The Complete Torah and Eretz Yisrael
by Tzvi Fishman
The Book of Vayikra begins in a very unusual manner. Look at the very first word. The letter “alef” at the end of the word “Vayikra” is much smaller than the other letters. The Zohar teaches that because the Mishkan was built in the Sinai Wilderness, the Divine Presence (known as the Shechinah) which rested on it was much smaller than the Shechinah which appears in Eretz Yisrael proper, because the completeness of Divine Revelation in the world appears only in the Land of Israel with its ultimate culmination in Jerusalem. Let me explain with a few mundane examples.
Everyone readily understands that there are levels of measurement and performance. Some people have a higher IQ than others. Some people are stronger than others. Some cars can drive faster than others. There are magnificent championship golf courses and there is miniature golf. There is Major League Baseball and there is the little league.
In the same way, there is a difference between the Torah of the exile and the Torah of Eretz Yisrael. Not only quantitatively in the greater number of commandments a person can perform in the Land of Israel, but also qualitatively in the measure of Hashem’s manifestation in the world, and in a far deeper understanding and observance of the Torah – the fullness of Torah which can only be obtained in the Land where the Torah was meant to be kept.
When a person has the proper understanding of Torah, he or she longs to live a life of Torah in the Land of Israel. He longs for Redemption from exile; he longs for the ingathering of the exiles to Israel; he longs to take a part in the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the renaissance of the Nation of Israel in its Land, just as we request in our prayers three times a day. Building the Israelite Nation in the Holy Land is the entire direction and goal of the Torah. Without it, Torah is a dry, lifeless, little-league version of the real thing. No matter how comfortable pleasant the Jewish community in Boca, Beverly Hills, or Berlin may be, it’s not the real thing.
Of course, throughout the long and painful generations that we were outcast from our Land, the Judaism of the exile was all that we had and its value was beyond all measure, preserving the our sacred heritage until the time arrived when we could return to our Homeland. But now that we can come home and step up to major-league Torah, why linger on in the minors?
I remember when I was a boy, my grandfather would take my brother and me on trips to Lake George in upstate New York. On the way, there were all kinds of attractions for tourists like “Frontier Town” and “Indian Village” which tried to replicate the real thing. That is what Diaspora Jewry is like compared to real Jewish life in Israel.
Let’s take the Birthright Program as another example. The Birthright adventure is a wonderful thing in that it affords young Jews to visit Israel for free, but instead of teaching them that Israel is their one and only Homeland, and the place where they should be living, they use the Land of Israel as a giant “Israeli Village” to strengthen feelings of Jewish pride and identity. This approach distorts the real value of Eretz Yisrael and totally misses the foundation upon which all the Torah rests – that Eretz Yisrael is the Land of the Jews and the Land of the Torah – the place that the Master of the Universe set aside for His People to live. In actuality, the truth is the other way around from the perspective of Birthright. In truth, Israel is our home and America is a place you can visit for a ten day vacation – if you can find a valid halachic reason for leaving the Land.
Rabbi Kook states this strategic understanding in his scholarly fashion:
“The thought regarding Eretz Yisrael that it has merely a peripheral value to facilitate the subsistence of the unified nation; even when it comes to fortify the concept of Judaism in the Diaspora, in order to preserve its form, and to strengthen the belief and fear of G-d, and to strengthen the performance of the commandments in a proper fashion – this orientation toward Eretz Yisrael is not worthy of lasting fruition, for its foundation is rickety in light of the towering, unshakable holiness of Eretz Yisrael” (Orot, 1:1).
In the language of laymen – Eretz Yisrael is more than a Jewish Disneyland to bolster Jewish identity for ten days before flying back to New York or South Florida.
Someone who thinks that Jewish life in America is all roses and candy doesn’t understand that Torah doesn’t just concern itself with the life of the individual Jew, but rather Torah concerns itself with the welfare of the “Clal,” the Jewish Nation as a whole, including a Jewish government, Jewish army, Jewish judicial system, and a national center of worship climaxed in the Beit HaMikdash in Jerusalem. Furthermore, when the Jewish People all live in Israel and not amidst the Gentiles then assimilation doesn’t exist.
And for those devout Diasporians who maintain that their hermetic religious communities are safe from assimilation and danger, you are deluding yourselves into thinking that your future is secure. As our history has taught us the hard way, and as the Talmud attests, when a brushfire breaks out amongst the weeds, it isn’t long before the winds carry it along to sweep up the haystacks as well. The haystacks are the Torah scholars and the flourishing Jewish communities. In Europe, when the fires of anti-Semitism erupted, they didn’t ravage only the weaker non-religious communities, they burnt up the stronger, more righteous bastions as well.
In Part 1 of this series of essays, we began our discussion by citing the Zohar which explains the reason for the tiny letter “alef” at the end of the first word of the Torah portion “Vayikra.” The miniature letter symbolizes the greatly reduced level of the Divine Presence which appears outside of the Land of Israel, in contrast to its complete manifestation in the Holy Land. Employing a modern-day metaphor, we noted that in comparison to the Major League Torah of Eretz Yisrael the second-string Jewish life of the Diaspora is the minors.
For example, the past year in Israel, every religious Jew was busy, in one form or another, with the mitzvah of Shmittah, the Sabbatical year when the Land must rest from labor. This countrywide mitzvah influenced the food that we bought, where we bought it, what housewives did with the discarded peels of the Land’s holy fruit, what homeowners do in their gardens, and what farmers do in their agricultural fields. All of these things don’t exist for the Jews of Chutz L’Aretz (the Diaspora) who are not obligated by this gigantic, national mitzvah. Even those in Israel who hold by the “Heter HaMichirah” which technically temporarily transfers the Land to non-Jewish ownership, are involved in a day-to-day basis with the consequences of Shmittah.
The Torah portion, “Ke Tavo,” begins, “When you come to the Land….” The Torah doesn’t say, “If you come to the Land….” The Torah takes it for granted that a Jew will come to the Land because that is where a Jew belongs, that is where G-d decreed that the Jews keep the Torah.
The Torah portion goes on to describe all of the bountiful blessings the Jewish People will receive if we properly express the gratitude and joy we should rightly feel over the great gift of the Land. In contrast, if we scorn this unparalleled gift of Eretz Yisrael, the only place the Torah can come to its true national expression, terrible curses will come to pass (may it be on our enemies), curses that have indeed plagued our history as a people because we did not appreciate it properly, as the Torah states: “because you did not serve the L-rd your G-d with joyfulness and with gladness of heart for the abundance of all things” (Devarim, 28:47).
In a letter, Rabbi Kook writes:
“The source of the moral baseness which continues to darken the world stems from the lack of recognition regarding the value and wisdom of the Land of Israel. Thus the sin of the Spies, who spoke derogatorily about the pleasant Land, remains uncorrected. To rectify this, the Land’s praise, splendor, holiness, and honor must be declared to all of the world” (Letters, Vol.1, 112-113).
Our Sages have long ago noted the exalted level of Eretz Yisrael in saying, “There is no Torah like the Torah of Eretz Yisrael” (Bereshit Rabbah,16:7). This is so, not only because over two-thirds of the Mishna deals specifically with Jewish life in Eretz Yisrael, and because many mitzvot can only be performed here – the Judaism of the Land of Israel is immeasurably more elevated because the Jewish People possess true national vitality only in the Land of Israel. Outside of the Land, Jews can excel as individuals in all fields of endeavor, including great Torah scholars, but the light of G-d cannot appear in its intended NATIONAL format. Only in the Land of Israel can the Jews be a “KINGDOM of priests and a holy NATION” (Shemot, 19:6). The Zohar emphasizes that the Jews can be a Nation only in Israel, and not outside of it where we are minorities in other people’s lands. (Zohar, Vayikra, 93B). Prophecies of Redemption all involve the return of the Jewish People to the Land of Israel and the restoration of Jewish sovereignty over the Land. The Jewish People’s unique prophetic talent is dependent on being in the Land of Israel (Kuzari, 1:95; 2:8-24). The Temple can only be rebuilt on the Temple Mount, and the full revelation of G-d’s Presence is exclusive to Eretz Yisrael, as the prophet teaches, “For Torah will go forth from Zion, and the word of the L-rd from Jerusalem” (Isaiah, 2:3).
At the time of the Second Temple, when we failed to uphold the high moral standard demanded of us by the Torah, we were punished and exiled from the Land. G-d’s worldly vessel was shattered. Israel was conquered, Jerusalem was razed, the Land was laid waste. G-d’s Chosen People were scattered and debased. Like the Jews, G-d’s Presence went into exile (Megillah, 29A). His light in the world became hidden. In effect, mankind was cut off from G-d. This gave rise to many false religions like Christianity and Islam. To rectify this tragedy and return the world to G-d, the Jewish people must return to their previous spiritual stature, including a national life in Israel, the only place in the world where the Torah can be observed in all of its wholeness because of the many commandments unique to the Land including the laws of kinship, Sanhedrin, army, Temple and the like (Ramban, Vayikra, 18:25).
On an even deeper level, each Jew has a bit of the Shechinah, or the Presence of G-d, within him. When a Jew returns to the Land of Israel, he is, in effect, bringing the Shechinah back with him (Rashi, Devarim, 30:3). This is the Kabbalistic concept of “raising up the buried sparks of holiness from the husks.” Since the soul of a Jew is infused with the light of the Shechinah, when the Jewish people return en masse to Israel, the light of G-d in the world returns with them.
A visual illustration will help us envision this global spiritual revolution that is gradually unfolding in our time. To raise ourselves to an all-encompassing, history-spanning perspective, imagine being in a spaceship orbiting the earth. Down below, scattered all over the globe, are tiny, little lights. These lights are the Jews, in their lands of dispersion around the world. Slowly, lights begin to travel to a certain point on the globe — the Land of Israel. More and more lights begin to congregate there. From all over the world, the scattered lights begin to unite in Israel. Lights that do not make the journey begin to flicker and disappear. Gradually, a great beacon of light is formed in Israel, sending out rays of light to the four corners of the globe. These rays are the lights of t’shuva, summoning mankind back to G-d, calling for them to return.
Already, the eyes of the world are turned to Israel. Headlines about the tiny country of Israel fill news reports on a day-to-day basis from all over the world. In just a few decades, Israel has become a world leader in science, medicine, agriculture, computer technology, and a gamut of other fields. Israel has become by far the world center of Torah and boasts the greatest concentration of Torah giants and students.
That’s why when it comes to Judaism and keeping the Torah, Israel is the Big Leagues, my friends, and the Diaspora pales in comparison.