Where Shall Torah Be Fulfilled?
Rabbi Reuven Mann
This week’s parsha, Ki Tavo, describes the special mitzvot that apply in the Land of Israel. For example, the requirement of bikkurim mandates that a person must bring samples of his crops to the Kohen who ministers in the Holy Temple, and this can only be fulfilled in Israel.
After depositing the first fruits with the Kohen, the donor orally testifies that Hashem has removed us from the servitude of Egypt and brought us to a goodly land that “flows with milk and honey.” He thus affirms that our right to this land stems from Hashem’s selection of the Jews to be His people who study and fulfill His Torah.
The land of Israel is not just a place for the Jewish people to live, but actually plays a vital role in performance of the commandments. The Ramban (Nachmanides) elucidates this fundamental concept by addressing Yaakov’s marriage to two sisters, Leah and Rachel. According to Torah law, one may not marry his wife’s sister while both are alive (one may marry his sister-in-law after his wife has passed away). Yaakov’s marriage to Lavan’s two daughters took place long before the Torah was revealed on Mount Sinai, and presumably the prohibition was not yet in effect. However, it is the view of Ramban and other great Rabbis that our forefathers were aware of the Torah’s commandments through prophecy, and they maintained them on a voluntary basis.
If indeed Yaakov voluntarily bound himself to observing the mitzvot, how could he have violated the one that prohibits marrying two sisters? The Ramban’s answer is challenging and thought-provoking. He maintains that the Avot (Patriarchs) did practice the mitzvot, but only when they were located in Eretz Yisrael. Yaakov’s marriages to Rachel and Leah took place in the land of Haran and therefore did not constitute a Torah violation.
This doctrine is difficult to comprehend. If the Torah represents Hashem’s directions for achieving ethical and moral perfection, what difference would it make where one resides? Indeed, our history is replete with great Jewish communities around the world that excelled in all areas of religious and secular achievements. Some of the greatest Torah writings were composed by great luminaries who never set foot in the Holy Land.
Yet the Ramban goes so far as to assert that the only reason we must keep the Torah while in Exile is so we will be ready and able to practice it when we return to Israel. This conveys the impression that there is no inherent benefit in observing the commandments outside of our homeland, except that we must retain a state of religious “readiness” for the moment of our anticipated return. How are we to understand this? What is the uniqueness of keeping the Torah in the Land of Israel?
The Prophet Ezekiel had a fascinating perspective on Jewish redemption. He prophesied that Hashem would rescue the Jews from their dispersion and restore them to their ancient homeland, “not for your sake will I do this, but for the sake of My Holy Name, which you have desecrated among the nations to which you came.”
According to Ezekiel, the very fact of Exile desecrates Hashem’s Name, because it causes the gentiles to believe that G-d has broken His Covenant with the Jewish people and abandoned them. It is Hashem’s Will that all mankind, Jew and gentile, should know and serve Him. Thus, a situation that causes people to deny Hashem cannot be tolerated indefinitely.
The Exile must be terminated to cancel the desecration of G-d’s Holy Name. Hashem must demonstrate that the Jews are still His people by returning them to the Promised Land. It is only there, where they will observe the Torah on its highest level of wisdom and moral perfection, that other countries will take note that this is a “wise and discerning nation.”
Our purpose in fulfilling the Torah is to become a “light unto the nations.” This cannot be accomplished while we are a minority in a strange land whose culture is essentially foreign to the ideals of Judaism.
It is only in Israel, where we have the potential to forge a new type of society rooted in wisdom, justice, and compassion that our Torah observance can attain its ultimate objective. That, I believe, is what the Rabbis meant when they asserted that the essential performance of mitzvot is in the land Hashem gave to us. May we merit to be part of this glorious kiddush Hashem (sanctification of Hashem).
In this time of social isolation, we should seek ways to avoid boredom by staying occupied with meaningful activity. The world of virtual reality allows us to stay in touch with friends and attend all kinds of classes available online.
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