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The Mitzvah of Settling the Land of Israel

Granted, we are not yet in control of the entire Land, and we are partially dependent on the nations of the world, but we are actually fulfilling, once again, the mitzvah of Yishuv HaAretz.


Rabbi Eliezer Melamed

When the State of Israel was established, on the fifth of Iyar, 5708, the Jewish people as a whole were privileged to fulfill the mitzvah of Yishuv Eretz Yisrael (settling the Land of Israel). Even before the declaration of statehood, every Jew who lived in the Land fulfilled this mitzvah. The Sages even said, "A person should always dwell in Eretz Yisrael, even in a city inhabited mostly by heathens, and he should not dwell outside the Land, even in a city inhabited mostly by Jews, for anyone who dwells in Eretz Yisrael is like one who has a God, and anyone who dwells outside the Land is like one who has no God" (Ketuvot 110b). Nonetheless, the mitzvah is mainly incumbent upon Klal Yisrael (the entire Jewish community) – to take control of the Land. The mitzvah to dwell in the Land, which applies to every individual Jew, is an offshoot of the general mitzvah that is incumbent upon Klal Yisrael as a whole.
This is the meaning of the verse "You shall possess the Land and dwell in it, for to you have I given the Land to possess it"(Bamidbar, 33:53). "You shall possess" denotes conquest and sovereignty, while "you shall dwell" implies settling the Land so that it not remain desolate. Similarly, the Torah states, "You shall possess it and you shall dwell therein"(Devarim, 11:31). Accordingly, the Ramban defines the mitzvah as follows: "We were commanded to take possession of the Land that God, may He be blessed, gave to our forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov; and we must not leave it in the hands of any other nation or let it remain desolate" (Addendum to Rambam’sSefer HaMitzvot, Positive Commandment 4).
This mitzvah is incumbent upon the Jewish people in every generation. For a long time, however, we lacked the means by which to fulfill it. We were forced to neglect it, because we did not have an army or weapons with which to conquer and settle the Land. A few generations ago, God showed kindness to His nation and a spirit of nationalism began to stir, causing Jews to go forth and gather in the Land. They planted trees, developed the country’s economy, established an organized defense force, and struggled against the foreign power that controlled the Land, so that when the British Mandate expired, the Jews in Israel were able to declare the establishment of Medinat Yisrael. On that day, the Jewish people began fulfilling the mitzvah of Yishuv HaAretz. Granted, we are not yet in control of the entire Land, and we are partially dependent on the nations of the world, but we are actually fulfilling, once again, the mitzvah of Yishuv HaAretz.
We find in halakhah, as well, that Jewish sovereignty over the Land is a significant factor], for the laws of mourning over Eretz Yisrael’s destruction depend on sovereignty. Our Sages prescribed that one who sees the cities of Judea in ruins should say, "Your holy cities have become a wilderness" (Yeshayah 64:9), and tear his garments. The poskim explain that the definition of "in ruins" depends on who is in control. If Gentiles rule the Land, its cities are considered ruined, even if most of the inhabitants are Jewish, and one must tear his garment upon seeing them. But if the Jews are in control, the cities are not considered ruined, even if Gentiles constitute the majority, and no tearing is required (Beit Yosef and BachO.C. 561; Magen Avraham 1, and Mishna Berura 2).
In addition, Chazal lavished praise upon the mitzvah of Yishuv HaAretz, going so far as to say that it is equal to all the mitzvot of the Torah (Sifrei, Re’eh 53.
The Ramban lays down the foundations of the mitzvah of settling the Land in his Addendum to Sefer HaMitzvot, Positive Commandment 4, and our master and teacher, Rav Tzvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook zt"l, expands upon them in his work L’Netivot Yisrael(Vol. 1, LeTokef Kedushato Shel Yom HaAtzmaut, Beit El Publications, pp. 246-50, see also pp. 160-62; Vol. 2, Mizmor Yud Tet shel Medinat Yisrael, pp. 357-68). The mitzvah ofYishuv HaAretz applies in every generation, as the Ramban (loc. cit.) and Rivash (387) write. Therefore, the halachah that a husband and wife can force each other to make aliyah (Ketuvot 110b) is applicable at all times, as the Shulchan Aruch determines (Even HaEzer 75:3-5). This is also the consensus of the Rishonim and Acharonim, as the Pitchei Teshuvah cites there (6). True, Tosafot in Ketuvot (110b) quote Rabbeinu Chayim’sopinion that the mitzvah "does not apply today," but the greatest Rishonim and Acharonim disregard this opinion, claiming that a mistaken student authored it (Maharit,Yoreh Deah 28; many of the greatest Acharonim agree; see also Gilyon Maharsha,Ketuvot 110b; Responsa Chatam Sofer, Y.D. 234). The fact that the mitzvah is mainly fulfilled by way of Jewish sovereignty is elucidated in Yeshu’ot Malko, Y.D. 66, Avnei Neizer, Y.D. 455, and elsewhere.
Chazal comment on several other mitzvot that they are equal to all the rest (circumcision – Nedarim 32a; charity – Bava Batra 9a; tzitzit – Shevuot 29a; tefillin – Menachot 43b; Shabbat – Yerushalmi Nedarim 3:9; Torah study – Peah 1:1; acts of kindness – ibid.). Nonetheless, from a halachic standpoint, Yishuv HaAretz takes precedence over them all, for it is the only one that overrides a rabbinic injunction relating to the Sabbath (a "shevut"). If someone needs to violate a shevut in order to perform a brit milah(circumcision) on Shabbat, we postpone the brit instead of violating the shevut. For the sake of Yishuv HaAretz, however, the Rabbis allow one to purchase a home in Eretz Yisrael on the Sabbath, if necessary, even if this entails violating the shevut of amirah le’nochri (telling a non-Jew to do work for you on Shabbat), as the Talmud states in Gittin 8b and Bava Kama 8b (with Tosafot). We are not talking about the redemption of the entire Land, just the purchase of one house, and it still overrides a shevut! Furthermore, in order to make a protective "fence" around the Sabbath, our Sages abrogate the biblical commandments of shofar and lulav, when Rosh HaShanah and the first day of Sukkot coincide with Shabbat. When it comes to Yishuv HaAretz, however, the Sages revoke their words and permit the violation of a shevut, which is a serious offense, as it is supported by a scriptural text (and the Smag apparently considers it a biblical prohibition).
We are commanded to sacrifice our lives for the mitzvah of Yishuv HaAretz. After all, the Torah commands us to take possession of the Land, i.e. to conquer it; and soldiers are called upon to endanger their lives in war. See Minchat Chinuch 425.
The reason the Rambam does not include this mitzvah in his count of the 613 is that it is beyond the regular "value" of mitzvot; therefore, it is not included in their detailed enumeration. This coincides with the rules the Rambam lays down at the beginning of Sefer HaMitzvot, stating it is inappropriate to reckon commandments that encompass the entire Torah, as he writes in Mitzvah #153 [that settling the Land of Israel is all-inclusive]. Besides which, it is implausible to say that the mitzvah of Yishuv HaAretz is only rabbinically ordained today [and that that is why the Rambam leaves it out of the count]. After all, Chazal’s statement that settling the Land is equal to all the mitzvot of the Torah was made after the destruction of the Second Temple. Now, it is unlikely that they would say such a thing about a rabbinic mitzvah. Moreover, it is improbable that the Rabbis would dismantle a family (see above regarding divorce), and allow one to violate a shevut, merely for the sake of a rabbinic mitzvah (see Rabbi Zisberg’s Nachalat Ya’akov, Vol. 1, pp. 201-249).
Salvation of Israel
That day brought about a salvation for Diaspora Jews, as well. They now have a country that is always willing to absorb them, and even works on their behalf in the international arena. Before the State was established, almost no one paid attention to our complaints against the murderous, anti-Semitic persecutions that raged in many countries. After Israel gained independence, however, even the most evil regimes were forced to take into consideration Israel’s possible reprisals on behalf of the Jews living in their midst. Even Communist Russia had to relent and allow the Jews to leave from behind the Iron Curtain, something that was unfathomable before the State was born.
The establishment of the State also brought spiritual salvation to the Jews. Previous to this, the Jewish nation underwent a profound spiritual crisis since the dawn of the modern era. The opportunity to integrate into the civil and national frameworks of the developed nations, which the Jews were granted, generated a strong desire to assimilate. This is not the place to elaborate on the reasons for this crisis; our master, Rav Kook, zt"l, deals with the issue at length, discussing its various facets. In brief, a dangerous process of assimilation and the abandonment of Judaism developed in all countries that embraced modernization. This process threatened the very existence of the Jewish communities in the Diaspora. Assimilation began approximately two hundred years ago in Western Europe, spreading gradually to Eastern Europe and the capitals of the more developed Arab countries. Today, most young people in the Jewish community of America marry out of the faith, and even those who marry Jews beget very few offspring. Under these circumstances, Diaspora Jewry is fading away. Only in the State of Israel is the Jewish population growing; and intermarriage is relatively rare. Moreover, the percentage of Jews connected to Torah and mitzvot in Israel is higher than that of any other Jewish community in the world. This spiritual salvation came about in the merit of the establishment of Medinat Yisrael, which enabled the ingathering of the exiles and diminished the temptations of assimilation.
Thus, Yom HaAtzmaut is invested with three sanctities: the mitzvah of settling the Land, the beginning of redemption which created a Kiddush Hashem in the eyes of the nations, and the various salvations that the Jewish people merited with the rebirth of sovereign nationhood in our Land.
The Beginning of Redemption and Sanctifying God’s Name
The establishment of the State removed the disgrace of exile from the Jewish people. Generation after generation, we wandered in exile, suffering dreadful humiliation, pillage, and bloodshed. We were an object of scorn and derision among the nations; we were regarded as sheep led to the slaughter, to be killed, destroyed, beaten, and humiliated. Strangers said to us, "There is no more hope or expectation for you." That situation was a terrible Chillul HaShem (desecration of God’s Name), because HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s Name is associated with us, and when we are degraded, His name is desecrated among the nations (see Yechezkel, 36).
The prophets of Israel prophesied, in God’s name, that the exile will eventually end: "I will take you from among the nations and gather you from all the lands, and I will bring you to your own soil" (Yechezkel, 36:24). "They will build houses and inhabit them; they will plant vineyards and eat the fruit thereof" (Yeshayah, 65:21). "You will yet plant vineyards upon the mountains of Samaria; the planters with plant and eat of the fruit"(Yirmiyah, 31:4). "The desolate Land will be tilled, instead of having been desolate in the eyes of all passersby. They will say, ‘This Land which was desolate has become like the Garden of Eden and the cities which were ruined, desolate, and destroyed, have been fortified and inhabited" (Yechezkel, 36:34-35). "I will return the captivity of My people Israel, and they will rebuild the destroyed cities and inhabit them; they will plant vineyards and drink their wine; they will make gardens and eat their fruits. I will plant them upon their Land and they will never again be uprooted from their Land that I have given them, says the Lord, your God" (Amos, 9:14-15).
However, when so many years passed without God’s word coming to fruition, Hashem’s Name became increasingly desecrated in the world, and the enemies of Israel proclaimed that there was no chance that the Jews would ever return to their Land. Even Chazal spoke exaggeratingly about the miracle of the ingathering of the exiles, to the point that they said, "The ingathering of the exiles is as great as the day upon which the heaven and earth were created" (Pesachim 88a). And behold, the miracle occurred! Hashem fulfilled His promise, causing an enormous and awesome Kiddush HaShem (sanctification of God’s Name), which gained even more strength during the Six Day War, when we liberated Jerusalem and the holy cities of Judea and Samaria.
This process – the ingathering of the exiles and the blooming of the wasteland – which gained tremendous momentum when the State was established, is the beginning of the redemption, as Rabbi Abba says (Sanhedrin 98a), "There is no clearer [sign of the] End [of the exile] than this [verse]: "But you, O mountains of Israel, will give forth your branches and yield your fruit to My people Israel, for they are soon to come" (Yechezkel, 36:8). Rashi comments, "When Eretz Yisrael gives forth its fruit in abundance, the End will be near, and there is no clearer [sign of the] End [of the exile].True, many things still need fixing – unfortunately, we have not yet repented fully from our sins, and many Jews have not yet immigrated to Eretz Yisrael – but our Sages have taught that redemption can come in one of two ways: if we achieve complete repentance, God will hasten the redemption, and if not, it will come "in its time," through natural processes (Sanhedrin 98a). That is, when the predetermined time for redemption arrives – even if Israel fails to repent – natural historical processes, burdened with complications and severe hardships will come to pass – such as wars, persecutions, political movements, and international treaties – causing the Jewish people to return to their Land and rebuild it.
We will proceed from one stage to another in this manner, until the ultimate redemption materializes. These hardships, which stimulate the redemptive process, are called the birth pangs of Mashiach. The more we strengthen ourselves in the areas of Yishuv Eretz Yisrael and penitence, the more pleasant and less bitter these birth pangs will become (based on the Gra in Kol HaTor). Concerning this type of redemption, Chazal say, "Such is the redemption of Israel: at first little by little, but as it progresses it grows greater and greater" (Yerushalmi, Berachot 1:1).
Explicit verses in the Torah and the Prophets indicate that the order of redemption is as follows: first, there will be a small degree of repentance, and the Jewish people will gather in their Land, which will begin to yield its fruit. Afterwards, Hashem will bestow upon us a spirit from on high, until we return to Him completely2 .
My teacher and Rosh Yeshiva , HaRav Tzvi Yehudah HaKohen Kook, explains in detail – in an essay entitled "HaMedinah KeHitkymut Chazon HaGeulah," LeNetivot Yisrael, vol. 1, pp. 261-72 – that this is the order of redemption: first there will be a small degree of repentance, with a return to the Land and a national revival; then, with the passage of time, a complete return to God will ensue. Many sources confirm this; we will mention but a few. In the section dealing with repentance in the Book of Devarim (chap. 30), the Torah states that there will first be a return "unto (עד) God," which refers to a minor repentance stemming from fear and harsh decrees. Afterwards, the exiles will gather in the Land, and then a complete return "to (אל) God" will take place. Rav Tzvi Yehudah explains, based on his father’s teachings, our master, HaRav Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook, that the minor repentance will manifest itself in a return to the Land.
This return began with a holy awakening of love, when the hassidim and the students of the Gra immigrated to the Land in the 1800s). The book of Yechezkel (Chap. 36) also describes the redemption in this order, as does the Talmud (Sanhedrin 97b). There, Rabbi Yehoshua opines that redemption does not depend on repentance; rather, God will give power to a king as cruel as Haman, and this will cause the Jews to repent – partially. Rabbi Eliezer, who argues with him, remains silent at the end of the debate, implying that he concedes to Rabbi Yehoshua.
Other sources that indicate that redemption is independent of repentance are: Shemot Rabbah 25; Tikkunei Zohar Chadash; Ramban,Parashat Ha’azinu; Or HaChayim HaKadosh, VaYikra 25:28; Rav Elyashuv’s Hakdamot VeSha’arim 6:9. Elsewhere in Rav Elyashuv’s book (pp. 273-76), he quotes some of the greatest Acharonim who viewed the modern-day ingathering of exiles as the beginning of redemption.
Our teacher and master, Rav Tzvi Yehudah HaKohen Kook adds, in vol. 2, p. 365, that one who fails to recognize these acts of kindness on Hashem’s part lacks faith. This lack of faith sometimes wraps itself in a garb of ultra-Orthodoxy and righteousness, but it is actually a denial of the Divine nature of the Written Law, the words of our Prophets, and the Oral Law. The Gemara in Sanhedrin (98b) quotes several Amora’im who were so afraid of the terrible suffering that would occur during the era of the birth pangs of Mashiach that they said, "Let him [Mashiach] come, but let me not see him." See other sources in Eim HaBanim Semeichah [by Rabbi Y. S. Teichtal]; HaTekufah HaGedolah by Rabbi M. M. Kasher; and Kol HaTor – reprinted at the end of Rabbi Kasher’s book – which contains many deep ideas which the Gra revealed to his students on the topic of redemption. See also Ayelet HaShachar by Rabbi Yaacov Filber, the section entitled Shivat Tziyon HaShelishit.

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