Only Under Duress

As we finish the book of Vayikra this week, we also complete its roster of sacred items. This listing seems to be the main objective of this volume of our Torah. We began with the offerings and the Mishkan premises. Then came the lengthy discussion of the sanctity of humanity (KEDOSHIM TIHIYU), which culminated in the special place of Cohanim in Jewish society. This was followed by the list of sacred times. This week comes the rules concerned with the sanctity of the Land and its ownership. This section culminates in the verse: If one of your kin is in dire straits and has to sell part of a holding, the nearest redeemer shall come and redeem what that relative has sold (Vayikra 25:25).

The word I translated as ‘in dire straits’ is YAMUCH. Rav Kaplan translated it ‘become impoverished’; Prof. Alter as ‘come to ruin’. Rashi leads a slew of authorities who claim that this is actually a prohibition to sell family holdings in Yisrael unless there are no other economic alternatives. The lands inherited in Yisrael were meant to remain in the family. These rules, by the way, are not in use today for two reasons. They only apply during the period when the Tribes were in their designated areas. Plus, on a practical level, over 90% of land in the modern Medina is held by national organizations, either Israel Land Authority or JNF. Otherwise, ‘land ownership’ in Israel is really long term leases.

 Okay, back to the verse. Rabbeinu Bechaye explains that the word YAMUCH derives from a root meaning ‘soft’ and the individual arrived at these ‘dire straits’ because of ‘soft’ observance of Mitzvot. According to many sources, the main shortcomings were in the observance of Shmittah.

The Ohr Hachayim, who made Aliyah from Morocco in the early eighteenth century, says that we must look at this verse as an allegory for an overall lack of spirituality. The ACHUZA or ‘holding’ in the verse is the most important property holding in the world, the Holy Temple. The people, and especially their Torah leadership had failed to guide the nation in proper behavior and values. We shouldn’t be overly concerned for what the world at large considers ‘success’. He explains the remedy to the problem:

Redemption will occur when the righteous succeed in awakening the hearts of their contemporaries by convincing them that it is really not in their best interest to spend their time exiled from the table of their Father in Heaven. The righteous have to convince the average Jew that what he considers success in his world is illusory if bought at the expense of forfeiting his respective eternity in a better world. 

The Shela (Rav Yeshayahu Halevi Horowitz), who made Aliya from Poland in the early seventeenth century, adds to that scenario of spiritual failure. He explains that the original name for Eretz Yisrael was Canaan. This name comes from the word HACHNA’A, which means submission. To succeed in the Land we must be ‘submissive’ to both the Torah laws for living in Eretz Yisrael and to the magnitude of living in this amazing place. We should never become arrogant about having permission to dwell in this unique land.

It is the opinion of the Shela which brings us to the philosophic point which I believe is the crux of the matter. Much of what I’m going to say in the next couple of paragraphs is based on an essay by Rav Chayim Navon on the Yeshivat Har Etziyon website. So, if anything you read in the following sounds cogent and reasonable, credit Rav Navon. If anything sounds a bit off, please, blame those parts on me.

First and foremost, never, Never, NEVER take living in Eretz Yisrael for granted. It is a privilege bestowed by God, not a right to be expected. Rav Navon states the issue: The Torah emphasizes the fact that Eretz Yisrael is not our natural homeland. There is a two-fold danger in seeing Eretz Yisrael as the Jewish people’s natural homeland: viewing it as an absolute value and viewing it as an absolute fact. 

If it were an ‘absolute value’ then every Halachic authority would prohibit leaving the Land. That’s not the case. There are rabbis who prohibit leaving Eretz Yisrael (Rambam, Hilchot Melachim, 9:12), but even they allow leaving the Land under certain circumstances, like to study Torah or to take a wife, to rescue a Jew or for business. It is worthy to note that Reb Moshe Feinstein Z”L never visited Eretz Yisrael, and it is generally explained that it was because he would not have a valid Halachic reason to leave, and he felt the need to tend to the needs of American Jewry.

To make this point, Rav Navon cites the story of the MA’APILIM (Bamidbar 14:40-45), who after the sin of the spies decided to go to Eretz Yisrael anyway. They were sadly mistaken, and paid with their lives for thinking that going to Eretz Yisrael is an ‘absolute value’, always true, always obligatory.  

It’s also not an ‘absolute fact’. Rav Navon points out that, ‘There are others who turn the settlement of Eretz Yisrael into an “absolute fact,” as if the holiness of the land guarantees that its inhabitants will never be driven out into exile.’ Oh, if only that were true, but history and the words of our Prophets demonstrate a very different reality. History shows that there is nothing ‘self-evident’ about the Jewish presence in the Holy Land, Since the time of Yehoshua there have always been Jews living in the Land, but for much of that time they were pitifully few. We pray that never happens again.

So, what does our verse teach us? First, don’t give up land in Eretz Yisrael unless you absolutely must. But, secondly, and, most crucially, never take our presence in this Land we love as a given. Cherish every moment in this enchanted place which God has graciously granted to us. Constantly, appreciate and thank God for this boon! 

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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