Yeshiva.org.il - The Torah World Gateway
Beit Midrash Family and Society The Torah Perspective

The Land's Sanctity from the Perspective of the Exile

Only in the Babylonian exile did our manner of relating to the Land of Israel change. Only there did our desire for the land - our longing, hopes, and special behavior - receive expression by the sages, and hence by the nation itself.
Dedicated to the memory of
Revital Bat Lea
Click to dedicate this lesson
1. The Land's Sanctity from the Perspective of the Exile
2. The Ways of Redemption

The Land's Sanctity from the Perspective of the Exile
Exile provides us with a different and unique view of the Jewish people, a new perspective of an existing reality. Until the exile, the existence of Israel in its land, the existence of the kingdoms of Israel and Yehudah, were "facts on the ground," and for hundreds of years the Jewish people related to this situation as a given political reality. Only with the onset of the exile does the existence of the nation of Israel in its land receive the value of sanctity.

While it is true that the holiness of the land is written in the Torah, and on a practical level the Jewish people generally fulfilled the laws related to the land - Shmittah (Sabbatical Year), Yovel (Jubilee Year), etc. - the exile created a different perspective, another approach, a different point of view. Suddenly emphasis was placed on the holy, spiritual value of the Land of Israel.

Every type of sanctity possesses an aspect of distance. Sanctity - as the Maharal of Prague often writes - implies remoteness, something beyond, far away. And indeed, that which remained was marked by political and geographical remoteness. The land was no longer in Jewish hands. The Jews no longer had a kingdom and there was no Holy Temple. If so, what remained? Ostensibly nothing.

This is precisely what happened to all the other nations that were exiled from their lands. They said, "We no longer have a state, so there is no longer any foundation for actual national existence." So, for between fifty to sixty years the exiles settled down in a new place with a new language and new customs, and the nation that was disappeared.

In the Jewish people there remained something that turned out to be its essence - sanctity. From the standpoint of Jewish law we see this in the difference between the two types of sanctity applying to the Land of Israel. The first type of sanctity, say the sages, is the sanctity of conquest wrought by Joshua. This has been aborted. The second type of sanctity is that of possession, not conquest, and this is never discontinued (see Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Terumah 1:5).

The second type of sanctity, then, rests upon our fundamental connection to the Land of Israel, a basic attachment which is not dependent upon actual conquest. So, even if there is no actual conquest, there is a sanctity that exists and is not nullified. This intrinsic bond - sanctity - finds full expression in the culture, conduct, concepts, and hopes of the nation. In other words, everything we call Torah. The relation between God and man, the nation and its mission, the past, present, and future, the yardstick of social and judicial authority, all of this is included in the Torah. All this stems from the Torah, and expresses the essential inner nature of the individual and the collective, and this is "the sanctity."

With the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people a very important layer was constructed, an entire layer that stands out in the consciousness and culture of the nation. This was the layer of the Torah and the way we relate to it. Not just the way we actually relate to a given reality, but the way we manage to relate to a reality which has been nullified. In this manner the Land of Israel rose to a level of sanctity in the consciousness of the nation, a foundation was created by Ezra and Nehemiah for return to the Land of Israel, and it became possible for the Men of the Great Assembly to act toward raising up Jewish statehood and nationalism from the dust.

The Land of Israel as a concept of sacred value, not just actual territory, is transformed in the words of the sages to a complete domain in need of actual rectification and redemption. We know that on an individual level man needs to rectify and redeem his character traits, desires, and way of life. Yet even the Land of Israel is in need of such.

The concept of sanctity changes our relation to the land, and this causes an attachment to the Land of Israel which receives expression over many generations. All that was connected to the Land of Israel was connected primarily from the aspect of its sanctity, not from the aspect of actual existence upon it. This is the basis of the hope for rectification, and for seeing the nation and the land as one. In other words, the continuation of Jewish national existence took hold most clearly here, in the Land of Israel, and in no other place.

True, it was not the Babylonian exile which created these notions; they appear already in the Torah and the Prophets. However, in the period of the First Temple the Land of Israel was a de facto political reality, and this overshadowed its sanctity and its uniqueness.

What happened then is analogous to what we sense today. Many generations could not explain and could not grasp this sentiment. Today we can feel the difficulty, for we too relate to the land in political, physical, and economic terms - according to square kilometers, defense borders, water, vegetation. All of these are decidedly legitimate terms, but often they cast a shadow upon that which was clarified in the exile of all places. We can't see the forest for the trees.

The actual distance from the land, from the physical territory, the natural resources, etc. made it very clear that beyond all this there is also sanctity. Such sanctity can reside in hearts, there is no need to detach oneself from it even when far from the land. Such sanctity dwells in hopes and dreams, manners, desires, and visions of the future, and it creates a focus for existence and life, one which we see for the entire length of the exile.

We should take note that often the actual, political, or economic reality casts a shadow upon the spiritual, moral reality. Only when matters are separated does one stand out above the other, but when they are together no small problem is created. And we indeed find that during a thousand years of Jewish existence in the Land of Israel, until the destruction of the Second Temple, the relation was primarily a result of the events which took place, as in the relation to the political and economic reality.

Only in the Babylonian exile did our manner of relating to the Land of Israel change. Our manner of relating to the Torah also underwent a change, for the Torah too was a given reality, especially when we ruled over our land and the Holy Temple was standing. Only when the Holy Temple was destroyed did our desire for the Torah receive expression, and only when we were exiled from our land did the desire for the land, the longing, the hopes, and the special behavior toward the Land of Israel receive expression by the sages, and the nation took this upon itself.

A new concept was added to the Torah and culture consciousness of the nation of Israel, one with great value toward the nation's understanding of itself - "exile." We, the nation of Israel, are beginning to deal with the concept of exile, for we have spent more time in exile than in our land. In the history of Israel, the concept of exile is a very important one, and we must assess our national character and culture through the prism of exile as well, not only from the point of view of the Land of Israel. We have to understand what the exile contributed to the formation of the Jewish outlook. Why was it necessary from the point of view of divine providence, and how is it connected to the concepts of redemption and the return to Zion.

The Ways of Redemption
The sages say that Ezra was fit to have the Torah given through him had he not been preceded by Moses (Sanhedrin 21b), and without a doubt he was an important leader as far as relating to sanctity goes. However, there was a problem in the middle class. Those who joined Ezra and Nehemiah, the first two-thousand exiles to return from Babel to the Land of Israel after the Koresh's declaration, did not oppose sanctity. However, they represented a deviation from the sanctity of the Israeli family. They were made up of people from society's periphery (see Kidushin 69a) who probably did not return to the land due to holy incentives.

There is a similarly complex picture regarding our own long exile. Each of the important Jewish schools of thought created a special relation to the Land of Israel - the Hasidic, with the Aliyah of R' Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, followers of the Vilna Gaon, the school of Chatam Sofer, students of R' Akiva Eiger, the heralders of Zionism, R' Kalisher, R' Gutmacher, R' Alkalai, and R' Akiva Yosef Schlezinger. Some of them actually reached the land, others advocated return and prepared - each one from his own angle - the matter of redemption. Most of them acted in the context of world events, revolutions, etc. They viewed these matters as indicators and vehicles for actualizing the redemption of Israel through purchasing land and houses.

Based upon this foundation, the Chovevei Tzion organization began its work. There were a number of rabbis who take up the glove thrown by Dr. Pinsker: the "Natziv" (R' Tzvi Yehudah Berlin), the head of the Volozhin Yeshiva, joining the Chovevei Tzion committee; R' Mohilever, one of the great rabbis and Jewish law authorities of his generation, called "brilliant and courageous" by R' Kook; and, of course, R' Reines, who was an outstanding Torah scholar and Yeshiva dean.

They were joined by a incredible personality who had no comparison - R' Kook. In addition to his fantastic Torah greatness he also bore the yoke of public leadership. His son, R' Tzvi Yehudah, said many times that his father was a kind of Ezra. He was unmatched in all areas - profound, erudite, original, pious, and brilliant. Whoever came close to him could see these traits. The great scholars considered his a giant scholar, the legal authorities considered him a giant authority, the pious considered him extremely pious, and the virtuous considered him a supremely virtuous. As it was in the return from Babylon, so is it in our own redemption.

So, it is impossible to say that our redemption lacks sanctity, but it is true that the middle class had a serious problem. It was precisely the people who were not well off that returned to the Land of Israel. Members of the Second Aliyah and Third Aliyah were essentially refugees, fleeing from the ill-fated revolution of 5665 (1905) in Russia and the Communist Revolution of 5678 (1917), which recently also turned out to be ill-fated. The same is true of the Fourth Aliyah, from Poland, which was called the "Gerbski Aliyah" after the Polish Minister of the Treasury who oppressed the Jews. The following Aliyah from Germany came in the wake of Nazi decrees.

The truth is that, generally, from Poland, Russia, and Germany it was not the elite that immigrated, not the most affluent and not the leading scientists. Such people went to other countries, larger and more developed. It was the simple, common people who reached the Land of Israel.

It is no secret that after the Second World War the Land of Israel became home to war survivors, broken in body and spirit. These million Holocaust survivors comprised most of Israel's population, outnumbering the existing population. It is a miracle that these same people succeeded in producing a normal generation and even rehabilitated themselves. It is simply unbelievable. Considering what these people went through, one might have expected to see the creation of a huge psychiatric hospital here.

A million such people reached the Land of Israel and were immediately thrown into the midsts of Israel's War of Independence. Nevertheless, they somehow managed to establish a normal place here. In fact, the World Bank recently announced that the State of Israel is one of the twenty-six most developed countries in the world, based upon the level of income per person, level of industrialization, and scientific proficiency. This is clearly a miracle.

Consequently, there was a large gap between a personality like R' Kook and the sort of people who were reaching Land of Israel in his day. We take pride in S. Y. Agnon's half Nobel Prize, but the truth is that Agnon was a small fish among the great Jewish writers in Europe. He reached the Land of Israel in 5667 (1907) and heard that R' Kook was lecturing on "The Kuzari" at the synagogue in Yaffo. When they told R' Kook that a youngster had arrived form Germany (Agnon was from Galatia but spent some time in Berlin) the rabbi was sure that he was a university graduate and probably a "Maskil" (secularly enlightened). Every time Agnon sat in on his lectures, R' Kook would say, "Spinoza said such-and-such . . . Kant said such-and-such . . . " and all of this was aimed at Agnon, who in fact was not acquainted with these names.

It is related that R' Kook was invited once a year to a "Mizrachi" seminary to test the students. The rabbi would arrive and ask a question, but before the students were able to answering, he would explain the question a bit more in detail, and gradually he would explain the entire issue, all the while offering his own novel interpretations as well. The rabbi would eventually become so enthusiastic that he would begin slapping students on the back, saying, "Way to go!" "Excellent!" and in this manner the "test" came to an end. The rabbi would ask, answer, and offer novel ideas, and the students enjoyed it greatly . . .

The return from Babel was similar to this. The middle class, which is the spinal cord of any society, did not immigrate to the Land of Israel. This is the problem of exile. This is the problem of the concept of sanctity which reveals itself in the exile. A person can get the sense that it is possible to be satisfied with the concept of sanctity itself, for it fills the heart so.

There is a most interesting letter which R' Kook wrote in response to a query by his beloved student, R' Charlap. R' Charlap asked, "Perhaps our anticipation of the coming salvation is greater than the salvation itself?" He asked this question in light of R' Kook's assertion that the salvation was in fact underway. After all, R' Charlap reasoned, the pioneering settlers were irreligious and desecrated the Sabbath. Can this be considered redemption? Anticipating redemption is wonderful, but in practice we have received something else.

In response, R' Kook wrote a very important letter (Igrot Raaya 3:753) in which he reprimands his R' Charlap, yet he does this very gently, for R' Charlap is his cherished student. He explains that such thought is itself a foundation of heresy. All the same, this does not solve the real and actual problem. The large middle class, those who have something to lose by moving from place to place, are often satisfied with holy and abstract anticipation. They are not interested in actual realization, because realization involves many shortcomings; it takes a long time and calls for great patience and vision. This problem existed in the Babylonian exile, and it similarly exists in the final exile.

More on this Topic The Torah Perspective

את המידע הדפסתי באמצעות אתר yeshiva.org.il