Dear Rabbi Fried,
I have some questions about life outside of Eretz Yisrael which are troubling me. I know that Moshe Rabbeinu so badly wanted to go into the land so that he could perform the special mitzvos of Israel. I heard a Torah teacher saying that outside of Israel we are only “practicing” all of the mitzvos. This was disturbing to me, as was the idea that I have heard from Torah-true rabbis that only people living in Eretz Yisrael enjoy direct supervision from Hashem and that outside of Israel our lives are guided by Hashem’s agents. I would like to live in Israel someday but do not see that happening any time soon due to family considerations. Would you please share your thoughts about these ideas?
Your question is especially poignant this year, which is called the Shemita, or Sabbatical Year. This is the mitzvah for farmers in the Land of Israel to leave their fields fallow for the entire year. Today this applies to hundreds of farmers, but you can only imagine what that was like when we were a largely agricultural society and it applied to nearly the entire country!
What you are referring to with regard to Moshe (Moses) is that before his death, when he was told he would not be allowed to enter the Land of Israel, he prayed 515 prayers that the decree be overturned and he be allowed to enter. He implored the heavens he be allowed to do so out of his tremendous love for Israel (Deuteronomy 3:23-26, see Rashi loc. cit.). G-d had to finally tell him to stop praying for this.
The Talmud raises the question, what is it about Israel that Moshe wanted so badly to enter to the extent that he literally would not let G-d alone — until He had to command him to stop asking? Was it because he wanted the fruits of Israel? The Talmud replies that it was not about tasting the fruits; it was rather for the opportunity to fulfill those mitzvos which apply only in the Land of Israel, such as the Shemita year and numerous other commandments (Talmud Tractate Sotah 14a).
I had a thought which may explain this further. The mitzvos pertaining to the Land of Israel lead one to a profound sense of humility. For one, because they express a total submission to the fact the land doesn’t belong to us, rather to the Al-mighty. (Perhaps we’ll explain this more in a future column.) Moshe was the humblest man on the face of the earth, as G-d Himself testifies (Numbers 12:3). Perhaps that was why Moshe so powerfully desired to enter Israel and perform those mitzvos, to attain even greater levels of humility toward G-d by fulfilling His will in ways that can only be done there.
That leads to your next question. That which you heard, that fulfilling the mitzvos in the diaspora is only for “practice,” is true in a sense. This lesson was taught by the classical Torah commentary Nachmanides (Ramban al Hatorah, to Leviticus 18:25). This does not mean that, in any way, there is less of an obligation in the diaspora to perform those mitzvos that do not depend on the land, such as Shabbos, tefillin, tzedakah, etc. It also does not mean that the mitzvos performed outside of Israel do not have a profound impact on the person performing them or upon the world, creating a tikkun which perfects the world. It means that when we are in Israel in the ideal state of holiness, the mitzvos will be performed in their complete form, with no interference in their direct connection to their Source.
Israel is the “Land that G-d’s eyes are upon it from the beginning of the year to the end of the year” (Deuteronomy 11:12). With that type of unique connection, performing His will takes on different proportions. It is difficult to attain that level of relationship in a place where G-d is present but concealed.
An important caveat to this is that Israel today is not yet the Israel that Nachmanides is describing. Without a doubt Israel is closer to G-d than any other place and miracles are the stuff of life for anyone living there. (Ben-Gurion, not exactly the most religious man, was known to say that in Israel, even a pragmatist must believe in miracles.) Nonetheless, in order to be in the state Nachmanides describes, we must be in Israel in a way which is totally connected to G-d, with the Temple reinstated, all the laws of the Land being observed and Torah study reinstated like the way it was in the more glorious times of our history. Until that time, even in Israel we are still, technically, in exile. (Hence, even those living in Israel pray to return to Israel.)
May that time be soon!
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried is dean of Dallas Area Torah Association