“You shall possess the Land, and you shall settle in it, for to you have I given the Land to possess it.” (Bamidbar Chapter 33 Verse 53)
“In my opinion this is a positive commandment, in which Hashem is commanding Am Yisrael to live in the Land and inherit it, because He has given it to them, they should therefore not reject ’the inheritance of the Eternal’. Thus, if the thought occurs to them to go and conquer the land of Shinar or the land of Assyria or any other country, and to settle therein, they will be transgressing the commandment of G-d. And that which our Rabbis have emphasized, the significance of the commandment of settling in the Land of Israel, and that it is forbidden to leave it, except for certain specific reasons, and the fact that they consider a women who does not want to emigrate with her husband to live in the Land of Israel as a ‘rebellious wife’, and likewise the man – the source of all these statements is here in this verse, where we have been given this commandment, for this very verse constitutes a positive commandment … Our interpretation of the verse is the principal one.”
To my mind there are three distinct comments being made here by Ramban:
1: According to Ramban it is a positive commandment to settle in Eretz Yisrael. (We have already discussed this statement of Ramban in it’s halachik context in a shiur written on this Parasha in 5761 – it can be found in the Midreshet Harova archives –“Mattot Masei 5761”).
2: One who actively chooses to ‘go and conquer the land of Shinar…and to settle therein will be transgressing the commandment of G-d’. In this statement, Ramban has gone a step further – even if for some reason one cannot at present settle in Israel, it is forbidden to actively establish oneself outside of Israel. We must always consider exile as a station and not a destination (as Rabbi Yitzchak Bernstein Z”l would always say). Our aim must not be to conquer Shinar, and to settle therein – we must understand that galut is not an ideal, we have not been sent to exile in order to conquer, in order to rule, we have not been sent to exile to become patriots of our hosting countries, in some cases even to side with those countries against Israel. We are ‘guests’ in exile, if we are lucky we are welcome guests, if we are not so lucky we are unwelcome guests, but we must always remember we are only guests. In this sense we should aim to emulate the Chafetz Chaim of blessed memory, the more we establish ourselves in the exile, the more we reject Eretz Yisrael as our real destination. The only true roots of Am Yisrael are in Eretz Yisrael. This is our only true home. A Jew in galut should constantly know that he is in galut – our reality there should be a constant reminder to us that we are not at home. On this matter it is worth referring to the comments of Meshech Chochmah to Parashat Behukotai denouncing those who would say ‘Berlin is Yerushalayim’.
3: Ramban clearly indicates to those who would argue with his first statement, that even if you are of the opinion that living in Israel is not officially deemed to be a positive commandment, it is nevertheless clear, unequivocally, from almost every statement in Chazal both aggadic and halachik, that the Jewish people belong in Eretz Yisrael. The notion that a religious Jew should think otherwise is preposterous to say the least. The mere fact that halachically, going to live in Israel on the one hand, or the wish to leave Israel on the other hand, are considered to be legitimate grounds for divorce seems to say it all.
It is clear, that even if Rambam does not agree with Ramban in regards to his first statement (as is claimed by Megillat Esther, though his comments are disputed by many), he certainly does agree with the third statement of Ramban, and in fact quotes the Gemara in Ketubot in his Halachik work (Mishne Torah) regarding going to live in or going to leave Eretz Yisrael as being legitimate grounds for divorce.
With this Ramban in mind let us consider two events described to us in the book of Bamidbar where the people or at the least an element within the people, chose not to embrace this fundamental positive commandment.
The first of these events occurred “bayamim hahem bazman hazeh” – “In those days at this time”. Ten leaders of Israel managed to convince the vast majority of the Jewish people that Israel was not their ideal destination. The events that took place on Tisha BeAv all those years ago are detailed in Parashat Shelach and at the beginning of Sefer Devarim. As we know only too well, as a result of the actions of the spies and those that followed them, we were destined to remain in the midbar for forty years, and in addition to that one decree, we are told by our Rabbis that the day of Tisha BeAv was set aside for generations as a day of sorrow for Am Yisrael.
Yet, what was the real issue at hand that prompted the leaders of Israel to lead their people astray? We are told by Chazal that the twelve spies were all great men, spiritual leaders – where did they ere?
There are at the least two possible explanations:
1: They were genuinely scared of the inhabitants of Eretz Yisrael, and they lacked the true belief in Hashem that it takes to live in Israel. Thus, on the one hand they did not dispute for a moment the inherent beauty of Eretz Yisrael, but they were unconvinced of their ability to overcome the enemy. In essence, according to this understanding, the spies and their followers were found to be lacking in faith. Outwardly, they appeared to be real believing Jews, but when push came to shove, when faced with a Mitzva that really challenged their entire being, they showed their true colors for what they really were. They were destined to stay in the midbar because they lacked the spiritual level that is required to live in Eretz Yisrael. According to this understanding, the people truly wanted Eretz Yisrael, but they lacked the belief and courage that was required in order to fulfill their dream.
2: An alternative explanation suggested is that the Spies saw the life in the midbar as idyllic. To live in a self-contained ghetto, protected directly by the “Ananei Hakavod”, fed daily with manna, and supplied with an infinite amount of water. There was no need to work, no need to wage war. The Mishkan was in the middle of the camp in close proximity to everyone – what more could be asked for? With all of these advantages in mind, who would want to enter a Land, where one has to protect oneself, where one had to plough, sew, and reap ones harvest, where one had to travel for days to reach Yerushalayim, where one was exposed to certain impure realities that did not exist in the midbar?
Thus, the spies never had any intention of living in Eretz Yisrael, they went on their spying mission in the first place with the absolute objective of finding fault with the Land. According to this understanding, the people had already rejected the notion of living in Eretz Yisrael from the outset, and they used the issue of the spies as a means to their ultimate end. They truly believed that living within their enclosed ghetto in exile was better than living in the Chosen Land as the Chosen People. According to this understanding, we are not talking about a lack of belief, we are talking about the wrong belief altogether – the spies and their followers turned the midbar from a means into an ends, they became so caught up in their own beliefs that they discarded the true will of Hashem.
However we wish to interpret the sin of the spies and of those who chose to follow them, the fact remains that their punishment was that they would not enter Eretz Yisrael – the very first Chorban, the very first Tisha BeAv – they would live the rest of their lives in exile, in the midbar, and only the next generation forty years later, would merit the fulfilling of the Mitzva of settling in Eretz Yisrael.
Yet, in this week’s Parasha, forty years later, with a new generation on the verge of entering the Promised Land, history seems to be about to repeat itself:
“The children of Reuven and the children of Gad had abundant livestock – very great. They saw the land of Yazer and the land of Gilad, and behold – it was a place for livestock. The children of Gad and the children of Reuven came and said to Moshe, to Elazar the Kohen, and to the leaders of the assembly, saying: ‘Ataroth and Dibon and Yazer and Nimrah and Cheshbon, and Elealeh, and Sebam, and Nebo, and Beon – the land that Hashem smote before the assembly of Israel – it is a land for livestock, and your servants have livestock’.
They said: ‘If we have favor in your eyes, let this land be given to your servants as a heritage; do not bring us across the Jordan’.”
(Bamidbar Chapter 32 Verses 1 – 5)
There are clear differences between this episode and the events forty years earlier:
Firstly, this episode initially involved two tribes and not the entire people.
Secondly, it is clear that the motivation of these two tribes were very different to that of the ten spies.
Nevertheless, once again we find ourselves with an element of Am Yisrael rejecting the positive commandment of living in Eretz Yisrael. Yet here they were clearly not driven by fright, since when challenged by Moshe they showed an absolute willingness, to lead the fighting. In fact they promised that they would not return to their families in chutz laaretz until the entire Land was conquered – a period that lasted for seven years. Chazal tell us, that they actually remained in Eretz Yisrael until the Land had been divided, a full fourteen years.
It also seems clear that they were not driven by a misplaced spiritual belief that the midbar was better than Eretz Yisrael, because they did not choose to return to the Midbar, they simply wanted to stay in a land adjacent to Eretz Yisrael, here they would be further from Yerushlayim, without, manna, and without a Mishkan.
It would therefore appear that what drove the two tribes to stay on the other side of the Jordan was “material wealth”, they were more interested in financial stability and comfort than they were in Eretz Yisrael. When having to choose between physical comfort and the spiritual reality of living in the Holy Land, they opted for the former and rejected the latter. They still saw themselves as an inherent part of Am Yisrael, but ultimately their place of living would be defined by monetary factors as opposed to religious factors.
As the history of our people developed we see that in time the tribes living outside of Israel became slowly but surely dissociated from the people. Already by the start of the book of Judges, Devorah in the aftermath of war, demanded to know as to why those living over the other side of the Jordan did not join their brethren in Israel during their hour of need (Judges Chapter 5 Verse 16) (though they weren’t the only ones). Indeed, Moshe’s worry ‘Shall your brothers go out to battle while you settle here?’ (Bamidbar Chapter 32 Verse 6) may not have realized itself initially, but in time it proved to be a prophetic reality.
Indeed, our Rabbis tell us in Midrash Rabbah that the tribes living on the other side of the Jordan were the first to be exiled as a direct punishment for rejecting Eretz Yisrael .
In Summary, we have seen on the one hand the fundamental importance of living in Eretz Yisrael, yet on the other hand we have seen that for differing reasons Am Yisrael failed to fulfill this positive commandment.
It is not difficult to see the relevance of this Parasha to our current predicament.
For years, the vast majority of Am Yisrael, stood as Moshe did, from a distance, yearning to return to Eretz Yisrael, yearning to once again fulfill the mitzvoth that can only be fulfilled in Eretz Yisrael. However, they had no real way of reaching Eretz Yisrael, and the few that made it here lived under the harshest of conditions.
Yet during the last hundred years, reality for Am Yisrael has changed. We now have every possibility to fulfill the mitzvah of settling in Eretz Yisrael. We now have the ability to do what our ancestors were unable to do, and tragically now when we actually have that ability to fulfill are long awaited dream, we find large proportions of our people choosing to stay on “the other side of the Jordan”.
There are those that will not come because they are afraid. Israel is dangerous; it is a war zone. There are those who actually believe that there are places in the Diaspora that are holier than Israel – there are Jews in chutz laaretz who honestly believe that certain areas are ideal for spiritual development – Eretz Yisrael has disappeared from their lexicon; at most it is a place to visit. And there are those who are not prepared to lower their standard of living by coming on Aliyah.
Yet, almost half of Am Yisrael has chosen to fulfill this fundamental mitzvah. They are aware that it is dangerous, but they are willing to face those dangers in order to establish the reality of Shivat Tzion, they are not prepared to sit in their own relative quiet whilst their brethren go out to war. They willingly serve in the first Jewish army since the Maccabim, they risk their lives daily in order to be a part of the dream of Am Yisrael Beretz Yisrael.
Though many of these people are not religious, they know that Israel is home. They remain here despite the dangers; they willingly give up higher standards of living in order to fulfill the ‘Zionist dream’.
During this time especially “Bein Hametzarim” – in the lead up to Tisha BeAv, let us not repeat the sin of the spies – the sin that is in fact the primary source for Tisha BeAv. If we really wish to be rid of the reality of Tisha BeAv, then it is in our hands, we must overcome our worries and return home. If all of our people returned home our demographic reality would be different, our spiritual reality would be different, and our economic reality would be different – but most of all – our Jewish calendar would be different.
We are told by Chazal that sinat chinam – purposeless hate, caused the destruction of the Mikdash, but let us never forget that Tisha BeAv in its essence came about because our people rejected their Land. We have a chance to correct that mistake. During this period of absolute mourning, let us concentrate less on being in exile and concentrate more on ending that exile. It is a custom of Chabad during this time period to learn about the building of the Bet Mikdash, this seems to me to be the most positive and appropriate way to prepare ourselves for the future, for it is surely our future just as soon as we want it to be.
Rav David Milston