Love Story: A People and a Place

As we finish the book of Bamidbar, the Jews are on the threshold of fulfilling their mission. This week’s Torah reading is firmly focused on presenting the drama of this moment. Our ancestors traveled forty-two journeys to reach this climatic point. There is one verse which our Sages noted pinpoints the poignancy of the occasion: Instruct the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land of Canaan, this is the land that shall fall to you as your portion, the land of Canaan with its various boundaries (Bamidbar 34:2).

The Midrash stresses the emotion of the moment by explaining: (This verse) teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, showed Moshe all that had been and all that was going to be. He showed him Samson arising from Dan, and Barak ben Avinoam arising from Naphtali. So, also, it was for every generation with its expounders, every generation with its judges, every generation with its leaders, every generation with its sages…(Bamidbar Raba 23:5).  

A companion Midrash describes this watershed moment in Halachic terms:

Thus have our masters taught: Before they entered the land, they used to only say Birchat HaMazon in a single blessing, “who sustains all.”. After they had entered the land, they ordained the second blessing, “for the land and for the food.” (Ibid 23:7). 

Rashi appears to be in consonance with that second Midrash when he informs us:

Since many divine commandments have to be practiced in the Land of Canaan and are not to be practiced outside the Land, the text feels compelled to describe the limiting lines of the boundaries of its sides all round, in order to tell you: from these boundaries and inward the divine commands have to be practiced (based on Gittin 8a). 

On some Halachic, spiritual, metaphysical level, Jews can only fulfill themselves in Eretz Yisrael. Torah is only partially observed in the Diaspora. Only upon arriving in our Homeland can we fulfill our Jewish destiny, and connect to portions of the MESORA unavailable outside of it. This is why Reb Yehuda HaLevi said that a Jew can only reach ‘perfection’ (SHLEIMUT) in Eretz Yisrael.

As Rav Sacks OB”M put it:

Israel is clearly central to Judaism. The overarching story told in Tanach is the promise of and journey to the land… What is special about Israel? In The Kuzari, Judah Halevi says that different environments have different ecologies. Just as there are some countries, climates, and soils particularly suited to growing vines, so there is a country, Israel, particularly suited to growing prophets. Ramban gives a different explanation. Though every land and nation is under the overarching sovereignty of God, only Israel is directly so. Others are ruled by intermediaries earthly and heavenly… Yehudah Halevi and Ramban both describe what we might call mystical geography. The difference between them is that Yehudah Halevi looks to earth, Ramban to heaven.   

This is definitely cool. Rashi seems to be on the Kuzari team. I believe, the S’fat Emet beautifully expresses and enhances the Ramban’s approach. The Gerer Rebbe returned to this idea numerous times in the late 1800’s. He, sort of, turned the idea of Rashi and the Kuzari on its head. They said a Jew needs Eretz Yisrael for Jewish fulfillment; he said Eretz Yisrael needed the Jews to become the Promised Land, the SEGULA of God.

He first commented on our verse in 1873, and he was clearly still influenced by Rashi and the Kuzari:

A person must accept upon himself to be singularly dedicated to God, so that it’s not forgotten for even an instant…and our Sages wrote that they accepted this upon themselves when they crossed the Jordan. In other words, Eretz Yisrael transformed them. 

However, something new emerges in 1879, when he wrote:

Definitely the Canaanites never saw the true nature of Eretz Yisrael. In fact, through the groundwork laid by the advent of B’nei Yisrael there, then, and only then, did the true character of Eretz Yisrael descend from heaven to the physical Eretz Yisrael. This is what our Sages meant when they said that the earthly Beit HaMikdash aligns with the heavenly Beit HaMikdash. This inner reality of the Land was shown to Moshe Rabbeinu, because the Jews were on the threshold of the Land the sanctity could already spread. 

In 1888, the Rebbe described the big picture:

The matter is that Eretz Yisrael is ready for immersion in Divine Presence (HASHRA’AT HaSHECHINA), but it requires the agency of B’nei Yisrael. B’nei Yisrael need Eretz Yisrael; Eretz Yisrael needs B’nei Yisrael. 

God is informing Moshe Rabbeinu of both sides of this vast cosmic equation. Then the S’fat Emet helps us to see the greatest symbiosis or SHIDDUCH of all Creation: Eretz Yisrael and B’nei Yisrael. Historically, we can superficially notice this phenomenon through the fact that Eretz Yisrael only blooms and blossoms when we are in charge. Otherwise, it’s been a waste land.

As we prepare for Tisha B’Av we must remain aware of the fact that although the Medina prospers and grows, the final stage of renewal hasn’t been achieved. What’s the missing factor? Hmmm, let’s ask those Jews in the Diaspora. According to Reb Yehuda HaLevi, in his great work, the Rabbi told the Kuzari that the final Redemption would have happened in the time of Ezra, ‘if only the Jews had come completely.’

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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