Eretz Yisrael – the Center of the World
וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם:
And they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst.
[Shemot (Exodus) 25:8]
דא ארעא קדישא, ארעא קדישא אמצעיתא דעלמא, ובאמצעיתא דארעא קדישא איהו ירושלם, אמצעיתא דירושלם איהו בית קדש הקדשים וכל טיבו וכל מזונא דכל ישובא תמן נחית מלעילא, ולית לך אתר בכל ישובא דלא אתזן מתמן.
The Holy Land is the center of the world, and Jerusalem is at the center of the Holy Land; the center of Jerusalem is the Holy of Holies and all good and sustenance for the entire world descend there from above, and there is no settled place which is not nurtured from there.
[Zohar, Terumah 157a]
Is Eretz Yisrael the Exact Center of the World?
In practice, Eretz Yisrael is not the geographic center of the world. Ibn Ezra [Bereishit (Genesis) 1:2] writes that the Beit Hamikdash (Temple) “is far from the center of the world.” Since we cannot understand Zohar’s comments literally, there are two alternatives:
1) Zohar presents a parable, that is, there is some abstract aspect in which the Land is considered as being the exact center of the world and this conveys a principle of faith which is to be learned and understood;
2) Zohar describes the spiritual reality – it is the spiritual Land of Israel which is located in the spiritual center of the world. Perhaps only prophets can actually see this spiritual dimension, yet we are influenced in our mundane world by the spiritual reality of the Land. The same is true of Jerusalem and of the Beit Hamikdash.
Alternately, it is possible to observe the geography of planet earth in a way which clarifies that Eretz Yisrael is indeed the center of our world’s reality. One suggestion is that while in our days all the inhabited continents are separated from each other, when they were connected as a single block, Eretz Yisrael was in fact the exact center. We still must explain how it is that Jerusalem is the center of the Land. This can be understood by determining the Land’s boundaries in accordance with Zohar’s comments.
In any event, the substantive question is: What is the significance of Eretz Yisrael being the center of the world? What Divine concept is conveyed by this statement?
First Answer – Eretz Yisrael is the Heart of the World
Vitality Comes from Eretz Yisrael
Babies are born into the world, with their souls coming from the spiritual world. Once a person enters this world, God protects him and maintains him throughout every moment of life. The continuity of life flows, as it were, through Eretz Yisrael and whatever bounty reaches the individual comes through the Land. [Rebbi Naḥman of Braslav] It is for this reason that the Land is called "ארץ החיים" (“the Land of the living”) [Tehillim (Psalms) 142:6]. This principle is expressed explicitly in Midrash Pesikta Zutrati [Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) 7:3]:
"שררך אגן הסהר. זה בית המקדש שהיא בטבורה של ארץ ישראל. ולמה נמשל בשרר, כשם שהשרר חיות של תינוק, כך בית המקדש חיותה של ארץ ישראל להתהלך לפני ד' בארצות החיים".
“Your navel is like a round basin” – this refers to the Temple, which is the navel of Eretz Yisrael; and why is it compared to a navel? Just as the navel provides vitality for the fetus, so the Temple is the source of vitality for Eretz Yisrael, “to walk before God in the Lands of the living.”
Similarity to the Heart
Eretz Yisrael serves the same function as the heart does in the human body. Rabbeinu Beḥayye (1255-1340), in his work Cad haKemacḥ, writes: “The essential part of everything in the world is its center … for human beings, the heart is the center of the body … and similarly, Eretz Yisrael is the essence of the world and is its center.” The heart receives oxygen from the lungs and streams it into the blood, pumping the life force, the blood throughout the body. This process is repeated countless times every day. For the heart to be able to pump blood throughout the body, it must be healthy, requiring proper nutrition and rest. The heart’s location in the center of the body facilitates its ability to function properly.
Of course, it would not be difficult for God to have vitality and sanctity flow through the world from any point, and the level of difficulty would not be a factor in the location of the Land at the earth’s center; nonetheless, the Land being the center of the world conveys the truth that Eretz Yisrael is the center of life of the world.
The World was Created from Zion
The basic assumption that God created the universe and then chose the central point of the earth is flawed. Chazal (Our Sages) [Gemara Yoma 54b] teach that the world was created from Zion, as the verse states: “From Zion, the perfection of beauty, God appeared.” [Tehillim (Psalms) 50:2] The “Foundation Stone,” which is at the center of the Holy of Holies is the place from which God began the creation of the world. Thus, Chazal teach that life came to the world through Eretz Yisrael, the center of the world.
Second Answer – the Equilibrium Which Exists in Eretz Yisrael
We can explain the centrality of Eretz Yisrael in another way: everything in the world has its own characteristics and nature. Everything has its advantages and disadvantages, which result from its qualities and its inclination to different aspects of life. The way of the world is that an object’s physical setting corresponds to its traits. If this were not the case, that object could not develop in a positive manner. Just as the environment for a plant must include the proper nutrients and climate, so it is with man’s location on the various continents and in relation to all tangible things.
Chazal taught us of the correspondence between man and his environment when they stated that (at least when the Beit Hamikdash stood), וכך אמר ר' יצחק: "הרוצה שיחכים - ידרים, ושיעשיר - יצפין, וסימניך: שלחן בצפון ומנורה בדרום" (“One who wants to be wise should go south; one who wants to be wealthy should go north. The sign for this is that the golden table (of the show bread) stood in the north of the Temple and the menorah in the south”) [Gemara Bava Batra 25b]. Of course, there are additional conditions necessary to realize these qualities. Just as the vine can prosper only when it receives the appropriate treatment, so too these traits can be realized only when a proper balance is achieved, for example between worldly endeavors and study, between generosity and wastefulness, etc. Extremism and lack of equilibrium hamper the ability of anything to achieve its physical and spiritual perfection. Wherever there is greater equilibrium there is a greater ability for powerful forces and greater sanctity to be realized in the world. Maharal of Prague expands on this concept in numerous places, with the source being the comment of Sefer haYetzira: "שש צלעות לששה צדדים והיכל קדוש מכוון באמצע, ברוך כבוד ה' ממקומו, הוא מקומו של עולם ואין עולמו מקומו (“There are six plains for the six sides, and the holy Temple placed in the middle. Blessed be He from His place; He is the Place of the universe, but the universe is not His place”). Kuzari [4:25] adds “This is an allusion to the Divine Influence which unites the contrasts.”
Kuzari comments further [3:17]:
"וסדרם (לישראל) במדבר כסדר הגלגלים, ארבעה דגלים כארבעת רבעי הגלגל, ושנים עשר שבט כשנים עשר מזלות, ומחנה הלוים בתוך המחנות, כאשר אמר בספר יצירה: 'והיכל קדוש מכוון באמצע והוא נושא את כלם', וזה כלו מורה על אהבה".
In the desert He arranged them in the manner of the sphere in four standards, corresponding to the four quarters of the sphere, and in twelve tribes, corresponding to the twelve signs of the zodiac, the camp of the Levites being in the center, just as it is stated in Sefer haYetzira: “The holy Temple is exactly in the center, but God carries them all.” All this points to love.
The sanctity which is at the center of something supports the entire surroundings, and God’s having brought us to His proximity at the center indicates His love for us.
Synthesis Within Eretz Yisrael
In Eretz Yisrael there is equilibrium on many levels. The climate is neither extremely hot nor extremely cold. The Land is neither completely mountainous nor completely plains. Eretz Yisrael has all aspects of topography, from the Judean Desert to Mount Hermon, the coastal plain to the hills of Jerusalem, etc. The national potential of Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel), which includes the perfect equilibrium of Torah and mitzvot, can be fully realized only in Eretz Yisrael, the Land which, as the center of the world, has the ideal equilibrium of all life forces.
We saw two reasons that Eretz Yisrael is considered the center of the world:
1) It is the heart of life – vitality reaches the world specifically through Eretz Yisrael, just as the heart pumps blood to all the body’s organs. The Land’s position at the geographic center of the world reflects this.
2) Complete equilibrium of life forces – the physical Eretz Yisrael has a special equilibrium, which requires that it be at the center of the world.
These points clarify the substantive meaning of the statement that Eretz Yisrael is the center of the world.
Returning Forces to their Perfection
Kuzari [2:30] comments that in exile, Am Yisrael was comparable to the dry bones referred to in Ezekiel’s vision. [Chapter 37] These bones were completely devoid of vitality, so in exile the nation could merely survive from day to day on a basic physical level. Ezekiel prophesied the resurrection of the dry bones, calling upon them to be covered with sinew and flesh and then to be filled with the spirit of God. Israel’s existence in exile was difficult. Until about sixty years ago, the physical state of the Am Yisrael was difficult to comprehend. Housing, health and work were much more difficult than they are today. Nowadays, we are accustomed to the blessings of abundance in all aspects of our lives. This change took place virtually worldwide when Israel returned to its Land.
Am Yisrael’s return to Eretz Yisrael and to Jerusalem strengthened the heart of the nation, as well as the heart of the world in general. The wonderful process of a small nation which had been persecuted building a strong army and a developed country with a vibrant economy in such a short period is unprecedented in world history. None of this would have been possible if not for the unique equilibrium and synthesis of forces which exists in the Land. Am Yisrael is able to achieve this equilibrium through Torah and its inherent propensity for justice.
May it be His will that our eyes see God’s return to Zion, and may He open our eyes to see the unfolding process of redemption, and may we ascend ever higher within the Land of the living. Amen.
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