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Parshas Masei (5768)

"This Land is Our Land ..."

We are presently in the middle of what is known traditionally as the "Three Weeks" - the saddest period in the Jewish calendar in which we mourn the destruction of the Holy Temple and the loss of our homeland, and we pray to G-d to return His Divine Presence to Zion and His people to Jerusalem.

Ironically, at this time when we in the Diaspora are yearning to come back to our land, the government of Israel is involved in all kinds of peace talks and negotiations with its enemies (direct talks with Abbas and the PA and indirect talks with Assad and Syria through Turkey) which might involve giving away that land - including areas of Judea and Samaria, and possibly (but unlikely) the Golan Heights.

Now I don't know whether or not these talks and any eventual peace agreement with either the PA or Syria will accomplish the type of peace that was attained by giving back the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in the late 70's, but one thing I can tell you. And that is that while the majority of the Sinai Peninsula is not a part of the Biblical Land of Israel, the so-called "West Bank" and the Golan Heights to the north definitely are. As the Torah states, when describing the Land's boundaries, in this week's Torah Portion: "From Atzmon the [southern] border shall turn [north] and follow the Egyptian Wadi [el Arish] which shall be its far boundary to the west." (Numbers 34:5). [See Artscroll Stone Edition Chumash page 923 for a map of the Biblical boundaries of the Land of Israel.]

Of course the fact that these areas are part of the Biblical Promised Land doesn't necessarily mean that we shouldn't "return" them if by so doing we can achieve a lasting peace with our Arab neighbors. Frankly, that is a political (some would add halachic) debate that I would rather not get into right now. But it has other very important ramifications.

You see, unbeknownst to many Jews in the world today, one of the 613 Commandments of the Torah (according to many authorities) is for each and every Jew to dwell in the Land of Israel, as we shall explain presently.


Earlier in this week's Torah portion, G-d commands Moses to say to the Children of Israel:

"When you cross the Jordan to the land of Canaan, you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the Land before you; and you shall destroy all their prostration stones; all their molten images shall you destroy; and all their high places shall you demolish. You shall possess the Land and you shall settle in it, for to you have I given the Land to possess it." (Numbers 33:50)

Nachmanides, the great medieval Torah commentator, in his explanation of these verses, writes that the phrase "You shall possess the Land" Biblically obligates the Jewish community collectively to take control of the government of Israel, and not to leave it in the hands of another. The second phrase, "and you shall settle in it", legislates a positive commandment for each individual to live in the Land of Israel, even if the land is under foreign domination.

These two mitzvos, according to Nachmanides, are applicable throughout history and are as relevant to our generation as they were to the generation led by Joshua bin Nun, who first entered Israel. This commandment is generally referred to as the mitzvah of Yishuv Eretz Yisrael - to dwell in the Land of Israel. There is a great question among the later rabbinic commentaries if this interpretation of Nachmanides is shared by other great Torah authorities, most notably Maimonides. The aforementioned verses can be understood as to apply only to the first generation who originally entered the Land of Israel, and not to future generations. However, the consensus of rabbinic authorities follows the view of Nachmanides who holds that there is an actual Biblical commandment (counted as one of the 613 mitzvos) for each and every Jew to live in the Land of Israel.

Wow!! Do you have any idea what this means? This means that according to Torah law, it is not enough to "show our support" by picking ourselves up from our cozy homes in the Diaspora and visiting our suffering brothers and sisters in the Holy Land every so often ... it is actually a Biblical commandment incumbent upon all of us to move to Israel!!!

Now, wait ... hold on a second there! Before any of you start calling your travel agent and the realtor, I must qualify and clarify the above statement. I mean, if it were so clear-cut and simple that we are all obligated to get up and move to Israel, no matter what, then what am I doing here living in Canada, writing a hypocritical D'var Torah telling all of you to move to Israel, when I myself should really be living in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv (or the Gaza strip) and not in Houston?!

The truth is that for the better part of the last 2000 years since our Temple was destroyed by the Romans and we were exiled to the four corners of the globe, the majority of the Jewish people lived outside of the Land of Israel - including many great Rabbis and leaders who were well aware of the mitzvah of Yishuv Eretz Yisrael - so obviously there's a lot more that needs to be said about the nature and applicability of this particular commandment.


You've probably heard the old joke that people tell about (some) Israelis and their manners (or lack thereof):

An American, a Pole, a Chinese, and an Israeli are standing on a street corner when a man comes over with a clipboard.
"Excuse me," he says, "I am taking a poll. What is your opinion of the world meat shortage?"
The American asks: "What's a 'shortage'?"
The Pole asks: "What's 'meat'?"
The Chinese asks: "What's an 'opinion'?"
The Israeli asks: "What's 'excuse me'?"

And how about these old-time favorites about the Israeli economy and inflation:
What's the difference between a dollar and a shekel?
A dollar.

How do you make a small fortune in Israel?
Come with a large one.

Look, no one ever said that living in Israel was easy. And for these reasons and others, Jews throughout the generations, though wanting to live in the Promised Land, found it difficult to actually get up and move there.

Way back in the Middle Ages, one of the French Tosafists (grandsons of Rashi, the preeminent Talmudic commentator, and great Talmudic commentators in their own right) wrote that the mitzvah to dwell in the Land of Israel should not apply in his times because the journey and subsequent life in Israel are fraught with danger. (This may or may not apply in our times, when traveling to Israel is definitely not difficult, save the occasional rude flight attendant, and when living in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv might be a little scary, but is definitely not "fraught with danger", no matter how they portray it in the media. However, living in the West Bank on one of the Jewish settlements is a whole different issue, with the Kassam rockets and all ...)

The Talmud in Bava Basra 91a lists poverty as grounds for exemption from the mitzvah. One who cannot make a comfortable living in Israel is not required to live there in penury. In another place in the Talmud, permission is granted to leave the Land of Israel in order to learn Torah or to marry. Although both Torah and prospective spouses are readily available in Israel, the Talmudic sages recognized that cases may arise where a person feels he can only lead a normal life learning from a particular Rabbi or married to a particular person who resides outside Israel (and, I might add, who speaks English, which would be helpful.)

The common denominator of these cases is the opportunity to lead a "normal life". Even if we were to accept that there exists today, as always, a binding obligation upon each and every Jew to dwell in the Land of Israel, we could not be expected to live in Israel under abnormal and unbearable conditions. If living in Israel means a life of poverty, or a life devoid of the Torah or companionship of one's choice, then the obligation falls away. Put differently, it may be said that the Land of Israel, being the land chosen and sanctified by G-d, is the natural and proper place for Jews, the people chosen by Him to live there. For individual Jews there may be extenuating circumstances, such as those mentioned above, in which it becomes clear that their place is not in Israel.

[Some have even suggested, based on this rationale, that the greatest Torah scholars and leaders of the Diaspora are permitted, or even obligated, to remain in Chutz La'Aretz (outside Israel) because that is their sphere of influence, and it is there that they will have the most beneficial effect in disseminating Torah for those who need it most.]


Now I make no claim to be the great Torah authority who has the ability and the knowledge to decide whether or not the mitzvah of Yishuv Eretz Yisrael - which according to many great Rabbis is obligatory for each and every Jew - applies in a given situation. Nor is it my intention to decide on such important and delicate issues, which have to be analyzed and dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

My main point, though, is, that even if we do return land in the hope that it will bring us the peace we so desperately crave, we must never forget that the land we are giving up is ours - part of the land G-d promised to Abraham and his descendants (that's us) as recorded in the Bible - and, as such, is land that is included in the greater commandment for us to dwell and inhabit the Land of Israel.

And whether we choose to actually fulfill this commandment today and pack our bags and move to Haifa or Hebron or wherever in the Land of Israel we want to live, or if we decide to stay in New Jersey or London or Toronto for whatever reason we feel we need to be there, it is important for us to know that Israel - all of it - is every Jew's real home, and the place where G-d really wants us to live.

As the great Jewish philosopher and poet Rabbi Judah Halevi once wrote: "Libi b'mizrach v'anochi b'sof maarav - My heart is in the east even though I am far west." I may be living in North America or Europe because that's where I have to be - my job, family and community is here and I am not ready to give all that up to move to Israel even though we finally have our own Jewish autonomy there - but my heart echoes with a yearning for the beauty, holiness, and uniqueness of my true home - Eretz Yisrael.

[Sources: Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society Number VIII pages 14-33]

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