In this past Shabbat’s parsha, Lech-Lecha, Hashem appeared to Avraham, our forefather and made a covenant: “And I will give you and your seed after you the land of your sojournings, the entire land of Canaan for an everlasting possession, and I will be to them for a God.” (Bereishit 17:8).
So, what are we to do with this everlasting possession? Much, much later Hashem commands Moshe to tell the nation of Israel, “And you shall take possession of the land and dwell in it, for I have assigned the land to you to possess.” (Bamidbar 33:53). And later on as Moshe readies us to cross the Jordan into Eretz Israel, he states, “For you are crossing the Jordan, to come to possess the land which the Lord, your God, is giving you, and you shall possess it and dwell in it.”(Devarim 11:31).
There are several important themes taking place here.
The Everlasting Possession
The first, we find in Bereishit, is that the “entire land of Canaan [is given] for an everlasting possession” by Hashem (Bereishit 17:8). Hashem gave this land to us. It’s not just a gift which can gather dust in the closet, it’s a possession – not Babylon, not Uman, not Crown Heights, but Eretz Yisrael. Hashem gave Eretz Israel not just as a nice place to visit, a vacation spot, a place to study in Yeshiva for a year and then leave, but as an everlasting possession.
Next, in Bamidbar, He is telling us it is our responsibility to possess the land. It is important to analyze the Hebrew in order to exactly understand what Hashem needs from us. Where it says, “And you shall take possession of the land…” (Bamidbar 33:53), the word used for “take possession” is וְהֽוֹרַשְׁתֶּ֥ם, which denotes conquering the land/clearing it of it’s inhabitants. However, the second time the word “possess” is used in this pasuk, “for I have assigned the land to you to possess.” (Bamidbar 33:53) it uses the word לָרֶ֥שֶׁת, which connotes “being in possession of,” as opposed to conquering it. If one rereads the original quote in Bamidbar 33:53, with a nuanced translation, we read it something like this: “And you shall clear the land and dwell in it, for I have assigned the land to you to be in possession of it.” Hashem gave us the land in order to be actively and constantly in possession of it, and for that we need it dwell in it, and it needs to be under our sole possession in order to fulfill His will. Logically, even if a foreign power comes in and imposes its ways on us and the land, then we have a renewed obligation to ensure the land is in our possession by driving out this foreign power.
Now, let’s suppose we have complete sovereignty, is that it? Can we put down our arms and say our job is done? Can we move to the economically comfortable America? It doesn’t seem like it. The Rambam makes three exceptions – livelihood, marriage, and Yeshiva study, though you have an obligation to return to Eretz Yisrael as soon as your task is complete – but we won’t get into that. In Devarim we find a plethora of instances where Hashem says we must possess the land, but there is one in particular which caught my eye: “For you are crossing the Jordan, to come to possess the land which the Lord, your God, is giving you, and you shall possess it and dwell in it” (Devarim 11:31). Again, understanding the Hebrew is essential. When it says, “For you are crossing the Jordan, to come to possess the land” (Devarim 11:31), it uses the word לָרֶ֥שֶׁת, which we learned specifically means to be “in possession of.” We crossed the Jordan not only to conquer the land, but for each of us to take part in our possession of the land Hashem gives us eternally. Moshe then commands us with the mitzvah, “And you shall possess it and dwell in it.” The word for possess here is the command form of לָרֶ֥שֶׁת, which is וִֽירִשְׁתֶּ֥ם. In other words, Moshe is commanding us, per Hashem’s will, to actively be in a constant state of possession of the land. This Mitzvah came into effect upon our crossing the Jordan and continues since. Once we conquer it and establish sovereignty, we should continue to be in possession as Hashem “assigned the land to you to possess.” (Bamidbar 33:53). Don’t sell it and don’t leave it for others. You should continually treat the land as your possession. Build homes, grow vineyards, establish courts, an army, and an economy, all according to how the Torah commands us.
Dwelling in the Land
How is this to be done? We must dwell in it! What’s so important about dwelling in it? How can any of the abovementioned items, such as establishing courts, an army, etc. be done without people dwelling in it? Say you received a house as a family inheritance. The home is yours, just like the Land of Israel; however, you must activate the ownership through a legal process, and through this you are taking possession of it. Finally, you must dwell in this home. Is it really a home if you are not moved in? If you don’t eat there, sleep there, raise children there, have memories and family traditions taking place there – is it really your home, your possession? No, not really. It may be a possession on paper, but that’s not what Hashem wants of us. He wants to have a relationship with us on the land He gifted to us. For that, we have to dwell there and act as Hashem expects us to.
This brings me back to Bereishit again (it’s good to go back to the basics). Hashem says, “And I will give you and your seed after you the land of your sojournings, the entire land of Canaan for an everlasting possession, and I will be to them for a God” (Bereishit 17:8). What’s interesting is that Hashem says, “I will be to them for a G-d” after saying He is giving us the land as an everlasting possession. Can He not be a G-D to us anywhere else? Well, He can, and He is, but that’s not the way it’s supposed to be. Most of the mitzvot can only be done in the Land of Israel. Even more so, all the mitzvot are meant to be done in the Land of Israel, as Moshe stated, “Behold, I have taught you statutes and ordinances, as the Lord, my G-d, commanded me, to do so in the midst of the land to which you are coming to possess” (Devarim 4:5). Our relationship with Hashem is automatically enhanced in Eretz Yisrael, where it is meant to take place. When we ignore, and even worse, do not acknowledge this, we ignore Hashem’s gift. Perhaps this is why in Ketubot 110b, the Talmud explains that one who dwells outside the Land of Israel is like one who has no G-D. By living outside of Israel, we are actively denying Hashem’s gift and role for us as the Jewish people.
Our role is to be a light unto the nations. How do we do this? By being holy unto Hashem through observing His mitzvot. When Hashem explained to Moshe the mitzvah of shemita, yovel, etc., did Hashem say the Jews need to perform these only if they happen to be living in the Land of Israel? No. Hashem wants us to be in the Land of Israel observing yovel, shmita, chachel etc. It’s foreign and unnatural for us to be in another land, and it is certainly dangerous to accept any place other than Eretz Yisrael as home. In fact, when the Jewish people cried in the desert because they didn’t want to go to Eretz Yisrael, Hashem never forgave us; to this very day we have Tisha B’av as a reminder. We simply cannot ignore the centrality of Eretz Yisrael in our personal and national relationship with Hashem.
Our Responsibility Today
Now this brings along the question: what is our responsibility today? We have been living in galut, exile, from our land for 2,000 years. Do we have any responsibility to live in the land Hashem gave to us eternally? Let me ask you, if two or three generations of your family did not keep Shabbat, is it still a mitzvah for you to keep it? Not a question! Exile isn’t meant to last, as my wife has repeated over and over again, and this was confirmed by the Chief Rabbi of Tzfat (not that I needed him to confirm): “To invest in the strengthening of Jewish life in the Diaspora is like building a house on a melting iceberg.” In other words, strengthening Jewish life outside the land of Israel for the sake of remaining outside of Israel is like building a home without a solid foundation. He continues by stating, “The Jews of the Diaspora are obligated to be active partners with us in the redemption of the nation – meaning, the redemption from living in foreign lands and the rebuilding of Torah life in Eretz Yisrael.”
The exile from our land is not something to be built up and reveled in. Hashem exiled us not because He wanted to, but because we forced Him to. We had limited access to our land for 2,000 years because we were unfaithful to Hashem. A spouse in the wrong needs to stand up and begin mending the relationship. When the other spouse opens up and allows the spouse in the wrong back in, it would be foolish and irresponsible to decline. If one is in a jail cell with a toilet in it, he is not allowed to put on Tefillin. But the moment the opportunity arises, he should run to do this mitzvah.
We hurt Hashem and He was not ready to allow us back in. Some, like the Rambam and the Ramban, were able to make it, but it was not something we as a people were able to do. However, over the past century or so, Hashem made access to His land easier and safer. If during the times of the Beit Hamikdash we hurt Hashem by idolatry, baseless hatred, and running to do evil, then today we are hurting Him by actively choosing to build lives, communities, and seemingly permanent homes outside of the land.
Claim Your Gift
Allow me to recap. You, my dear reader, have an eternal possession given by the Creator of the Universe: the Land of Israel. Hashem wants you to claim your possession. Seems straightforward, no? How does he prescribe us to do it? As a nation, He commanded us to establish sovereignty over the land. Defending the land and the people, not giving up land, etc. are all examples of this. Next, we should be in continual possession. We as individuals and as a nation need to establish continuous structures to enable us to live according to the Torah. This could range from simply living in a proper Jewish home, planting a vineyard, establishing courts that adjudicate according to Torah law, etc. Finally, quite simply, we must dwell in the land. Raise a family and don’t leave the borders of Eretz Yisrael. It’s much like fulfilling the mitzvah of dwelling in the Sukkah – all you have to do is be inside of it. Once inside, you actualize your relationship with Hashem.
We do not wait for Hashem to force us to observe His mitzvot. We keep the Shabbat, we follow the laws of Kashrut, we observe the laws of marital purity, and all these other mitzvot because we are Hashem’s nation and He wants us to be holy unto Him. Living in the Land of Israel is a mitzvah, a mitzvah Hashem made accessible once again. Let us not ignore this gift. Let us possess it, dwell in it, and serve Hashem in it. “And the Lord, your God, will bring you to the land which your forefathers possessed, and you [too] will take possession of it, and He will do good to you, and He will make you more numerous than your forefathers” (Devarim 30:5). This time period has begun. Let’s make “Next year in Jerusalem” become “This year in Jerusalem.” Let’s begin our ascent, our Aliyah. Let’s show Hashem we are ready for Mashiach by waiting for him in our land.