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The Contemporary Mitzvah of Living In the Land

In light of increasing instability around the world, including anti-Semitism, international inflation, eroding family values, and more, and in view of this week's Torah portion of Shlah that recounts the story of the Spies and their sinful negative report about the Land of Israel – we bring you the following article by the newly-appointed Chief Rabbi of Gush Etzion, the renowned Rav Yosef Tzvi Rimon.


Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Rimon

Sivan 18 5782
Translated by Hillel Fendel

There is much to discuss regarding this Torah commandment, but let us suffice with the following short points:

Does it apply nowadays?

It is well-known that the Rambam (Maimonides) did not include this mitzvah in his famous list of Torah commandments. The commentator known as Megilat Esther explained that Maimonides did, in fact, hold that it applied only during the times of Moshe and Joshua, up until the Exile, and that we will again be obligated to live in the Land only when the Messiah comes.

In addition, the Megilat Esther says, the Talmud cites the opinion of R. Yehuda that, because of the words of the Prophet Jeremiah (27,22; see below), we are not permitted to make Aliyah to the Land.

The Ramban (Nachmanides) does not accept this approach. He says that the mitzvah to live in Eretz Yisrael is timeless and applies in all generations, as the Medrash Sifri (Re'eh 80b) teaches:

"It happened that R. Yehuda ben Betera and R. Matya ben Harash and R. Chananya… left Eretz Yisrael, and then, at one point, remembered the Land. They began crying and tearing their clothes, and they read this verse: 'You shall inherit it [the Land] and dwell in it, and make sure to observe all these mitzvot.' They said, "This verse shows that dwelling in the Land is equivalent to keeping all of the Torah's mitzvot."

Their response shows, says the Ramban, that they were regretful that they had given up the chance to fulfill such a great Torah commandment – meaning that it was still applicable in their times, after the Exile.

But the Megilat Esther retorts, "Then why did they not simply return to the Land? This shows that the mitzvah was not in effect."

However, R. Yisrael ben Shmuel of Shklov (the Pe'at HaShulchan), and R. Avraham Bornshtain (the Avnei Nezer), scored a decisive point against this argument by noting that the Medrash Sifri continues on to say that in fact, the Sages in question "turned around and returned to Eretz Yisrael." Thus, as soon as they realized that the mitzvah of living in the Land was still in effect, they reversed course and went to fulfill it.

It is in fact very clear from other rulings of the Rambam that, in his opinion, the mitzvah of living in Eretz Yisrael is applicable today. For instance, regarding a slave that wishes to live in the Land, "we compel his master to ascend to Eretz Yisrael with him – and this is applicable at all times, even now when the Land is under foreign control." The Rambam also writes that one must "always live in the Land of Israel… and must not live outside the Land… for whoever leaves the Land is as if worshiping idols" (Laws of Kings 5,12).

Why then did the Rambam not count this mitzvah as one of the 613 Torah commandments?   

The Avnei Nezer gives a technical explanation. He says that the mitzvah of living in the Land is already "spoken for" in another of the 613, namely, the command hach'rem tach'rimem, to expel the Seven Nations from the Land.

However, Rav Kook and, later, Rav Teichtal (author of Em HaBanim Smeichah), wrote that the Rambam is consistent with his approach that "all-inclusive" mitzvot – such as, "Be holy" and "Keep my commandments" – are not included in the count. The mitzvah of living in Eretz Yisrael is such a commandment, for one of two reasons:

a) because it includes many other commandments, such as all those that are land-dependent, or

b) because the entire Torah is to be fulfilled primarily in the Land of Israel (as Nachmanides writes in his commentary to Deut. 4,5).

The bottom line is as the Chazon Ish wrote in his letters (I, 175): "The commandment to live in Eretz Yisrael has already been conclusively decided by the Rambam, Ramban, and other authorities. And it is known how much the Chafetz Chaim zt"l strove to make Aliyah."

How do we explain, then, R. Yehuda's ban on making Aliyah? Some say that he was referring specifically to Babylonia [in accordance with the verse he quoted], which at the time was a great Torah center, whereas the Land of Israel was not then appropriate as a replacement. Others say that his view was not accepted as the authoritative ruling.

But it would appear that the Avnei Nezer's approach is the most correct. He says that it is true that G-d told Jeremiah to tell Israel that they must not seek to return to the Land "until the day I remember them" - but when is that time? Is it only if G-d sends each of us to Eretz Yisrael through a secret underground tunnel, or on an eagle's wings? Or could it be that there is actually no greater "day that I remember them" than when G-d allows us to establish our own country in the Land?

"When permission is granted to all Jews to go to the Land, this is considered 'Divine remembering,'" says the Avnei Nezer – and thus the mitzvah to make Aliyah is (back) in force.

In Conclusion

The late Rav Aharon Lichtenstein – founding Rosh Yeshiva of Har Etzion and son-in-law of Rav Yosef Soloveitchik – loved the Land very much. He once expressed regret that sometimes, people born in Eretz Yisrael do not love the Land and feel its sanctity as much as those who made Aliyah to it. Whenever he would return to Israel from abroad, he would spend the 15 minutes before landing reciting Tehillim, because – as his son Rav Meir told me – these were the critical minutes when he was about to enter the sanctity of the Land of Israel.

We should rejoice every day anew at our merit in being in Eretz Yisrael, in being able to connect to this tremendous holiness, and in being in the midst of the process of Redemption.

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