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HaAretz Asher Areka: Exilic Era

The Advantages of Eretz Yisrael during the Exilic Era

Another question about the subject of residing in Eretz Yisrael in these times regards its virtues. This is how the question is formulated: Are the great praises that were said about Eretz Yisrael limited to the period in which the Shechinah was dwelling on Israel and prophecy was attainable, or are they valid even in these times; and if the first idea is correct, what does that say for the mitzvah to reside in it?

The question begins with a statement that defines anyone who resides in the diaspora as if he doesn’t have a god.

Our Rabbis learned:

One should always reside in Eretz Yisrael, even in a city that has a majority of idolaters, and shouldn’t live in the diaspora, even in a city that has a majority of Jews, for anyone that resides in Eretz Yisrael is similar to one who has a G-d, and anyone who resides in the diaspora is similar to one who doesn’t have a god, as it says, “To give to you the Land of Canaan, to be for you a G-d” (Leviticus 25:38) – does anyone who doesn’t reside in the land have no god? But rather it is saying to you: Whoever resides in the diaspora is if he worships idols. Likewise, by David it says, “For they have chased me today from joining Hashem’s inheritance, saying, ‘Go, serve other gods’” (1 Samuel 26:19) – now, who told him to serve other gods? But rather it is saying to you: Whoever resides in the diaspora is if he worships idols.

The expression is very severe: Only one who resides in Eretz Yisrael is considered as if he has a G-d. But the source is from a verse written in the Torah and a verse written during the period of the prophets, when the Shechinah dwelt in Israel. Eretz Yisrael was then the place for worshiping G-d with sacrifices offered in His temple that served as a platform for the dwelling of His Shechinah; how could we learn from this that in these times, when there is no obvious difference between the land and the diaspora, that only one who resides in Eretz Yisrael is considered as if he has a G-d?

The expected conclusion would be that the definition doesn’t hold except regarding Eretz Yisrael in its state of being settled; and indeed, so wrote the Rem”a from Fano:

Know that one who resides in Eretz Yisrael when it is desolate is similar to one who doesn’t have a god, but when it is settled, he is similar to one that has a god… and in the diaspora he is similar to one who doesn’t have a god at all times.

This can be expressed in a more general and simple way. Eretz Yisrael is called “A land of delight” (Jeremiah 3:19). About this Chazal say: “Why is it called a land of delight? Because the Holy Temple is in it.” If the delight of the land is the Holy Temple, an abode for the Shechinah, then when the temple is not in it, its delight is voided and along with that is voided – one would think – the reason to reside in it.

On the other hand, the instruction of the teaching brought in the Talmud simply and without conditions is: “One should always reside in Eretz Yisrael”; implying that the expected behavior based on the understanding that only one who resides in Eretz Yisrael is similar to one who has a god – i.e., to reside in it – applies at all times and all situations. Can these conflicting points be resolved? Why would a person be required to reside in Eretz Yisrael at the time of its desolation because at the time it is settled one who resides there is as if he has a G-d?

The matter can be understood properly through a study of the book that places Eretz Yisrael at the nucleus of its ideology, namely the Kuzari, and in truth it is a mistake to approach this deep subject without understanding well all his relevant words in this masterpiece. The Kuzari clarified the fundamentals of the subject of Eretz Yisrael, and he actually deals with precisely this question, when he contrasts the importance of residing in Eretz Yisrael along with the Shechinah on the one hand, to the question of why is it appropriate at all to reside there without it, on the other hand. Through studying his words, we will understand what the difference is between Eretz Yisrael in its settled state and its desolate state; what exactly is meant by the expression “One who has a god”; and also, why facing toward Eretz Yisrael in prayer is so important.

Twice in the Kuzari the issue residence in Eretz Yisrael is treated as a practical question; once in the framework of a broad aliyah of all the children of Israel, and the second time in the framework of the private aliyah of the Rabbi, alone. As was quoted earlier, the king of the Khazars blamed the nation of Israel with slackness in cherishing the land, since they didn’t all return to it to make it their abode in life and death. The Rabbi agreed with him, and added that this sin isn’t new: It is the same sin that prevented the return of the Shechinah to the Second Temple. In essence, the nation of Israel is obligated to return to its holy land.

This is in regards to a broad aliyah. At the end of the book, the idea of aliyah came up again – this time of the Rabbi alone, and this time the king didn’t understand. What is there currently in the land of Israel if either way the whole population isn’t ascending? As is recounted:

The Rabbi was then concerned to leave the land of the Khazars and to betake himself to Jerusalem. The king was loath to let him go, and spoke to him in this sense as follows: “What can be sought in Eretz Yisrael nowadays, since the Shechinah is absent from it, while, with a pure mind and desire, one can approach God in any place? Why would you endanger yourself on land and water and among various peoples?”

The Rabbi answered: “The visible Shechinah has, indeed, disappeared, because it does not reveal itself except to a prophet or a favored community, and in a distinguished place. This is what we hope for, as it says: ‘For they will see, before their own eyes, Hashem returning to Zion’ (Isaiah 52:8). As regards the invisible and spiritual Shechinah, it is with every born Israelite of virtuous life, pure heart, and upright mind before the Lord of Israel. Eretz Yisrael is especially dedicated to the Lord of Israel, and actions can’t be perfected except there. Many of the Israelite mitzvahs do not concern those who do not live there; heart and soul are only perfectly pure and immaculate in the place which is believed to be specially selected by God, even if was only true in a figurative sense, how much more so when it is true in reality, as we have shown. Thus, the longing for it is awakened with disinterested motives…”

If the children of Israel would all return to the holy land, the Shechinah also would return. It is self-evident why they must all return. But if they are not all returning, why should an individual return there, if the Shechinah isn’t present there? To this the Rabbi responded that if Eretz Yisrael is not currently the place of the visible Shechinah, it is still the place to attain the hidden Shechinah. This Shechinah is attained through perfection virtuous life, pure heart, and upright mind, and these can only be attained in Eretz Yisrael. Many mitzvahs do not concern those who don’t live in Eretz Yisrael, and upright mind and purity of the heart depend on the presence of conditions that contribute to a certain kind of thinking. What are the conditions?

To be in a place dedicated to God.

It follows, then, that if Eretz Yisrael is the place in which a person is considered as if he has a god – when it is settled, when there is a favored community in it and the presence of the Shechinah – it is appropriate for a person to reside in it even when it is desolate. It is the place dedicated to God, meaning the place that God chose to reveal Himself there at the appropriate times; therefore, in it, and only in it, will there be upright mind and pure heart. Nevertheless, when the Shechinah isn’t revealed in the world, the faithful connection to the Shechinah is achieved when a person connects himself to the past and the future, residing in the place where the Shechinah was revealed in the future and will eventually be revealed again.

When we study the book deeper, we will also find the key to understand the expression “He has a god” and how it connects to Eretz Yisrael when it is settled or desolate. Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi says that not everyone has Hashem as a god:

It is not permitted for all who wish to say: “My God”… except metaphorically, as a way of accepting a tradition. As a matter of truth, only a prophet or a pious person to whom Divine Providence cleaves. Thus, it was said to the prophet: “Pray, please, to Hashem your god” (1 Kings 13:6).

“God” with the possessive – “My God” – can be said in a literal sense only by a prophet or a pious person to whom Divine Providence cleaves. The rest if us say it only metaphorically, as a way of accepting a tradition. Meaning that only people of appropriate spiritual stature “Have a god.” God is theirs – He is responsive to them, available and present, while all of us attempt to serve Him and obey His mitzvahs, but He isn’t “ours” in truth. Since prophecy is limited to Eretz Yisrael, only one who resides in it has a god in truth, if he is a prophet or a pious person. The connection of God to mankind is limited to this land. And he isn’t a prophet, he also has a god – but only in a way of accepting a tradition.

The question then must be asked: If one who lives in the Diaspora is as if he doesn’t have a god, how is it permitted for him to say in prayer “My God”?

The answer is simple: Through a way of accepting a tradition, the connection is extended also to one who resides in the Diaspora; just as it includes one who isn’t a prophet, so too would it include everyone who doesn’t truly have a god. The main notion of “having a god” is limited to a prophet in Eretz Yisrael, and everyone is subordinate to him, accepting his tradition, including one who lives in the Diaspora. But there is a condition in this: Since the root of this connection to God is in Eretz Yisrael, a person won’t be able to connect himself to this tradition except through turning to Eretz Yisrael in prayer. God is called “My God” in Eretz Yisrael, to those who are worthy; the rest aspire to it and accept the tradition. But it is impossible to say that one who turns his back to Eretz Yisrael and chooses not to be there is also accepting this tradition. If he turns his back and has no interest in being in the place dedicated to God – if the uprightness of his mind and purity of his heart are not dependent on being in the land of the prophets and of prophecy – he is declaring that he doesn’t connect himself to the tradition of the prophets completely.

Here we have arrived at the importance of facing Eretz Yisrael in prayer and the words of Rabbi Yaakov Emden (based on the words of the Kuzari) that facing Eretz Yisrael won’t be effective for someone in the position “where there is no claim of complete unfeasibility” regarding aliyah to it. For the meaning of facing Eretz Yisrael is essentially the assertion that Hashem is “My God,” even if only metaphorically and as a way of accepting a tradition. But if facing Eretz Yisrael goes together with turning one’s back to it and a lack of interest in residing in it, it has no worth. An empty action of facing toward can’t forge a connection to the past or future when one ignores its meaning.

The point treated of in this chapter isn’t limited to the question of residing in Eretz Yisrael, but is essentially the question that stands at the foundation of the whole Kuzari. The tension between the form of Judaism derived from the Torah and Prophets and Judaism as it exists today and can be lived is a tension expressed with the question: What does it matter to me what Eretz Yisrael was or will be, if it isn’t that now? This tension stands at the root of the Kuzari, and Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi teaches that in truth current Judaism is merely a placeholder for the lost Judaism to which we yearn to return, and that we aren’t faithful to it except to the degree that we grasp and attain all that we can grasp and attain from the things that define true Judaism, which connect us to it – primarily, Eretz Yisrael.

To summarize: The pillar of fire that travels before our camp, that guides our actions today, is what was in a different era; the exilic era is, by definition, an intermediary time, between the past and future, in which we remember what was and connect to it, while hoping for what will be. This matter is expressed wonderfully in a Midrash that explains why the congregation of Israel is compared to a dove:

Just as a dove, even if you remove its chicks from under it, it never abandons its coop, so too Israel, although the Holy Temple was destroyed, the three annual pilgrimages weren’t voided.

The dove wouldn’t abandon its coop even when there is nothing there for it, and so too we shouldn’t abandon our inheritance.

Proof to this whole principle: making Eretz Yisrael the place to which we face in prayer. This obligation is derived from verses that were said at the time that the Shechinah was dwelling on the Ark in the Temple. As they said:

One who was standing in the Diaspora should focus his heart toward Eretz Yisrael, as it is stated: “And they shall pray to You by way of their land” (I Kings 8:48)… toward Jerusalem, as it is stated: “And they shall pray to the Lord by way of the city that You have chosen” (Ibid., 44). One who was standing in Jerusalem should focus his heart toward the Temple, as it is stated: “And they shall pray toward this house” (Ibid., 42)… toward the Holy of Holies, as it is stated: “And they shall pray toward this place” (Ibid., 35)… Consequently, all of Israel focus their hearts toward one place.

It would seem that we couldn’t derive from making Eretz Yisrael the place we face toward in prayer at the time that the Shechinah dwelt in it, to the notion that we should turn to it today when Mount Zion is desolate. Yet we do, because we live, today, in the past and the future – that is the current state of Judaism.

This is all said, obviously, in regard to a return of individuals to Eretz Yisrael, without a return of the full favored community and without redemption; even a limited return is appropriate as a means of connecting with the tradition, as has been explained. But according to Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, the redemption itself hinges on the return of the whole community and its desiring the land of Hashem, according to which it is self-evident that it is incumbent upon them all to return and restore their glorious position. The reluctance of the Jews to return is the sin at the root of all, that we are obligated to rectify in order to restore our lost grandeur.

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