jews today who choose to live in gentile lands and not in the Land of Israel it is important to understand the tragedy which has befallen our nation in modern times and for which we are afflicted with mass assimilation. Because the comprehension of this matter is vital to a true understanding of Torah the explanation is somewhat lengthy. In order to illuminate the matter, we will use this week’s Torah portion of Shoftim as a guide.

When the Jewish People were exiled from the Land of Israel, the Torah was shrunken into “four cubits of halachah” (Berachot 8A). Without a land and country of our own, the NATIONAL framework of Torah was shattered, and we were only left with a handful of ritual commandments, like kashrut, tefillin, shofar, tzitzit, and Shabbat, and the other personal commandments which a Jew can perform anywhere in the world. Our Sages instructed us to continue to perform these precepts in the Diaspora, even though the commandments were given to be performed in Israel, as the Ramban (Vayikra, 18:25) and “The Kuzari” (5:23) make clear. This decree was enacted so the commandments wouldn’t be forgotten and seem new when we returned to the Land of Israel, as Rashi and other sources explain (Rashi, Devarim, 11:17-17; Sifre).

Thus, in the exile, the focus of Torah studies was placed on the day-to-day mitzvot that still applied in our wandering status, and on the private worship of the individual Jew, rather than on the all-encompassing Torah of Eretz Yisrael which focuses on the NATION, in all of its aspects of Jewish Statehood, and on the service of G-d by the “Clal,” by the nation as a whole, through which the Name of G-d is sanctified in the world.

Giving this miniaturized focus of Torah learning and the prolonged exile from our Land, it wasn’t long before the NATIONAL ESSENCE of the Torah was forgotten.

This tragic situation was exacerbated by the pernicious influence of the foreign cultures where we lived, most specifically by Christianity, whose doctrines slowly crept into our psyches and altered our understandings of Torah. For instance, exiled amongst nations who believed in a separation between religion and state, we too began to view Judaism as merely the performance and celebration of religious precepts and holidays. True, we had more commandments than the non-Jews, but other than that, we looked upon Judaism as a religion like any other, the mere practice of religious customs and laws. Matters of government, military security, agriculture, economy, a justice system, and the like, were taken care of by others, as if none of these things had anything to do with Judaism at all. This is, of course, a total falsification the Torah, which is the Constitution of the Israelite Nation with laws for judges, soldiers, policemen, as well as for the Jewish farmer and king. Furthermore, just like Christianity is a religion without an earthly, geographical base, with Christians scattered all over the world without any obligation to reside in the Vatican, the geographical foundation of the Torah, Eretz Yisrael, was stripped out of exile Judaism, and it became perfectly OK to live in Brooklyn and Beverly Hills. For the most part “Next Year in Jerusalem” was turned into a mere mantra, a dream and not a concrete option.

As generations passed and we became accustomed to this sad and shrunken state of affairs, little by little, our longing for our own Jewish kingdom and NATIONHOOD in our own Jewish Land – the essence and goal of the Torah – became a faraway fantasy or, all too often, a seemingly irrelevant matter that had no practical bearing on our lives (see Orot, 1:1, by Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook).

Nonetheless, the Torah is not just a list of religious deeds and holidays for the individual Jew, as many people still believe, clinging out of habit, and out of a lack of comprehensive learning, to this myopic and mistaken view, which stems from the length and darkness of the exile and the polluted influence of foreign religions and creeds.

For instance, take a look at the Torah portion of “Shoftim” (Devarim, 16:18). It begins talking about the role of “shoftim and shotrim,” Jewish judges and policemen. Rashi explains that the role of Jewish policemen is to make sure the commandments are kept by the populace.  There may be a Jewish cop or two in New York, but he can’t give you a fine or drag you to jail for selling bread on Passover. Obviously, we need our own Jewish Homeland and Jewish society to keep this aspect of Torah. And while the policemen and judges in Israel today don’t yet fulfill this function in all of its Torah aspects,  this is a passing phase in the evolving process of shedding the mentality and cobwebs of galut, and gradually returning to our true Torah lifestyle, little by little, so that all segments of the nation can participate in the national enterprise of Redemption, the religious and non-religious alike, everyone pitching in together, as part of G-d’s great game plan in restoring the Jewish People to Zion.

The Torah portion of Shoftim continues with the injunction that legal questions must be decided by the Jewish Supreme Court in Jerusalem. The Justice system set down in the Torah is attached to Jerusalem. The Torah’s use of the expression, “the place that I have chosen” means necessarily Jerusalem and no other place. For example, the declaring of the New Moon and thus the setting of the dates of the Jewish Holidays can only be made by a Beit Din in Jerusalem.

Next, the Torah portion of “Shoftim” speaks about the Jewish king. Imagine a Jewish king in Paris, London, or America! Especially when the Jewish king is called upon to enforce Torah law over the kingdom where he rules. Obviously, this part of the Torah can only come to fruition in the Land of the Jews. Also, please note that the affairs of the king refer specifically to the Jewish NATION in the NATIONAL framework of the Torah. It isn’t a private mitzvah for every Jew to declare himself king. Imagine what chaos that would lead to:

“I’m the king!”

“No, I’m the king!”

“What do you mean? Both of you are imposters – my son is the king!”

“What’s the big deal? My son’s a doctor!”

Obviously, the Torah is telling us that Judaism is much more than a list of ritual precepts – Judaism is the NATIONAL CONSTITUTION of the Jewish NATION. And that can only come about in the Land of Israel.

Then, the Torah portion of “Shoftim” goes on to discuss the allotments awarded to the Kohanim and Leviim. Once again, all of the matters concerning priestly dues and tithes only apply in the Land of Israel.

Then comes the rules that apply to prophets. While there may be many would-be prophets wandering around the streets of Manhattan and LA, prophecy is one of the unique specialties of the Jewish People restricted to the Land of Israel, or concerning the Land of Israel, as in the example of the prophecy of Ezekiel in the land of Kasdim which continued because it started in Eretz Yisrael and concerned the return of the Jews to Israel (Kuzari, 2:14).

Next in the Torah portion of “Shoftim” comes the designation of “cities of refuge,” where accidental murderers can flee. Once again, the Torah is not talking about Miami Beach, Las Vegas, or Chicago, even in the heydays of Meir Lansky and Bugsy Siegel.

And then we come to commandments about the Israel Defense Forces and war. With all due credit to the JDL, how long do you think a Jewish army with tanks and fighter jets would last in Russia, or Germany, or the United States? Obviously, to have a Jewish army you need your own Jewish country.

All of these things are vital parts of Torah and true Jewish life: policemen, judges, Jerusalem, Jewish kings, priestly tithes, cities of refuge, prophecy, armies, and wars.

Finally, the Torah portion of “Shoftim” ends with the mitzvah of the “eglah arufah,” in the case where a murdered body is discovered on the outskirts of the city. Once again, if you live in Brooklyn or Monsey, this doesn’t apply to you.

It turns out that this Torah portion is completely concerned with Torah life in the Land of Israel. The commandments we can perform in the exile are a Lilliputian version of Torah when compared to the all-encompassing NATIONAL TORAH of ERETZ YISRAEL.

G-d has commanded all of his People, the Children of Israel, to establish this National Torah Constitution and perform its laws in the one and only place on Earth where this is possible – in the Holy Land. This is a NATIONAL MITZVAH, incumbent on the Nation, and incumbent upon every Jew, to participate in the establishment of the Nation of Israel, according to our Torah constitution, in the Promised Land. Right now, it is called Medinat Yisrael – the State of Israel.  If, in the future, it is called something else, like “Medinat Moshe,” or “Medinat David,” or “Medinat Yehuda,” fine. Right now, G-d, in His infinite kindness, has given us the State of Israel, and it is up to us to build it, and to do our share, each and every one of us, in steering it more and more toward the path of the Torah to which we all aspire. And to do that, we have to be here, in the Chosen Land, where Hashem wants His children to be.

Now I ask you – can anything be clearer than this?




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