Israel: The land where we can fully experience God [Parshat Behar-Bechukotai]
Citing a verse from this week’s Torah reading – “I am the Lord your God who brought you forth from the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan to be your God.” [Lev. 25:38] – our Sages make the striking declaration that only one who lives in the Land of Israel has a God, while one living outside the Land of Israel is comparable to someone without a God [Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 110b].
Rashi, in his commentary, offers a slightly different formulation: “Whoever lives in the Land of Israel, I am God to him; whoever goes out of Israel is as one who serves idols.” Here, too, the text equates the exile (or Diaspora) with idolatry, but the transgression of idolatry is specifically assigned to someone who lived in Israel and left, rather than on one who was born in the Diaspora and remained there.
Nevertheless, how are we to understand that to have or not to have a God depends on the stamp in your passport? Do people outside of Israel not also believe in God? Is God only to be found in Israel?
Rabbi Yaakov Yehoshua Falk, best known by the name of his Talmudic commentary Penei Yehoshua, suggests that the Land of Israel is qualitatively different from any other land in the world in that what happens to the Jewish People within it is a direct result of Divine activity and intervention. Elsewhere, the major influence comes from God’s messengers, so to speak, such as the natural forces of sun, wind, rain and rivers, the stars of the zodiac, and the astrological movements of the heavens. In Israel, God Himself directs the destiny of its inhabitants.
Rabbi Shlomo Efraim Luntchitz, author of Kli Yakar, notes that a person could imagine that after allowing the land to lie fallow during the Sabbatical year—and in the event of the Jubilee year, the land would lie fallow for two whole years—the Jews would not have enough to eat during the following year. The fact that they did, demonstrated to them—as well as to the rest of the world—that Israel and her people were directly guided by the Divine, and not by the usual laws of nature, climate and agriculture.
Rabbi Yitzhak Arama, in his Biblical commentary Akedat Yitzhak, sees in the Sabbatical-Jubilee cycle an allegory to ultimate world redemption: six years of work and one year of rest are intended to invoke the messianic era that will begin at the end of the sixth millennium when the world as we know it, and the work we do in it, will also come to a halt. At that time, one thousand years of the Sabbath, or the messianic millennium, will commence.
These unique years, as well as ultimate salvation, are inextricably bound up with the Land of Israel, both in terms of the fact that they are laws that apply exclusively to the Holy Land and that all our prophets insist that the acceptance of ethical monotheism and peaceful harmony by all nations of the world will be the result of Torah emanating from Jerusalem against the backdrop of a secure Israel.
I would like to add a more prosaic view to these fascinating interpretations. The Biblical phrase, “a Sabbath unto God” with regard to the Sabbatical year summarizes exactly how our land is different from all other lands: Jews in all lands are commanded to keep the Sabbath, but there is only one place in the world where even the land must keep the Sabbath (six years of work and one of rest)—here in Israel!
The significance of the land keeping the Sabbath is that in the very essence of Israel’s soil lies an expression of the Divine will. In Israel, even the land is literally commanded to obey God’s laws! God thereby becomes intimately involved in the very soil of the Land of Israel, something which does not happen anywhere else.
I would also suggest that every other country in the world distinguishes the religious from the civic, the ritual from the cultural. Only in Israel does there exist an opportunity for the Jew to express his culture and the culture of his environment in religious and Godly terms. Only in Israel can the Jew lead a life not of synthesis but of wholeness, not as a Jew at home and a cultural, national gentleman in the marketplace, but as an indivisible child of God and descendant of Abraham and Sarah. Here we have a unique opportunity to express our spiritual ideals in Mahane Yehuda as well as in the synagogue, in the theater as well as in the study hall.
This sets the stage for a most profound vision of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years: when the values of the Torah permeate both sacred and mundane, then all forms of slavery can be obliterated, financial hardships resolved, and familial homesteads restored. Only in Israel do we have the potential to fully experience God both in the ritual and in the social, political and economic aspects of our lives. Only in Israel do we have the potential of taking our every step in the presence of the Divine.
[WATCH] RABBI RISKIN’S VIDEO COMMENTARY TO PARSHAT BEHAR-BECHUKOTAI: “The Significance of Living in the Land of Israel”
A leading voice in the Modern Orthodox world, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is an educator, social activist and author who serves as Founder and Chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone network of pioneering men’s and women’s institutions. He is also Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, and the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City. He earned semicha from Rabbi Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, and a PhD from NYU.