Illustration: Judea and Samaria (Image credit: Mark Neyman/Government Press Office of Israel)
The relationship between the Jewish People and Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) is a fundamental component of Judaism. Exile from our homeland dominates Jewish consciousness. We remember it like someone who still feels pain in an amputated limb. Exile whispers: Can we ever be whole again? But why do we need a homeland? Isn’t being a People and practicing Judaism enough? The laws of Shmita provide an answer. These Torah-mandated laws which take effect at the end of a seven-year cycle restrict Jews in Eretz Yisrael from agricultural work, even that done in private gardens. The Land must remain fallow, unused; even the fruits of the land must be handled carefully. Although today these laws are ordained by rabbinic authority, once a majority of Jews in the world are living in Eretz Yisrael, they will become required by Torah law, and therefore more stringent. Shmita is a time of redirection, of personal rededication, and a reminder to Jews everywhere that Eretz Yisrael and its produce are sanctified. Symbolically, it transforms us from consumers to participants in the daily work of spiritual growth, creativity and commitment. It creates a link between thought and action and focuses Jewish memory – Zachor – our understanding of Jewish history – and the centrality of Eretz Yisrael. In Judaism, sanctity of time and place are inextricably linked. Holiness is not an abstract condition, but the expression of an essence that can be fulfilled by doing mitzvot, specific acts of care and kindness. In this way the ordinary becomes special, the material becomes spiritual. Creating sanctity, then, is a result of what we bring to the world – blessing wine (Kiddush), baking bread for Shabbat and taking off a small piece of dough (hallah), being kind to others, charity, and living in Eretz Yisrael. The sanctity of Eretz Yisrael does not come only from exercising control over it, but from recognizing that G-d alone is sovereign. This profound message emphasizes that our existence is not a reflection of what we accomplish in the material world, but of who we are and what we can become. The restrictions of shmita pull us out of routines and worries, and redirect us toward the development of our spiritual purpose. We are commanded to treat Eretz Yisrael respectfully, including allowing it to “rest” every seven years because all human beings are entitled to a day of rest and respect. We are obliged to live in a way that brings honor and dignity to ourselves, to others and to the Jewish People. Our relationship with Eretz Yisrael is symbolic of our relationship with G-d and with others; in that way we create holiness. That is why Eretz Yisrael is central to Jewish theology, to the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty and living in Eretz Yisrael. Sanctity of Eretz Yisrael, therefore, is a way of creating sanctity in space and time; it is a way of transforming the abstract into reality, and that is why it is so crucial in understanding Jewish history. Without Eretz Yisrael there can be no complete Jewish people. Without nationhood/nationality Jews cannot fulfill the mission and purpose which G-d gave the Jewish People. Without Torah and Eretz Yisrael, we lose our connection to the process of redemption, our opportunity and obligation to transform the world. When we were in Exile, return to Eretz Yisrael became a metaphor for the completion of Jewish identity, not simply the renewal of spiritual life, but the fulfillment of a national historic dream. We transform the land, and the Land transforms us. That process can only happen in the context of Jewish sovereignty in Eretz Yisrael. For the last 2,500 years, the Jewish people lived in trauma, as shadow-selves in foreign countries, hoping for acceptance, existing precariously on the verge of destruction, ultimately, for the most part expunged and destroyed. We survived tragedies because of an inner sense of connection with G-d, and a belief that one day we would return to our homeland as the fulfillment of a Divine promise, explicit in the Covenant. The core of Jewish civilization is living Torah, bringing ethical monotheism to the world, rebuilding Eretz Yisrael and reestablishing Jewish nationhood. That dream did not begin with Theodor Herzl, or with his successors. For secular Zionists, the establishment of a Jewish state was a matter of political expediency, to provide a homeland for refugees. The establishment of the State of Israel, however, was only a political beginning of a spiritual development – the Third Jewish Commonwealth/ Civilization. Authentic nationhood, rooted in collective self-expression, is the basis of our integrity as Jews and as human beings. Without Judaism, which nurtured the dream of return during millennia of exile, Israeli nationalism means nothing more than military parades, picnics and fireworks; it ends in xenophobia and chauvinism – and even self-destruction. When the Second Commonwealth ended and the Temple was destroyed, Jewish life turned inward; religion became more private. With Jews unable to express their collective, national consciousness at the Temple Mount, Judaism was recast; ritual became embodied in prayer. One of the critical elements of that common purpose is the constant focus on Eretz Yisrael and the Temple, symbols for the spiritual and physical wholeness of the Jewish People. In exile, Jewish national existence deferred to spiritual and physical integration as foreigners. Jews retained continuity and collective identity through prayer, observing Shabbat, kashrut, etc, while contributing to society, but this was a delicate balancing act. Under constant threat of attack and annihilation, members of Jewish communities in the Diaspora became hybridized, binational Jews – Polish/ German/American, etc. – one physical, the other spiritual. Reestablishing the State of Israel and regaining most of Biblical Israel in 1967 created a new context and opportunity for the Jewish People. Metaphorically, we had the possibility of bringing together two separate realms of Jewish existence – a physical presence in our historic homeland with its spiritual essence. Israel as a nation and Judaism as a religion form a dynamic whole; one without the other is incomplete. That explains why the Covenant between G-d and the Patriarchs includes Eretz Yisrael. The Covenant which binds us to Eretz Yisrael links Jewish history and Jewish destiny, past and future. Without Zachor there would have been permanent dispersion. Etched in memory and ritual, our fate would have been as permanent victims, outsiders, tolerated strangers in foreign countries, defenseless and alienated; the result is assimilation. The renewal of Jewish life in Eretz Yisrael changes that paradigm; it gives Judaism a specific form and focus, grounding us against powerful forces that threaten our existence by providing an authentic link to historical events, and, therefore, a meaningful context for Jewish self-consciousness. Possession of Eretz Yisrael by the Jewish People confirms and is a manifestation of G-d’s presence and the purpose of the Jewish People. That explains the very first Rashi in the Bible: when Jews are accused of stealing Eretz Yisrael, they can respond that just as G-d created the world, every nation received its land, including the Jewish people. Not only is Eretz Yisrael holy, it gives and receives holiness, as if it were alive; it stands for an awareness of G-d’s presence, not only as Land, but Being.
This article, reprinted with permission of the author, first appeared as "Zachor: The sanctity of Eretz Yisrael" in The Jerusalem Post | JPost.com, December 04, 2014.