Parshas Vayigash (5771)
In this week’s riveting Torah portion, Joseph finally reveals his true identity to his brothers and tells them to go up quickly to their aging father Jacob in the Land of Canaan (present-day Israel) to tell him the good news that his long-lost son is still alive (see Genesis 45:1-9).
Rashi, quoting the Talmud in Zevachim 54b, explains that the reason why Joseph instructed his brothers to “go up” to Israel from Egypt is because the Land of Israel is “higher” than all other lands.
As well, it is common to say about a Jew who immigrates to Israel that he is “making aliyah” (aliyah means ‘ascent’ in Hebrew). On the flip side, an Israeli who moves from his native Tel Aviv to Los Angeles (a first choice for many Israelis) is said to have made yeridah (which is a Hebrew word meaning – you guessed it – ‘descent’).
By now the question should be obvious to anyone who knows anything about geography and topography (unless, of course, you’re Miss South Carolina Teen USA 2007). While it is true that the lowest point on earth can be found in the land of Israel – the Dead Sea, which is 420 meters below sea level – the highest elevation on earth is certainly not in Israel! So how can the Talmud say that the Land of Israel is higher than all other lands?
Many commentators maintain – because of this obvious problem - that the Talmud’s statement about the Land of Israel’s elevation above all other lands should not be interpreted literally. Rather, the Sages meant to teach us about the inherent kedushah, or holiness, of the Land of Israel – the land that G-d promised Abraham He would give to his descendants, all of us, the Jewish people.
The Mahara”l, in his commentary on Talmudic Aggados to Kiddushin 69a, explains that the Talmud is primarily referring to the spiritual loftiness of the Land of Israel, and not to its physical height. He adds that while the earth is round and therefore any one point on the globe can be seen as being the ‘highest’ point depending on how one positions the globe, the Land of Israel, by virtue of its spiritual stature, is worthy of being viewed as the highest point above all other points of earth.
The Chasam Sofer (Responsa, Part II, Y.D. §234) offers a fascinating explanation as to what the Talmud means when it states that Israel is the highest place on earth:
According to long-standing Jewish tradition, the point from which G-d brought the world into existence was a certain rock called the Even Shesiyah, or Foundation Stone. As our Sages wrote in the Talmud in Yoma 54b, it was from this rock (which is situated on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem) that the world was created, itself being the first part of the Earth to come into existence.
And our tradition is that on this same spot - which is the spiritual centerpoint between heaven and earth - was built the Kodesh Kadashim, the “Holy of Holies” in both of the Holy Temples that were erected in Jerusalem. In the words of the Zohar: “The world was not created until God took a stone called Even Shesiyah and threw it into the depths where it was fixed from above till below, and from it the world expanded. It is the centre point of the world and on this spot stood the Holy of Holies”.
[The Radva”z and many other great sages throughout history have claimed that the huge rock at the heart of the present-day Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is the actual Foundation Stone from which the world was initially created. It is important to note that other prominent rabbis and mystics have claimed that the exact position of the Foundation Stone and the Holy of Holies is not under the Dome of the Rock but is actually in between the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, right behind the exposed part of the Western Wall where Jews have been coming to pray to G-d ever since the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70CE.]
As the earth is round, says the Chasam Sofer, it would be hard to pinpoint any one point on the globe as being the ‘highest’ point. However, if we are to consider that the Foundation Stone on the Temple Mount is the centerpoint from which G-d created the world, we can indeed view Israel (and Jerusalem) as being higher than all other lands, since it was the first place to be created before the rest of the globe came into existence.
Whatever way we understand the Talmud’s statement about Israel’s elevation above all other lands, there is no question that anyone who makes aliyah and moves to Israel today is truly ‘moving up in the world’ - as Eretz Yisrael, the land in which our holy forefathers lived, and the place where our Holy Temples were built and where the Third Temple will soon be rebuilt, is truly a holy and elevated place. (Indeed, many Jews are making aliyah these days. According to recent Jewish population surveys, more Jews live in Israel today than in all of North America, and close to half the world’s total Jewish population presently resides in Israel!)
Israel is not the only place to which Jews make aliyah. It seems that every time we go to shul to pray, we are supposed to be ‘moving up’ to a higher place. The Talmud in Shabbos 11a warns against constructing houses that are taller than the synagogue: “Any city whose rooftops are taller than the synagogue will eventually be destroyed.” And the Shulchan Aruch in Orach Chayim 150:2 codifies this prohibition.
[The question arises as to how we may justify the prevalent practice to allow building homes that extend higher than the local synagogue. Some suggest that since in most places in Europe where Jews lived over the past 1000 years, the local Christians always required that the church be the highest structure, the synagogue wasn’t the highest building anyway so this law wasn’t enforced. As well, in modern cities with tall buildings and skyscrapers, this law is not really practical. As such, it's permitted for one to build one's house taller than the synagogue - though it's preferable to refrain from doing so when possible.]
Inside the synagogue as well, the Halachah requires that the bimah, the platform in the center of the synagogue where the person reading aloud from the Torah stands during the Torah reading service, should be elevated above the rest of the synagogue. (According to mystical tradition, there should be no more than six steps leading up to the bimah.) The reason for this requirement is to remind us of the elevated status and importance of the Torah in the synagogue and in our lives, as well as to make it easier for everyone to hear the Reader of the Torah.
It is for this reason, of course, that the person who is ‘called up’ to the Torah during the Torah reading service is said to be honored with an aliyah, since he ascends the bimah to recite the blessings over the Torah. Before I go, I would like to call your attention to one more form of aliyah in Jewish tradition – the aliyah and spiritual elevation that a deceased person’s neshamah (soul) attains when his living relatives and friends study Torah and do good deeds on his behalf.
You see, many of us struggle with the loss of connection to our loved ones after they pass on, and we sometimes wonder if there is anything we can do to keep that connection alive. The truth is that we have the power to do something very meaningful. Our mitzvos and charity can give our departed loved ones a powerful aliyah in Heaven – thus connecting to them and helping their souls in the most amazing way. [To find out what exactly you can do to give your loved one’s soul an aliyah in the next world, I recommend reading the book The Neshamah Should Have An Aliyah by Rabbi Tzvi Hebel, published by the Judaica Press.]
May G-d bless us all that we should always be making aliyah in our lives – consistently growing in our Jewish knowledge and practice, and constantly striving to become more spiritual and G-dlike. Amen.