Shabbat Ki Tavo: The Land of Israel

August 31, 2023 by Jeremy Rosen
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“When you enter the land that your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, you shall take the first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that your God giving you, and put them in a basket and go to the place that God chooses and to the priest in charge at that time and say to him, “I acknowledge this day before your God that I have entered the land that swore to our fathers to assign us.” ( Deuteronomy 26:1-2).

This law underlines the link between the physical land and its produce on the one hand and the spiritual heritage of the Jewish people on the other. But does this law of the “First Fruits” imply a religious obligation to settle in the Land of Israel? And what does it say about the nature of the land? Is it holy and to what degree? And can we detach the Idea of Israel as a State from the Jewish religion? These are issues that Jews have always been divided over and still are to this day.
Rambam,  Maimonides (1138-1204)  did not include the mitzvah of settling the Land of Israel as a biblical obligationWhereas RambanNachmanides (1194-1270) includes settling the Land of Israel as one of the Biblical commandments. But also says the obligation to observe all of the Torah only applies in the Land of Israel itself. Outside it is only mandated rabbinically as preparation for entering the land. He believed it was an obligation to take possession of Israel and to live in it (Num. 33:53). He moved to the Holy Land after he was expelled from Spain and died there in 1270.

In those days, the idea of a Jewish state was simply not dreamed of. Even though Jews kept on going to and from the Land of Israel when they could.  The modern State has created many new challenges. Most of the founders were overwhelmingly secular, socialists who wanted Israel to break from the religion of the Diaspora. On the other extreme, some Charedi movements were opposed to any idea of a Jewish State prior to the Messiah altogether. The Jews of the Orient were overwhelmingly traditional, whereas most Jews of the West were not. And Israel has absorbed a huge range of different ethnic and religious immigrants. All of this is bound to cause conflict and dissonance that only compromise can make life livable. And many new issues need to be settled.

An ongoing moral and religious issue is the conquest of the land. The Torah is also very clear that the tribes had an obligation to conquer the land. Where does that leave us today? Is it still binding? Some avoid this issue by saying we must not take up arms altogether until the Messiah comes. Some say we have a religious obligation to conquer or settle our ancient lands. Others take the moderate view that we should settle our national heritage but that life is more important than land and we should be prepared to compromise for the sake of peace.

Politically, we are divided. Some on the left want a coup d’etat. Some on the right want to force their views on everyone else. And there are all shades of opinion in between. Some are fiercely loyal, and others are inclined towards disobeying orders, which some see as betrayal and treason.

Religiously and culturally, Israel has never been stronger or more vibrant than it is today. Yet there is talk about Israelis leaving the Holy Land. In the early days of the State  ‘Yerida’ leaving Israel, was almost considered a crime. No longer, and why not, if that is what they want? Ever since the founding of the ancient Kingdoms Jews have lived outside Israel both willingly and forcibly and Jewish law specifically allows one to leave the land of Israel if necessary, as much as it encourages and gives benefits to those who do go to live there.

Living in Israel is not easy. The Talmud says it can only be achieved through suffering. But where one chooses to live depends on lots of circumstances and choices. And if some prefer to live in the Diaspora, that is their choice.
As for Israel itself, the prophets called for a just and caring society committed to its land and faithful to its religious tradition, and that is the message of the Torah this week.

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen lives in New York. He was born in Manchester. His writings are concerned with religion, culture, history and current affairs – anything he finds interesting or relevant. They are designed to entertain and to stimulate. Disagreement is always welcome.

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