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Covenant & Conversation

Matot-Massei (5769) – The Religious Significance of Israel


The long journey is nearing its close. The Jordan is almost within sight. The Torah (Num. 33: 1-49) sets out an extended list of the stages of the Israelites’ route. It sounds prosaic: “They journeyed from X and camped at Y”, over and over again. But the effect is to heighten tension and increase anticipation. Finally the list draws to a close, and G-d tells Moses: “Take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess” (33: 53). This, according to Nachmanides, is the source of the command to dwell in the land of Israel and inherit it.

With this we come to one of the central tensions in Judaism and Jewish history: the religious significance of the land of Israel. Its centrality cannot be doubted. Whatever the subplots and subsidiary themes of Tanakh, its overarching narrative is the promise of and journey to the land. Jewish history begins with Abraham and Sarah’s journey to it. Exodus to Deuteronomy are taken up with the second journey in the days of Moses. Tanakh as a whole ends with Cyrus king of Persia granting permission to Jews, exiled in Babylon, to return to their land: the third great journey.

The paradox of Jewish history is that though a specific territory, the holy land, is at its heart, Jews have spent more time in exile than in Israel; more time longing for it than dwelling in it; more time travelling than arriving. Much of the Jewish story could be written in the language of today’s sedra: “They journeyed from X and camped at Y”.

Hence the tension. On the one hand, monotheism must understand G-d as non-territorial. The G-d of everywhere can be found anywhere. He is not confined to this people, that place – as pagans believed. He exercises His power even in Egypt. He sends a prophet, Jonah, to Nineveh in Assyria. He is with another prophet, Ezekiel, in Babylon. There is no place in the universe where He is not. On the other hand, it must be impossible to live fully as a Jew outside Israel, for if not, Jews would not have been commanded to go there initially, or to return subsequently. Why is the G-d beyond place to be found specifically in this place?

The sages formulated the tension in two striking propositions. On the one hand, “Wherever the Israelites went into exile, the Divine presence was exiled with them” (Mekhilta, Bo, 14). On the other, “One who leaves Israel to live elsewhere is as if he had no G-d.” (Ketubot 110b). Can one find G-d, serve G-d, experience G-d, outside the holy land? Yes and No. If the answer was only Yes, there would be no incentive to return. If the answer were only No, there would be no reason to stay Jewish in exile. On this tension, the Jewish existence is built.

What then is special about Israel? In The Kuzari, Judah Halevi says that different environments have different ecologies. Just as there are some countries, climates and soils particularly suited to growing vines, so there is a country, Israel, particularly suited to growing prophets – indeed a whole Divinely-inspired people. “No other place shares the distinction of the Divine influence, just as no other mountain produces such good wine” (Kuzari, II: 9-12).

Nachmanides gives a different explanation. G-d, he says, “created everything and placed the power of the lower creatures in the higher beings, giving over each and every nation ‘in their lands after their nations’ some known star or constellation . . . But the land of Israel, in the middle of the inhabited earth, is the inheritance of G-d . . . He has set us apart from all the nations over whom He has appointed princes and other celestial powers, by giving us the land [of Israel] so that He, blessed be He, will be our G-d and we will be dedicated to His name.” (Commentary to Lev. 18: 25). Though every land and nation is under the overarching sovereignty of G-d, only Israel is directly so. Others are ruled by intermediaries, earthly and heavenly. Their fate is governed by other factors. Only in the land and people of Israel do we find a nation’s fortunes and misfortunesdirectly attributable to their relationship with G-d.

Judah Halevi and Nachmanides both expound what we might call mystical geography. The difference between them is that Judah Halevi looks to earth, Nachmanides to heaven. For Judah Halevi what is special about the land of Israel is its soil, landscape and climate. For Nachmanides, it is its direct governance by G-d. For both of them, religious experience is possible outside Israel, but it is a pale shadow of what it is in the land. Is there a way of stating this non-mystically, in concepts and categories closer to ordinary experience? Here is one way of doing so.

The Torah is not merely a code of personal perfection. It is the framework for the construction of a society, a nation, a culture. It is about what R. Aharon Lichtenstein called, in a memorable phrase, ‘societal beatitude’. It contains welfare legislation, civil law, rules governing employer-employee relationships, environmental provisions, rules of animal welfare, public health, governmental and judicial systems.

The Torah stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from Gnosticism and other world-denying philosophies that see religion as an ascent of the soul to ethereal realms of the spirit. G-d lives here, on earth, in human lives, interactions and associations. The Torah is terrestrial because God seeks to dwell on earth. Thus the Jewish task is to create a society with the Divine presence in its midst. Had Judaism been confined to matters of the spirit, it would have left vast areas of human concern – the entire realms of politics, economics and sociology – outside the religious sphere.

What was and is unique about Israel is that it is the sole place on earth (barring shortlived exceptions like the Himyarites in the 6th century and Khazars in the 8th, whose kings converted to Judaism) where Jews have had the chance to create an entire society on Jewish lines. It is possible to live a Jewish life in Manchester, Monsey, Madrid or Minsk. But it is always a truncated experience. Only in Israel do Jews conduct their lives in the language of the Bible, within time defined by the Jewish calendar and space saturated in Jewish history. Only there do they form a majority. Only there are they able to construct a political system, an economy and an environment on the template of Jewish values. There alone can Judaism be what it is meant to be: not just a code of conduct for individuals, but also and essentially the architectonics of a society.

Hence there must be some space on earth where Jews practice self-government under Divine sovereignty. But why Israel, specifically? Because it was and is a key strategic location where three continents, Europe, Africa and Asia, meet. Lacking the extended flat and fertile space of the Nile delta or the Tigris-Euphrates valley (or today, the oil-fields of Arabia), it could never be the base of an empire, but because of its location it was always sought after by empires. So it was politically vulnerable.

It was and is ecologically vulnerable, because its water-resources are dependent on rain, which in that part of the world is never predictable (hence the frequent ‘famines’ mentioned in Genesis). Its existence could never, therefore, be taken for granted. Time and again its people, surviving challenge, would experience this as a miracle. Small geographically and demographically, it would depend on outstanding achievement (political, military and economic) on the part of its people. This would depend, in turn, on their morale and sense of mission. Thus the prophets knew, naturally as well as supernaturally, that without social justice and a sense of divine vocation, the nation would eventually fall and suffer exile again.

These are, as it were, the empirical foundations of the mysticism of Halevi and Nachmanides. They are as true today as they were in ancient times. There is a directness, a naturalness, of Jewish experience in Israel that can be found nowhere else. History tells us that the project of constructing a society under Divine sovereignty in a vulnerable land is the highest of high-risk strategies. Yet, across forty centuries, Jews knew that the risk was worth taking. For only in Israel is G-d so close that you can feel Him in the sun and wind, sense Him just beyond the hills, hear Him in the inflections of everyday speech, breathe His presence in the early morning air and live, dangerously but confidently, under the shadow of His wings.