David Walk

O Say Can You See?

It’s marvelous every year to get back to Lech Licha. I’m always a bit uncomfortable with  the book of Breishit until Avraham Avinu arrives on the scene. I feel little connection to Adam, Noach or Methusala. But starting this week we return to the stories of our ancestors, to whom we feel a strong emotional and spiritual tie. Many of us living in Medinat Yisrael identify with Avraham’s progress through Eretz Yisrael. There are Gentiles in the land, but Avraham heeds God’s instruction to ‘rise and proceed through the Land’. Our connection to Avraham goes hand in hand with our connection to the Land.

The first verse of our parsha still inspires those carrying Avraham’s DNA and ideals: The Eternal said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you’ (Breishit 12:1). Our sainted grandfather is told to emerge from the stifling atmosphere of his home and homeland and step into the limelight on the stage of human greatness.  Human history has never been the same. But this could only happen in Eretz Yisrael.

How do we know that? God doesn’t tell Avram where to go. The Netivot Shalom explains: In CHUTZ L’ARETZ (the Diaspora) there is only ‘speaking’. Avraham couldn’t reach the level of ‘seeing’ until he got to Eretz Yisrael…Furthermore only in Eretz Yisrael would he be shown the trait of ‘individual supervision’, where his eyes would clearly see God’s Divine control. Only in Israel can we ‘see’ God’s control over every aspect of life…Furthermore, Avraham could only reach his full potential and complete greatness in Eretz Yisrael.

God couldn’t tell Avram where to go, because the ability to ‘see’ was only granted by the unique nature of Eretz Yisrael. He could only comprehend the assignment in AVIRA D’ARA’A, the atmosphere of the Land. 

Avram only attains his full power in the Land. It was only when he perceived the full awareness of sanctity that God appeared to him at SHECHEM (verse 7). Then he travels deeper into the Land gathering greater spiritual insight. Until he arrives between BET EL and AI (perhaps at Givat Asaf, where my daughter and her family live), there he was inspired to build an altar and offer a sacrifice (verse 8). Then the verse describes the progress by stating, ‘Then Avram traveled, going and progressing towards the south’ (verse 9). This isn’t a travelog; this is a spiritual journey and pursuit.

Before we return to Avraham’s spiritual awakening, let’s ask the critical question: What was the source of Eretz Yisrael’s KEDUSHA (holiness, spiritual greatness)? Most rabbinic sources claim that the KEDUSHA is based upon metaphysical factors, as in a special connection to heaven or its centrality in the Creation stories as in Creation began there or Gan Eden was located there. But that’s not the position of Rav Soloveitchik Z”L.

The Rav wrote:

With all my respect for the Rishonim, I must disagree with such an opinion. I do not believe that it is halakhically cogent. Kedushah, under a halakhic aspect, is man-made; more accurately, it is a historical category. A soil is sanctified by historical deeds performed by a sacred people, never by any primordial superiority. The halakhic term kedushat ha-aretz, the sanctity of the land, denotes the consequence of a human act, either conquest (heroic deeds) or the mere presence of the people in that land (intimacy of man and nature). Kedushah is identical with man’s association with Mother Earth. Nothing should be attributed a priori to dead matter. (Emergence of Ethical Man, p. 150)

Traditional sources tend to align with the Rav. Take, for example, this Mishne in tractate Keilim:

There are ten degrees of holiness. The land of Israel is holier than any other land. Wherein lies its holiness? In that, from it are brought the omer [barley offering brought on the second day of Passover], the first fruits, and the two loaves [offered on Shavuot], which may not be brought from any other land. (1:6)

The Kedusha stems from special Mitzvot performed by Jews in Eretz Yisrael. Absent these human acts, it seems that the Kedusha would not exist. 

So, what happened to Avraham as he progressed through the Land according to this approach? He didn’t sense primordial events; he sensed an ineffable connection. His spiritual awakening in Eretz Yisrael, which precipitated the Covenant Between the Parts and the miraculous birth of Yitzchak, came from something deep inside him. He sensed that he and the Land were inextricably bound up with each other. 

On a more superficial level, many of us experience a similar phenomenon when we meet certain individuals or visit a certain place. We just feel a connection. That’s what happened to Avraham. If this was based on prior Kedusha, he would have gone straight to Yerushalayim where many Midrashim claim this a priori Kedusha was most concentrated. Instead, the uniquely intense Kedusha of Yerushalayim will only come later based on the AKEIDA taking place there.

This is why when Avraham returns to Eretz Yisrael after his sojourn in Egypt he: went by stages from the Negev to Bethel, to the place between Bethel and Ai where his tent had formerly been, where he had first built the altar; and there Avram called on the name of the Eternal (Breishit 13:3 & 4).

Avraham returned to the then holiest place in Eretz Yisrael at that time: The place where he had first worshiped and built an altar to God in the Land.

Why is this important? Because we Jews have a double connection to the Land. The Land became holy because of the spiritual acts of our ancestors AND our own Mitzvot performed in the Land. We keep SHMITTA, take TRUMOT and MA’ASROT, and walk in the footsteps of our beloved ancestors. The connection of the Jews to the Land where our ancestors performed Mitzvot unique to Eretz Yisrael gets ever more profound every step we take and every Mitzva we make here in the Holy Land.

And that’s the point: This spiritual symbiosis is unique to Eretz Yisrael and AM YISRAEL. Yes, other nations feel connected to the ‘land where our fathers died’ and so on, but the Jews’ connection to Eretz Yisrael is unique because we believe that as a result of our Mitzvot performed here, we continually forge an ever increasing bond. Whether or not the Cosmos was created here or not isn’t really important, but our existential connection is vital to us and the Land.  

As the Slonimer Rebbe concluded: That’s why the Talmud says that anyone who dwells outsideEretz Yisrael it is as if they have no God (Ketubot 110b). Only in Israel can we ‘see’ God’s control over Creation and feel alive.

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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