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IS LIVING IN ISRAEL CONSIDERED A MITZVAH; DOES IT MATTER?

In celebrated fashion, Maimonides and Nachmanides debated whether residence in the land of Israel constitutes one of the 613 mitzvoth or Commandments. From a purely literary standpoint their dispute revolved around a “vague” verb in Parshat Masei. As the Jews are perched on the East Bank of the Nile and primed to enter the actual land of Israel, they receive a detailed map of the borders of their homeland. Immediately prior to receiving this diagram they are instructed “V’Horashtem et Ha’aretz”. The verb “V’horashtem” sounds similar to the word “yerusha” or inheritance and would thereby indicate a formal mitzvah to inherit and reside in this land or to convert it into a national yerusha or residence. The Ramban or Nachmanides certainly interpreted the verse in this fashion and concluded that residence in Israel comprises a classic mitzvah. Alternatively, “V’horashtem” may convey the notion of ‘emptiness’ and may instruct the Jews to vacate the land of its pagan inhabitants. Rashi adopts this latter approach- understanding this instruction as a “contemporary” and limited mitzvah for THAT generation to cleanse the land of its idolatrous residents. As such no “long-term” mitzvah to actually live in Israel can be generated from this verse. Apparently, the Rambam who doesn’t list residence in Israel as a mitzvah may have similarly interpreted this verse and thereby omitted residence in Israel from his list of 613.

This literary debate prompts an obvious question: How can an experience as seminal as residence in the land of Israel NOT be considered a classic mitzvah? Does the curious position of the Rambam devalue the status or prominence of residing in Israel? Indeed, even those who dispute the Rambam and designate residing in Israel as a classic mitzvah, ultimately concur that the verse itself is extremely vague. Why is the Torah itself so vague and unclear in asserting a mitzvah which is so fundamental to religious experience? Ironically, answering this question and uncovering the reason for this ambiguity, may yield a more accurate appreciation of the religious value of life in Israel.

Firstly, the absence of a classic command doesn’t lessen the experience- if anything it may augment it. Life in Israel is so formative that it can’t be reduced to a mitzvah. Conceivably, certain elements of religious identity and practice are so foundational that they may be termed “pre-mitzvoth” and cannot be shrunk into one element or one cell amongst 613. For example, some claimed that “belief in God” could not be classified as a mitzvah since it predicates the entire religious system. Absent of belief in God the entire network of mitzvoth is hollowed into meaninglessness. As a “precondition” to the array of commandments theological belief precedes the list and isn’t counted among the list. Similarly, residence in Israel is so seminal that the Torah “assumes” its relevance and doesn’t directly instruct it and may not even consider it a classic mitzvah among the list of 613. Religious meaning is sometimes located in experiences which don’t “present” themselves as a commandment. In general, the religious value of experiences can’t be gauged solely through the lens of Halacha and Commandments. Though the experience of commandments certainly forms the basis and baseline of religious identity it doesn’t necessarily span the totality of religious identity. Specifically, commitment to the land of Israel is part of a Jewish Historical mission which in some ways exceeds the observance of a particular mitzvah or commandment. It participates in a larger panorama of Jewish identity and mission.

Moreover, the absence of a classic commandment or a direct literary instruction to live in Israel may be based upon the breadth of this mitzvah and not just its importance. Typically, a classic mitzvah obligates a particular action or sequence of related actions (such as a sequence of ceremonies surrounding a sacrifice). The undertaking of residence in Israel is so broad that it splinters into “multiple” constituent sub-commandments. Of course we are expected to reside in Israel but that achievement alone is insufficient. The enterprise demands residence but also mandates constructing a society reflective of God and Divine values. This agenda dictates a range of secondary obligations: the elimination of pagan culture, the construction of a Mikdash housing the presence of God and the establishment of a just and ethical society reflective of Divine image. As each of these respective activities is considered a mitzvah in its own right, the actual acquisition and settlement of land which enables these achievements cannot also be defined as a mitzvah. Residence in Israel isn’t only a pre-mitzvah – it is also a “meta-mitzvah” which splinters into multiple mitzvah ‘components’ each of which is counted among the list of 613. Residence in Israel is a platform upon which multiple mitzvoth reside.

The concept that settlement is a portal to broader tasks is a pivotal challenge in our return to our land. Without question, settling the land is a critical stage of building a Jewish State but it must be viewed as an enabler to more significant goals. We have massively invested in the struggle to settle land whose Jewish origins are still disputed and for which our license is still internationally rejected. This focus upon settling land has sometimes neglected sufficient investment in a broader agenda: what type of society will be established in the modern state? Will its spirit be infused with Torah values, ethical norms and respect for human rights and liberties? These objectives are equal in importance to the volume of land we are able to secure. Often, we have waived these broader agendas or allowed others to assume them in our place or usurp them from us. Our rights to this land are only as stout as our aspirations to fashion it in the Divine image. If we abdicate that agenda our settlement accomplishments are empty. The absence of a classic mitzvah for physically settling the actual land redirects our focus to the more substantive agendas of infusing this land with proper spirit and institutionalizing our values within the elements of statehood and society.

To summarize, the absence of a mitzvah may suggest that this accomplishment is a pre-mitzvah which is too seminal to be streamlined as merely one element among 613. Additionally, residence may be termed a meta-mitzvah which in turn branches into multiple secondary obligations. Finally, the absence of a classic mitzvah or overt literary reference may be based upon the “level of difficulty” of residence in Israel. Indeed, certain commandments pose greater challenges while others are more easily achieved. Residence in Israel, however, is never solely a product of individual desire and effort. As life in Israel is part of a larger historical struggle. it may remain elusive even to the most ardent pilgrim. Indeed, the Rambam himself migrated to Israel only to find himself resettled permanently in Egypt (a condition which supposedly he often lamented in the signature to many of his correspondences). As this opportunity is not always within reach it cannot be classified as a mitzvah. Even in the absence of this great achievement of living in Israel, a fully compliant religious life is feasible. If history enables residence it certainly must be seized and achieved. However, a range of circumstances may preclude this option and individuals cannot be held legally or morally accountable for interests which cannot always materialize.

It is indeed curious that so important a goal as residing in Israel isn’t designated as a classic mitzvah and is literarily camouflaged within a vague word. Oddly this may bring the various factors of this profound experience into greater relief.

Rabbi

Moshe Taragin