Planting the Seeds
“And the Lord spoke to Moshe on Har Sinai saying, speak to the Children of Israel, and say to them; when you come to the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a Sabbath to the Lord.” (Vayikra, 25: 1-2)
Having begun Sefer Vayikra with Torat Yisrael – the details of the Avodah in the Beit HaMikdash and its consecration – we moved on to discuss Kedushat Am Yisrael with regard to Bein Adam LeMakom and Bein Adam LeChaveiro. We now enter the third and final section of the sefer that deals with Eretz Yisrael.
Discussing the concept of Shemitta, the Abarbanel explains: “Eretz Yisrael is uniquely charged with holiness, and enjoys the special supervision of Divine Providence. Chazal illustrated this idea by stating Adam was created from none other than the holy and pure site of the Beit HaMikdash. When God chose Avraham Avinu, He commanded him ‘Go from your land, and from your birthplace and from your father’s house to the land I will show you,’ to teach us it was necessary for Avraham, as God’s servant and confidant, to move his home to that place of ultimate perfection.
Accordingly, by its very nature, that Land was chosen above all other lands. The Torah gives us absolute evidence of this: ‘A Land which the Lord your God constantly seeks; the eyes of the Lord your God are on it from the beginning of the year through the end of the year.’ All this goes to show that the Land itself – aside from the people living in it – is implicitly holy.
So we see the Almighty chose Eretz Yisrael over all other lands, just as Am Yisrael was chosen from all other peoples. The Almighty ordained that just as the whole nation recalls His act of creation by resting on the seventh day, so too the Chosen Land testifies about itself through Shemitta in the seventh year.
This parallel is referred to in the text: ‘A Sabbath of solemn rest shall it be for the land, a Sabbath for the Lord,’ implying Shemitta of the Land is similar to Israel’s holy Shabbat, and that the resting alludes to and testifies to the Sabbath of Creation.”
The Abarbanel clearly and lyrically describes the inherent holiness of Eretz Yisrael. We can of course learn many lessons from the laws of Shemitta, but the immediate truth is that the instructions regarding this special year are only relevant to Eretz Yisrael. Just like other Mitzvot dependent on the Land, Shemitta illustrates the innate holiness of our homeland – “When you come to the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a Sabbath to the Lord.”
Israel is not simply a place for Am Yisrael to live. It cannot be usurped by Uganda or any other place in the world. This is something I repeatedly emphasize to my students. During our annual visit to Poland – when standing at the Umschlagplatz in Warsaw before going to the airport for our return flight to Israel – I stress that Israel does not exist to prevent anti-Semitism. Israel is not a refuge for Jews who have nowhere else to go; it is an ideal in its own right. Israel is not only the positive alternative to the bloodied soil of WWII Europe but the real alternative for the most vibrant and affluent Jewish communities in the Diaspora today. Even if we are at peace with the whole world; even if every nation loved for, cared for and welcomed the Jewish people, we would still be commanded to return to our homeland. Israel is the holiest place on earth, period. If we yearn for holiness, there is only one destination!
The Rambam in Hilchot Melachim emphasizes this very point with a number of definitive, unequivocal statements. The truth they bear cannot and must not be ignored:
Halacha 9: It is absolutely forbidden to ever leave Eretz Yisrael, unless it is to improve one’s Torah study, find oneself a wife, or save oneself from imminent danger. Similarly, one is permitted to leave – albeit temporarily – for business purposes. However, it is forbidden to permanently dwell in Chutz La’Aaretz unless there is severe famine in the Land.
Halacha 10: Our greatest scholars would kiss the Land of Israel; they would blissfully roll in the dust of the Holy Land.
Halacha 11: Our Rabbis decreed that anyone who lives in Eretz Yisrael will have their transgressions forgiven… even one who walks just four amot in our homeland is worthy of his place in the World to Come. One who is buried in Israel will also be atoned for, but there can be no comparison between one who comes to Israel whilst alive and one who is brought here after death.
Halacha 12: One should always aspire to live in Israel; indeed, it is better to live in Eretz Yisrael whatever the reality. Even in a city with a majority of non-Jewish inhabitants, and even if the alternative is to live in the Diaspora in a city where the majority of inhabitants are Jewish.
The Rambam halachically reflects the Abarbanel’s philosophical ideas. There are no two ways to understand these halachot. If they were relevant for the Rambam during the medieval period, when Am Yisrael was not in Eretz Yisrael, then surely they are more than relevant today when over six million Jews live in Eretz Yisrael.
If it is better to live in Israel even as a minority, it is certainly better to live here with a clear Jewish majority, a Jewish army and a Jewish Government. Let us not be misled by any mistaken interpretations. There can be no alternative to Am Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael. If we are presently unable to realize this ideal (for reasons beyond our control), we must nevertheless remind ourselves that exile is and always will be exile, however religiously comfortable it may seem.
So before we explore the details of the Shemitta year; before we commence our study of the ‘trees,’ we must see the ‘forest.’ Shemitta testifies to the inherent kedusha of our homeland. Am Yisrael are presently in the desert. They have a Mishkan, many halachot, manna from Heaven and water from a miraculous well. They may well have been forgiven for thinking they had reached their final destination.
Why leave such a reality? We already have spirituality, food and clothes! Surely Am Yisrael had all they required; why leave that spiritual comfort for a more difficult reality? It is therefore crucial that Sefer Vayikra concludes with the final piece in the puzzle… Eretz Yisrael!
As we will see – B’ezrat Hashem – in the coming sichot, Shemitta represents the height of Avodat Hashem. It is the pinnacle of all we are aiming to achieve and it cannot be fulfilled in the wilderness. In our context, anywhere outside Eretz Yisrael is considered wilderness. You will only be able to fulfill the goals of Shemitta when you enter the Land. If Vayikra represents the ideal of Am Yisrael al pi Torat Yisrael Be’Eretz Yisrael, here Hashem tells us we cannot reach our ultimate objectives without Eretz Yisrael.
But perhaps there is one further point to mention. Just as Am Yisrael can never reach its potential outside of Eretz Yisrael, it would appear from our verse that Eretz Yisrael will never be fully realized without Am Yisrael living there. Our verse tells us the Shemitta year can only occur when Am Yisrael enter Eretz Yisrael. Even though Eretz Yisrael has a kedusha of her own, there is no indication it obligates any other nation to observe Shemitta whilst living in Israel.
Yes, the nations of the world can reside in the Holy Land and never be expected to fulfill any Land-dependent Torah directives. Accordingly, they will not be exiled from the Land if they do not keep laws specific to Am Yisrael. Nevertheless, we do find allusion in the Torah to the fact that even foreign nations are expected to keep certain standards while in our Land.
And so we are forced to conclude that even though Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael each have their own independent holiness, they are also irreversibly intertwined. Eretz Yisrael will always be the Holy Land and Am Yisrael will always be the Chosen People, but both entities will only truly excel when they are naturally bound together:
“After having been greatly exalted, was not Avraham also brought into contact with the Divine influence… removed from his country to the place in which his perfection should become complete? Thus the worker in the fields finds the root of a good tree in a desert place. He transplants it into properly tilled ground to improve it and make it grow; to change it from a wild root into a cultivated one, from one which bore fruit purely by chance to one which produced a luxuriant crop…
Do you not see that Ya’akov ascribed the vision he saw, not to the purity of his soul, nor to his belief, nor to true integrity, but rather to the holiness of the place, as it is said: ‘How fearful is this place.’ (Bereishit, 28:17)…
Organic life finds its habitat in a mixture of harmonious elements and produces – a plant.”
There are two realities to our Jewish existence; the exilic one, and the Eretz Yisraeli one. With much help from the Almighty, we have managed to retain our Judaism whilst in exile. Yes, our Torah, Torat Yisrael, goes with us wherever we may wander, but our existence outside our homeland can be compared to cultivating a tropical plant in a greenhouse.
The greenhouse is a superficial reality that adapts itself to the needs of the plants it houses. Hence, one can grow tropical plants in London if one transforms a room into a small tropical jungle. The temperature, humidity, water supply are all provided, but the reality is both fragile and untrue. If the plant was taken outside for one moment and exposed to the natural environment, it would suffer enormously, perhaps even be irreversibly damaged. And so the plant is left in the greenhouse for its entire lifespan. Yes, it grows very well in the greenhouse but no-one can say it is its natural habitat. If we took this plant and returned it to the Brazilian rain forests, it would grow undisturbed; wildly, naturally, beautifully, reaching potential unattainable in a greenhouse setting.
As Jews, we can and have had to live in exile throughout our history. We have needed to protect ourselves, close ourselves off from many realities and effectively create an alternative way of life. And Baruch Hashem, for the most part, we have succeeded. In creating a greenhouse.
Many Jews feel so warm and protected by that greenhouse they are completely unaware of how much they can grow in their natural habitat. The Torah does accompany us in exile but it was written for Am Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael. Pesach is meant to occur at springtime; one should be able to sleep through the night in the Sukkah; the Three Foot Festivals are home visits to Yerushalayim and the Beit Mikdash.
When you live a life of Torah in Eretz Yisrael (even today), everything surrounding you is holy; every step you take, every fruit you see. Every action, every thought, every deed. The greenhouse has been smashed to smithereens because we don’t need it. We are where we are meant to be, and now our potential is so much greater.
In Eretz Yisrael we can relive the stories we could only read about in the greenhouse. As you walk through the Judean Hills, you walk the exact same path as your forefathers. As you hike up Mount Gilboa, you experience the battles of King Shaul. As you travel from Gush Etzion to Beit Shemesh, you can see where David met Goliath – past and present merge into your blossoming Jewish future.
On a personal note, the more I live in Eretz Yisrael the less I can envisage a viable alternative. If plants could talk would they opt for the greenhouse or their natural habitat? Could the animals caged up in the Bronx Zoo really survive if let loose in Manhattan or would they prefer to be running through the vast North African plains?
As we approach another Shemitta year in 5768, we cannot help but be grateful that this is our lot. In our times we have merited opening the doors of our surreal though effective greenhouses, and we have been lovingly replanted in our most natural habitat – Am Yisrael Be’Eretz Yisrael.
 Vayikra, Tzav, and the first part of Shemini.
 The latter part of Shemini, and Tazria, Metzora, Acharei Mot, Kedoshim and Emor.
 Chapter 5.
 See Bereishit, 15:16 and Rashi there.
 Sefer HaKuzari, Ma’amar 2:14.