TORAT ERETZ YISRAEL
by Tzvi Fishman
When the month of Shvat begins we naturally think about Tu B’Shvat, the holiday which celebrates our love for Eretz Yisrael.
The holiday of Tu B’Shvat is mentioned in the Mishna as the New Year of Trees (Rosh HaShanah, 1:1). The date is important in regard to the tithing of fruit in the Land of Israel, whereby portions of the harvest were distributed to the Kohanim, Leviim, and to the poor. Tithes from the past year are not allowed to be included in tithes for the present year, so a date is needed to mark the difference, called the New Year of Trees. The custom of enjoying a festive meal on Tu B’Shvat, a feast of thanksgiving, with a cornucopia of fruits on the table highlighting the 7 species of fruits indigenous to Eretz Yisrael, began 400 years ago, as a way of paying tribute to, and expressing our yearning for, the Land of Israel, the only place where commandment of tithes is performed. Today’s joyous practice of going out to the hills and valleys of the Holy Land, to plant saplings on Tu B’Shvat, is a more recent custom, a festive outing which has been almost universally adopted by families and the school system in Israel, once again to show our love for the Land, and to actually perform the Torah commandment to settle Eretz Yisrael and not leave it in a state of desolation, which we do simply by planting a tree, (See the Ramban, “Supplement to the Sefer HaMitzvot of the Rambam,” Positive Commandment 4).
There are two types of commandments in the Torah – the commandments that are dependent upon the Land of Israel, and those commandments which are not. Every commandment which depends upon the Land of Israel may only be performed in the Land. The other mitzvot can be performed anywhere (Kiddushin 36B). However, the universally recognized Torah Giant, the Ramban, teaches that the true place of performance for all of the commandments is only in the Land of Israel (Ramban, Commentary on the Torah, Bereshit, 26:5; Devarim, 11:18). Everywhere else, when a Jew performs a commandment, he is merely going through the motions so that he won’t forget how to do them during his exile in foreign lands (Sifre, Ekev, 11:18, and Rashi, Devarim, 11:18. Also, Ramban there).
Perhaps this statement seems unduly harsh, but I am not the one who coined it, but rather the famous Torah commentator, Rashi, who is diligently studied in every Talmud Torah and yeshiva in the Jewish world, as well as by adults throughout the week as part of their Torah Portion reading.
Rashi quotes the Midrash: “Even though I am exiling you from Eretz Yisrael to outside of the Land, distinguish yourself with the commandments, so that when you return, they will not seem new in your eyes,” (Sifre, Ekev, 11:18). Rashi comments: “This is like a king who became angry at his wife and sent her away. He said to her, ‘Wear your jewelry so it won’t seem new to you when you return to the palace.’ Thus HaKadosh Baruch Hu says to Israel, ‘My sons, distinguish yourselves with precepts so that when you return, they won’t be new to you,” (Rashi, Devarim, 11:18).
We learn from this that the true, G-d given place for the commandments is in Eretz Yisrael. Their purpose in the Exile is to keep us attached to the Torah, so that when we return, the commandments of the Torah won’t seem unfamiliar and new. But the main place for their performance is in Israel. The Land of Israel is not just our geographical homeland, it is the foundation of all of the Torah and Jewish observance. Without our Land, we are like fish out of water – or, as the Prophet Ezekiel proclaimed, like a graveyard of dry and scattered lifeless bones without our true NATIONAL essence. In fact, two-thirds of the Mishna applies only to Jewish Life in the Land of Israel, such as the commandments and laws of the Jerusalem Temple, the Sanhedrin, the Israelite king and army, and the agricultural laws which apply only in Eretz Yisrael. Indeed, it is almost like there were two Torahs – the complete National Torah of Eretz Yisrael, where all the mitzvot can be observed on a National level, and the truncated Torah of the Exile which focuses on the individual precepts that we are still beholden to perform in galut, even though they lack their true meaning and value. Judaism in Gentile lands resembles an exercise bicycle which you peddle to keep in shape, but the peddling won’t take you anywhere. Thus, to illustrate this all-important Torah perspective in a simple, readily comprehensible manner, if you try to do the mitzvah of tithes from an orange grove in Florida, or to separate Ma’aser from a date palm in Brooklyn (if you can find a date palm there), or to observe the precept of Orlah in Moscow or Berlin, you will be committing a transgression by taking the Name of Hashem in vain when reciting the blessing over the precept. In the same light, you cannot build an Altar in Boca Ratan and sacrifice a cow or a goat, or assemble the Israel Defense Forces in Monsey or Lakewood. In America, a Jew can have a rifle in his home, but I doubt the local police would agree to a division of tanks, missile launchers, and a squadron of jet bombers. The point is that in the Exile, a Jew can perform individual precepts such as Tefillin, Shabbat, and Kashrut, but all of the National precepts are missing. The Torah of the Exile is not the same Torah as Torat Eretz Yisrael. For the Torah is much more than a list of commandments for private individuals – the Torah is the Constitution of the Israelite NATION. And that, my friends, is an enormous difference. And the thing which makes the difference possible is Eretz Yisrael.