Eretz Yisrael: The Place to Learn and Live the Torah
Rabbi Mordechai Gershon
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Eretz Yisrael: The Place to Learn and Live the Torah
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"בְּרֵאשִׁית" – אמר רבי יצחק: לא היה צריך להתחיל את התורה אלא מ"החדש הזה לכם" שהיא מצוה ראשונה שנצטוו ישראל. ומה טעם פתח בבראשית? משום "כֹּחַ מַעֲשָׂיו הִגִּיד לְעַמּוֹ לָתֵת לָהֶם נַחֲלַת גּוֹיִם". שאם יאמרו אומות העולם לישראל: "לסטים אתם שכבשתם ארצות שבעה גוים", הם אומרים להם: "כל הארץ של הקב"ה היא; הוא בראה ונתנה לאשר ישר בעיניו. ברצונו נתנה להם, וברצונו נטלה מהם ונתנה לנו". רש"י על בראשית פרק א' פסוק א'
Rashi quotes Rabbi Yitzḥak, and Rabbi Yitzḥak says: the Torah should have begun with the posuk (verse): "החודש הזה לכם ראש חדשים" (“This month shall be for you the first of the months”) [שמות (Exodus) 12:1], which is the first mitzvahcommanded to Am Yisrael (Nation of Israel). What is the reason that the Torah begins with the account of creation? Because "כח מעשיו הגיד לעמו לתת להם נחלת גוים" (“He declared to His people the strength of His works, in order that He may give them the heritage of the nations”) [Psalms 111:6]. Thus, should the nations of the world say to Am Yisrael “You are thieves and have stolen the lands of the seven nations (of Canaan),” Am Yisrael will reply to them: “The entire earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He, He created it and He gave it to whom He pleased; when He willed He gave it to them, and when He willed, He took it from them and gave it to us.” Rashi, בראשית(Genesis) 1:1 [based upon Yalkut, שמות (Exodus) 12:2]
Thus Rashi commences his commentary on the Torah. However, it appears that Rashi’s answer does not respond to his question. We shall try to understand the depth of Rashi’s comment.
Rabbi Yitzḥak’s Question:
Rabbi Yitzḥak questions why the Torah did not begin with the first mitzvah given to Am Yisrael as a nation, sanctifying the new month. We must clarify Rabbi Yitzḥak’s assumption that that is the natural starting point of the Torah. Perhaps it is indeed preferable to begin with the description of the creation of the world, explaining how everything began. We have no choice but to understand that Rabbi Yitzḥak’s underlying assumption is that Torah is essentially the book of mitzvotwhich God gave to Am Yisrael. If this assumption is correct, Rabbi Yitzḥak asserts that the natural starting point of Torah is the first mitzvahcommanded to Am Yisrael, and not the story of creation (or any other story).
This is the standard understanding of Rashi. However, the problem begins with the next sentence.
Rabbi Yitzḥak’s Answer:
Rabbi Yitzḥak’s answer is that the Torah commences with the creation story to provide an answer to the potential claim of the nations that Am Yisrael stole Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) from the Canaanite nations who occupied it. If this claim is raised against us, we can answer that the Land belongs to God, Who created it and He chose to give it to the Canaanite nations before us, and then chose to take it from them and give it to us.
Superficially, this seems an appropriate answer to Rabbi Yitzḥak’s question; however, upon reflection it is unclear how this answers the question. The basis of Rabbi Yitzḥak’s question, as we noted, is the assumption that Torah is essentially the book of mitzvot, and his answer seemingly fails to address that point. If the Torah is the book of mitzvot, why is appropriate to begin it with a response to the nations should they claim we stole the Land? Apparently, the question remains unanswered: Why did the Torah not commence with the first mitzva? While it is true that settling the Land is a mitzvah, Rabbi Yitzḥak’s intention certainly is not that this is the first mitzvah commanded to Am Yisrael. Further, the Torah does not actually begin with the mitzvah to settle the Land, but only with a story which will allow us to counter the claim of the nations. Thus, Rabbi Yitzḥak’s answer is incomprehensible, since it does not resolve the question. Necessarily, we must look for a deeper meaning in Rabbi Yitzḥak’s answer.
Some suggest that in his answer, Rabbi Yitzḥak retreated from his basic assumption, and now asserts that Torah is not only the book of mitzvot, but conveys additional points. Torah presents the creation story to teach us of who created the world, and the stories of the Forefathers to teach us our heritage. As well, the Torah teaches us that Eretz Yisrael is ours, since it was given to us by God. This approach is similar to the comments of the Ramban (Naḥmanides). However, this exposition presents problems. Firstly, there is no indication that Rabbi Yitzḥak retreated from his original assumption. Secondly, even if he did retreat, the question remains unanswered, why is the answer to the potential claim of the nations the most important point with which to begin the Torah? Wouldn’t it be simpler to accept that the Torah begins with creation to teach that it is God Who created the universe? Why does Rabbi Yitzḥak see the answer to the nations as the crucial point? True, it is important, but why is it the starting point of Torah?
Set Up Road Markers for Yourself [Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) 31:20]
We may present an additional possibility, which requires introductory comments.
The Ramban [ויקרא (Leviticus) 18:25] writes that true fulfillment of mitzvot is limited to the Eretz Yisrael, “for the essence of all mitzvot is for those who dwell in the Land.” It is true that observance of mitzvot which are not dependent on the Land is incumbent on Jews outside the Land as well, however, on a conceptual level observance of all mitzvot should be limited to the Land. Even mitzvot which are not dependent upon the Land, like tefillinand lulav, cannot realize their purpose outside the Land. Fulfillment of all mitzvot is directly connected to Eretz Yisrael since it is only within the Land that the Am Yisrael can truly realize its potential. The Ramban’s source is the Midrash Sifrei’s elucidation of a verse we recite twice daily: “Place these words of mine on your heart and soul.” [דברים (Deuteronomy) 11:18] Sifrei comments that even after the Am Yisrael is exiled from its Land, it must continue to fulfill mitzvot; however, not because there is an obligation to fulfill them outside Eretz Yisrael, but “That they not be new to you when you return to the Land.” That is, fulfillment of mitzvot outside the Land is for the purpose of remembering how to fulfill them when the nation returns to the Land, which is the prime place of mitzvot, and not because of an inherent obligation.
Kuzari’s Parable of the Vineyard:
In order to better understand the Ramban’s comment, we may consider the words of the rabbi to the king of the Kazars in Kuzari [part 2:12]. Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi compares the connection among Eretz Yisrael, Am Yisrael and the Torah to the connection among the vines, the vineyard and the care of the vines. It is clear to any farmer that in order to grow quality grapes, it is necessary to choose a quality variety of grape, to plant it in land suitable for that variety, with proper moisture, climate and temperature. It is then necessary to water the vines and care for them in an appropriate manner. If the farmer mistakenly chooses the wrong strain of grapes or the wrong soil, even a small mistake will adversely affect the taste of the grapes and the quality of wine produced from them.
Just as the requirements for a vineyard are clear to the farmer, so too it should be clear to us that there are specific requirements for our nation. Revelation of the Shechinarequires a very specific species, Am Yisrael, and a particular habitat, Eretz Yisrael, and a specific method of care, observance of mitzvot. If a different nation fulfills mitzvot within the Land, it will not work. As well, if the Am Yisrael fulfills mitzvotoutside the Land, it will not work. Equally, if Am Yisrael is within its Land but does not fulfill mitzvot, it cannot succeed in bringing the inspiration of the Shechina to the world. For Am Yisrael to fulfill its destiny, it must be within the Land and it must fulfill mitzvot within her.
Explanation of Rabbi Yitzḥak’s Answer:
Based upon the above, we can present a better understanding of Rabbi Yitzḥak’s answer. Rabbi Yitzḥak did not retreat from his assumption: indeed, the Torah is the book of mitzvot, and therefore we should have expected it to begin with the first mitzvahgiven to the nation. However, prior to discussing the mitzvot it is necessary to understand the crucial concept that in order to have mitzvot, Am Yisrael needs the Eretz Yisrael. Am Yisrael can survive only within the Eretz Yisrael! Fulfillment of mitzvot is possible only within the Land, as noted in the comments of the Ramban and Rabbi Yehuda haLevi. Rabbi Yitzḥak’s answer is to be understood thus: Torah is indeed the book of mitzvot, but before dealing with the specifics of the mitzvot, before it is possible to command the mitzvot, it is necessary to prepare the groundwork. Before providing instructions on how to care for a vineyard, it is necessary to know where to plant it. If one wants to fulfill mitzvot, to know what to do, Rabbi Yitzḥak tells us we must first understand that it is entirely dependent upon Eretz Yisrael. If the nations claim that the Land is not ours, it affects not only the mitzvot dependent upon the Land, but all 613 mitzvot. Without Eretz Yisrael, no mitzvah can be fulfilled. This, says Rabbi Yitzḥak, is the reason the Torah begins with the creation story, which teaches that the Land is God’s – “When He willed He took it from them and gave it to usl” - and this is the basis of the essence of the Jewish Nation. Only once we have properly understood that the Land belongs to us, and there are no counter claims from without or within, is it possible to commence the presentation of mitzvot.
Thus, Rabbi Yitzḥak provides an excellent answer to his question, without retreating from his basic assumption. The Torah truly needed to commence with mitzvot, but in order to do that it must first clarify that the Land belongs to us.
In Our Times:
Unfortunately, in our days the situation is like envisioned by Rabbi Yitzḥak, and even worse. The nations of the world claim that we captured our Land from others, that we are thieves. The situation today is so grave that the nations of the world have succeeded in convincing some of our nation that we are thieves. Based upon what we have written, it is important to understand that the struggle is neither marginal, nor connected only to part of Torah. The struggle involves Torah in its entirety and mitzvot in their entirety. All of Torah is dependent upon the connection between the Nation of Israel and the Land of Israel, as we noted, to the extent that God chose to begin Torah with a story that teaches that the Land is ours. We must never forget that it is God Who created the world and “When He willed He gave it to them, and when He willed, He took it from them and gave it to us …,” that we may dwell within her and fulfill mitzvotwithin her, thereby facilitating the inspiration of the Shechina within the world.
“He declared to His people the strength of His works.”