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Matot-Masei 5764-2004

“The Mitzvah of Living in the Land of Israel”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Masei, the second of this week’s double parashiot, G-d speaks to Moses in the Plains of Moab and tells him to tell the Children of Israel that when they pass over the Jordan river and enter the land of Canaan they are to drive out all the inhabitants of the lands and destroy their idols and their places of worship (Numbers 33:50-52).

In the next verse, (Numbers 33:53), the people of Israel are once again instructed to rid the land of the inhabitants. “V’ho’rash’tem et ha’ah’retz, vee’shahv’tem bah, kee lah’chem nah’tah’tee et ha’ah’retz la’reh’shet oh’tah.” You shall drive out the inhabitants of the land and dwell therein, for unto you have I given the land to possess it.

There is an ancient tradition that the Torah contains “Taryag ,” or 613 mitzvot. What these 613 mitzvot are, however, is subject to dispute. One of the major disputes concerning the 613 mitzvot is whether there is an explicit Torah mitzvah to settle in the land of Israel.

Based on these verses in parashat Masei, Numbers 33:52-53, the Ramban (Nachmanides, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah scholar and commentator) counts the mitzvah of settling in the land of Israel as number 4 on his list of mitzvot. Hence it is known as the “Fourth Mitzvah.” This mitzvah incorporates the command to accept G-d’s offer of the land and to live in it. In his commentary, Nachmanides proclaims this doctrine forcefully:

In my opinion, this constitutes a positive command of the Torah, wherein He [G-d] commanded them [the people of Israel] to settle in the land and inherit it; for He gave it to them; and they should not reject the heritage of the Lord! Should it enter their mind, for instance, to go and conquer the land of Shinar [Babylon] or Assyria or another country and settle therein, they would have transgressed the commandment of the Lord…

As opposed to Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible), who maintains that the phrase (Numbers 33:52-53), “V’ho’rahsh’tem” means that the people of Israel must drive out (from the root of the Hebrew word “to conquer”) the indigenous inhabitants, Nachmanides interprets ” V’ho’rahsh’tem” to mean that one must “inherit” the land as patrimony. Nachmanides emphasizes that it is up to the people to take this Divinely granted heritage and not be further concerned, for G-d will provide for the security of the Land.

In his comments on the Sefer Ha’Mitzvot (Book of Divine Precepts) authored by Maimonides (the Rambam, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204), Nachmanides outlines at great length where and how he differs with Maimonides in his method of reckoning the 613 mitzvot.

Nachmanides takes Maimonides to task for not counting the duty to settle in the land of Israel as a separate mitzvah. Despite the fact that Maimonides, in many of his writings, often underscores the indispensable importance of the land of Israel, he never spells out the mitzvah of settling in the land of Israel as one of the 613 mitzvot.

Rabbinic and Talmudic tradition place great emphasis on living in Israel. The midrashic commentary on the Torah known as Sifrei (Deut. 12:29) tells of four rabbis who journeyed from Israel to the Diaspora. When they reached Palatium, a location outside of Israel, they remembered the land of Israel and their eyes welled up with tears. They proceeded to rend their clothes, while recalling the verse: And thou shall drive out the inhabitants of the land and dwell therein” (Numbers 33:53). At that point, retracing their steps, they returned to Israel and declared forcefully that living in Israel is equal to all the other mitzvot in the Torah.

The Talmud in Ketubot 110b underscores the centrality of the Land of Israel by reminding all Jews that it is preferable for a Jew to dwell in a city in Eretz Yisrael, where the majority of the residents are idolaters, than to live outside of Israel, even in a city mostly inhabited by Jews. The rabbis declare that those who reside in the land of Israel are like people who have a G-d, while those who reside outside of Israel are like those who have no G-d and serve idols.

Whereas all the other nations merely inhabit and reside in their homelands, the Jews have a particular obligation to observe an ethical and religious way of life in the land of Israel. That is why, according to Nachmanides, the Jews are specifically commanded to take possession of the land of Israel and to live there in order to fulfill this religious mission.

Many argue that, in fact, Maimonides also maintained that Jews are duty bound to live in Israel, even though he did not list it among the “Taryag ,” the 613. Maimonides considered himself a sinner for not living in the Holy Land. Furthermore, it is an undisputed halachic ruling that either a husband or wife may insist that their spouse make aliyah (move to Israel), and if the spouse refuses, he/she is penalized.

There are those who argue further that Maimonides actually sees the mitzvah of living in the land of Israel as so fundamental that he did not deem it necessary for the mitzvah to be listed and counted.

So where does that leave us? Jews who live in galut , the Diaspora, often proffer a host of legitimate and not so legitimate excuses for not living in Israel. Be that as it may, there really are no valid excuses for not visiting Israel regularly or supporting Israel economically. If Diaspora Jews purchase second homes, they should purchase those homes in the land of Israel. If they wish to invest in additional businesses, the land of Israel should be a primary investment consideration.

To paraphrase Nachmanides, we, the Jews of the Diaspora, should not look to conquer the alien lands of “Shinar” or “Asyria” or any other country to settle therein. The Diaspora should not be allowed to become the long-term alternative to the land of Israel. To the contrary, the land of Israel must always be seen as the Jew’s primary residence and the Diaspora as a way-station, not a destination. Israel is our land to conquer and to possess. And if we really wish to “possess” it, we can do so only by first “conquering” ourselves.

May you be blessed.