1 - The Commandment to Settle the Land of Israel
The commandment, or Mitzvah, to settle the Land of Israel is obligatory upon both the individual Jew and the Jewish nation as a whole. The Mitzvah requires that the nation conquer and settle all of the Land of Israel and that each individual Jew dwell in the Land. Regarding the nation's responsibility to take control of Israel and settle it, Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman, the Ramban, writes (in his commentary on Maimonides' Sefer HaMitzvoth): "We are commanded to inherit the land that the almighty God gave to our forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and not to leave it in the hands of other nations or in desolation, as it says, 'Inherit the land and live in it, since it is to you that I am giving the land to occupy...'" (Numbers 33:53).
If we examine the Ramban's words carefully we will discover that there are two parts to the Mitzvah of settling the Land. The first part involves the Jewish people ruling exclusively over the Land of Israel, or Eretz Yisrael, thus leaving no room for foreign governing in the Land. Even when this is accomplished, however, the Mitzvah is still not considered complete. The second part of the Mitzvah requires the settling of every part of the Land, including the most desolate areas. The Mitzvah obligates us not only to dwell in developed cities or towns, but to make the wasteland bloom as well. Only when the Land is under Jewish rule and every part of it is settled, cultivated and flourishing, will the Mitzvah have been completely fulfilled.
The Ramban emphasizes that this Mitzvah is applicable not only to the period of time during which the Jews made their exodus from Egypt and subsequently conquered Israel, but for all generations. In all generations we are obligated to rule over the Land and to settle it. Unfortunately, for much of our long history we have been incapable of fulfilling this Mitzvah, for we, the Jewish People, have been confined to exile in both body and soul. Yet in recent times, through the goodness of God, the end of the exile has begun to reveal itself - our situation has changed and we are now once again able to fulfill this Mitzvah 1
.2 - The Individual's Part in the Complete Mitzvah
There are many levels involved in the individual's part of the mitzvah of settling Eretz Yisrael. Those who dwell in Israel are partners in this mitzvah, for their presence strengthens the Jewish control of the Land. Those who live in areas that are more desolate, such as the desert, or in Judea and Samaria, fulfill the mitzvah on even a higher level. Their presence in these parts of the Land contributes doubly to the mitzvah, for they are not only strengthening the rule over the areas in which other nations are attempting to wrest away from the Jews, but they are also helping to ensure that all of the Land is cultivated and settled. Those who live in other places in Israel that are more isolated from Jewish presence and are surrounded by enemies, are fulfilling the mitzvah to an even greater extent. The wise sages have said that Eretz Yisrael is only acquired through pain and suffering; the greater the suffering, the greater the reward.
The mitzvah to settle the Land of Israel is unique in that, unlike most other mitzvot, its fulfillment doesn't involve the performance of any specific act, such as laying tfillin, giving tzeddakah or praying. Each Jew who lives in Israel is performing the mitzvah of settling the Land just by his dwelling in it. It follows, that for those who merit to reside in the towns of Judea and Samaria, mundane daily acts, such as breathing, eating and sleeping become mitzvot in themselves.
For those who live outside of Israel but financially support its settlement, their partnership is limited as they are not fulfilling the mitzvah with their physical presence. And those who do live in Israel and also help to support its settlement towns are partners in the settling of the Land's holy places, which of course raises the level of greatness for this mitzvah.3 - The State of Israel
On the fifth of Iyar 5708 Israel was officially declared a state and Am Yisrael was once again able to return to its homeland and perform the mitzvah of settling it. After two thousand years of living in the diaspora, Jewish rule over Israel was finally back in effect, thus fulfilling the nation's obligation to conquer and control the Land. Even if the majority of the inhabitants residing in Israel were Jewish, as long as the Land was under foreign rule, the complete mitzvah obligating both the individual and the nation to settle it could not be fulfilled. Only upon the establishment of Israel as a Jewish owned and governed state, did Am Yisrael merit the opportunity to begin the process of performing the complete mitzvah of settling the Land.
Jewish rule over the Land is such a basic concept that the rabbis and sages decreed that one should tear one's clothes and say "Your holy cities are desolate" upon seeing a destroyed city in Judea. As long as the city is in the hands of another nation, it is considered destroyed and desolate, even if the majority of its population is Jewish. The same applies to the opposite. If the city is inhabited mostly by non-Jews but Jewish rule has been established, it is a redeemed city and it is no longer necessary to tear one's clothing and mourn over it. (See Beit Yosef Orech Chaim 561, Mishne Brura 561,b).
Rav Kook also emphasized that on the day of Israel's Independence the mitzvah of settling the Land once again became possible and we could begin to fulfill it.. On one occasion during an Independence Day celebration at Yeshivat Mercaz Harav one of the great Rabbis of the Yeshiva stressed that the importance of the establishment of the State of Israel was attributed to the fact that now there is more Torah learning and it is easier to perform many of the mitzvot. Rav Kook did not agree with that idea and he addressed the matter saying that the importance of the establishment of the State of Israel is the mere fact that Am Yisrael is again enabled to fulfill the mitzvah of settling the Land. That in itself, he stated, is a great reason to celebrate. Eretz Yisrael under Jewish leadership has its own intrinsic value and is not a means to an end. Once the complete mitzvah of conquering, controlling and settling the Land is performed, it is inevitable that other mitzvot will be more easily and readily fulfilled and the redemption will be closer at hand as a result. 2
Am Yisrael was not able to perform this mitzvah of conquering and settling the Land in previous generations because it did not have an army or weapons while it was in the Diaspora with which to fight for Israel. However, the establishment of an army in Israel before it officially became a state enabled the nation to take control of the Land. Therefore, in addition to saving Jewish lives from enemies, the presence of an army is essential for performing this mitzvah. This will be the situation until the time of better days arrives as it is stated in the verse in Isaiah (chap.2,2-4) "And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established on the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills' and all the nations shall flow unto it. And many peoples shall go and say, come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the G-d of Yaakov; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall come forth Torah, and the word of the Lord from Yerushalayim. And he shall judge among the nations, and shall decide among many people; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and neither shall they learn war any more." 4 - Conquering the Land and Pikuach Nefesh
The Torah is given to man in order for him to live by it, not die by it. Therefore, if one is in a situation where he must do a forbidden act or die, the Torah usually permits one to transgress mitzvot. Transgressions such as idol worship, murder or illicit relations are the exception to this rule. One is permitted to break Shabbat or feed a sick person non-kosher food if it is necessary to heal him for the sake of pikuach nefesh (transgressing a mitzvah in order to save one's life). Pikuach nefesh, however, does not apply to the waging of war in order to conquer the Land of Israel. Even though it is inevitable that people will die during a war, the Torah commands us to take control of the Land through battle and not to rely on miracles (Minchat chinuch 425, Mispat Kohen page 327). And so it seems that in order to perform the mitzvah of conquering and settling the Land, one must be altruistic and self sacrificing just as was demanded of Am Yisrael in the times of Joshua, King David, during the building of the Second Temple, and the period of the Chasmonim rule.
We should however categorize these concepts. The rule that one should live by the Torah and its mitzvot and not die by them also applies to the Jewish nation as a whole. At times, the good of the nation, as opposed to individual soldiers, need to be taken into consideration. For example, if there is a high risk that Am Yisrael will lose the war and its inheritance, then the welfare of the nation is at stake and the army should not go to war. It is clear that the Torah is an instrument of life and does not command the nation to commit suicidal acts. However if chance of success is great then there is an obligation to wage war in order to conquer the Land and settle it, even if that involves loss of Jewish lives.
It is of necessity to point out that if a nation does not fight for the sake of its own country or land, then it is leaving itself vulnerable and exposed to its neighbors and enemies, which is a greater danger. If a nation doesn't succeed in recruiting its sons to sacrifice their lives in battle for the sake of defending the borders of their country, it will eventually be conquered, subsequently endangering its citizens to greater perils. Thus, the mitzvah to fight for Eretz Yisrael actually involves the saving of lives as well as fulfilling the mitzvah of settling the Land.5 - The Greatness of the Mitzvah
The sages and rabbis declared the mitzvah of dwelling in the Land of Israel equal to all the other mitzvot combined. Although there are other mitzvot about which the same is considered true, this mitzvah of settling Eretz Yisrael supersedes them as it is the only mitzvah that demands of us to sacrifice our lives in order to conquer the land and keep it from our enemies. In addition, this mitzvah is unique in that the transgression of shvut on Shabbat is allowed in order to regain control of the Land. 3
We can learn more about the importance of this mitzvah from the Tanna dbei Eliyahu's descriptions of the greatness of Eretz Israel. "Once I was sitting before the great Rabbis in Yerushalayim and I asked them what was so different about King Omri that all the Kings preceding him did not have any continuation, whereas Omri's offspring produced three more kings? They responded: 'We didn't hear.' I then said to them: 'Rabbis, Omri merited having three kings on his throne because he built a great city in the Land of Israel.'"
And so, in spite of the fact that Omri was not a righteous person, he merited to have his offspring rule because he fulfilled the mitzvah of settling the land by building a great city in Israel. Omri's intentions were not to help Israel develop or flourish; rather he built the city for his own benefit -to strengthen his kingdom and to keep his subjects away from making the pilgrimage to Yerushalayim. Nevertheless, Omri was rewarded, despite his impure intentions.