Dear Rabbi Fried,
I heard that the mitzvah of tefillin is only for the land of Israel, and that doing it outside of Israel is only for practice. (That is a short version of what was said.) If it was just me that was confused about this, I would have written it off to my ignorance, but I would say almost all were not comfortable with this. Could you please comment?
I would assume that the lecture you heard was based upon a famous section from the classical commentary to the Chumash, known as Ramban.
Ramban writes the following: “…and (if you don’t listen to the word of God) you will quickly be ejected from the land” (Deuteronomy 11:17); even though I will exile you from the land to the diaspora, remain distinguished in the performance of mitzvos in order that, when you shall return, they should not be new (unfamiliar) unto you. Similarly, Jeremiah (who prophesized the exile) said to the Jews, ‘establish for yourself markers,’ these are the mitzvos which the Jews will be distinguished through (in exile). In the Diaspora the Jews will only be obligated in mitzvos, which obligate the personage such as tefillin and mezuzos (not in the mitzvos upon the land). The Sages explained that the fulfillment of mitzvos there (in the diaspora) is in order that they will not be unfamiliar when they return, because the main fulfillment of mitzvos is for those whom are dwelling in the Land of God. For this reason, our Sages said that living in Israel is compared to the fulfillment of all the mitzvos (as all the mitzvos are complete there)” (Nachmanides Leviticus 18:25).
It is important to understand the full meaning of the words of Ramban, to better understand the importance of Israel as well as to gain a deeper appreciation of mitzvos.
Through the performance of a mitzvah, we become partners to the Almighty in the ongoing creation and perfection of the world, the true meaning of “tikkun olam.”
The word mitzvah reveals two aspects to its fulfillment. The simple meaning of the word is “commandment.” We fulfill a mitzvah because we are commanded to do so. The second meaning is “partnership,” based upon the root tzavta, or “together.” With the performance of a mitzvah, we partner with God in the ongoing creation and fulfillment of the world and its purpose.
The foundation of this partnership is man’s creation in the “Image of God” (Genesis 1: 26-27). Implicit in that creation is God’s empowering us with the ability to powerfully affect the universe. The world is God’s “hardware,” the Torah is the “software,” and when He gave us the Torah, He handed us the “mouse.” We “click” with our observance of mitzvos and affect the entire universe.
There is no difference between Israel and the diaspora as far as the first aspect of mitzvos. To the extent we are commanded to perform the mitzvos, Jews in Israel and the diaspora share the same obligation.
The second aspect, however, the extent that our mitzvos affect the universe, is different when we are in the diaspora and distant from Israel, known as the “Throne of Heaven,” or if we are at the very “Gates of Heaven,” in Israel. Our observance has a greater impact when we are in the vital energy center of God, when we are at our highest spiritual level and greatest level of connection to the Almighty.
It’s important to note that the Ramban is not referring to the Israel of today, which, although geographically is the Land of Israel, is not the complete Israel we are waiting for. What we have been praying for is not simply to dwell in the physical borders of Israel, rather for the full return to Israel with its complete holiness. That includes the Temple, the Shechinah or Divine Presence of God, where we will return to our past spiritual glory.
May it be speedily in our days.
Dear Rabbi Fried,