עשר קדושות הן: ארץ ישראל מקודשת מכל הארצות ומה היא קדושתה שמביאים ממנה העומר והבכורים ושתי הלחם מה שאין מביאים כן מכל הארצות.
There are ten levels of holiness: the Land of Israel is holier than all other lands. And what is the nature of this holiness? That the omer, bikurim and the two loaves of bread are brought from it and may not be brought from other lands.
[Mishna Keilim 1:6]
The Mishna presents the determination that “ארץ ישראל מקודשת מכל הארצות” (“The Land of Israel is holier than all other lands”) a statement which may be self-evident. However, the Mishna’s question “What is the nature of this holiness” seems rather surprising. “What is the nature of this holiness?” God, as it were, dwells within the Land, which is known as the “Land of God,” and was promised to the Forefathers, etc.! Therefore, the Mishna’s answer is even more surprising than the question: “That the omer, bikurim and the two loaves of bread are brought from it.”
That’s it? That is the nature of the Land’s sanctity?
In order to understand the Mishna’s statement, we will reflect on a portion of the Torah itself, in Sefer Bamidbar (the Book of Numbers). After Am Yisrael was informed of the severe consequences of the sin of the spies, hearing that they themselves will not enter the Promised Land, but only their children, the Torah presents the portion of the libation offerings, which opens with the words “When you come to the Land.” [Numbers 15:2] Rashi comments that since the libation offerings, which accompany the sacrifices, apply exclusively in the Land of Israel, God’s intention is to reassure the Israelites that the nation will enter its Land, that the gift of the Land to Am Yisarcof Israel has not been rescinded. Why did God not explicitly inform the Israelites that the nation would enter the Land? Typically, the prophets follow a prophecy of retribution with a comforting prophecy. Why then, did God not follow the decree of retribution in the aftermath of the sin of the spies with a prophecy of comfort, but rather with a halachic matter?
The answer applies to both the Torah and the Mishna – holiness is not something detached and not real; it is not simply dependent upon the attitude towards something; it is not merely a feeling. Rather, holiness is a practical reality, actual and existing. Therefore, holiness is always expressed in the Halacha, in mitzvot, in practical and mandatory behaviors. The fact that omer, bikurim and the two loaves of bread may be brought only from the Land of Israel, and the fact that the libation offerings are unique to the Land, indicate that the Land possesses a unique reality, and lead to the deep understanding that there is no other place comparable to her.
What is the meaning of the term “holy place?” Holiness and place apparently are different realms. Holiness is spiritual, while “place” is something material. A holy place is one in which there is a faithful and complete expression of the Divine will, a place in which life is guided by Godly parameters. Outside the Land, the routine of life is hardly dependent upon mitzvot and the will of God. Fruits and vegetables abroad are exempt (at least according to the laws of the Torah) from the gifts given to Kohanim, Levites and the poor. Terumah and ma’aser do not apply, nor do bikurim or ḥalla. In the wilderness, one who brought sacrifices did not bring the libation offerings. On the other hand, the daily routine within the Land is full of mitzvot, endowing life here with much greater practical – religious significance. The greater the level of holiness of a place, the greater the number of mitzvot which apply there. This is the approach of the Mishna, as it defines the increasing levels of holiness [Mishna Keilim 1:7-9] in practical terms. The practical (halachic) differences define holiness. A place in which there is greater meaning to the actions performed within it is a holier place.
Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli, Rosh Yeshiva of Rabbi Kook’s yeshiva, phrases the point thus: “The application of the name ‘Eretz Yisrael’ to the place vis-a-vis the obligation to fulfill the mitzvot which are dependent upon the Land is the definition of the sanctity of the Land.”
If material life were not ongoing within the Eretz Yisrael, if there were no fields and no vineyards planted, there would be no expression of the Land’s sanctity. There would be no place from which to bring omer, bikurim and the two loaves of bread. Holiness has meaning for us only when it is expressed practically. Developing the Eretz Yisrael affords more and more opportunities to fulfill the mitzvot which are unique to her and to thereby realize her sanctity.
Beyond this, based upon Gemara discussions, Rambam [Laws of Terumot, 1:26] writes that the mitzvot which are dependent upon the Land are in force only when all Israel, or at least a majority of the nation, resides within the Land, in our Sages’ phrase “When all her inhabitants are within her,” [Gemara Arachin 32b] as a mother all of whose children are gathered under her wings. Based upon Rambam’s codification, it follows that increased aliyah and economic, educational and security developments which facilitate absorption of more and more Jews in Israel all contribute to returning sanctity to the Land. It is not merely a matter of being able to fulfill additional mitzvot, but actually bringing the Land’s sanctity back to her. Through our actions, we not only experience the sanctity of the Land, but help create and vitalize that sanctity.
In this manner, as it were, we can experience ownership of the Land and share in her sanctity.
Rabbi Yisrael Glazer, (the first rabbi of Ramla) related that when he was a yeshiva student, before the establishment of the State, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook z”tl would encourage the students to tour and hike throughout the Land, to see its beauty and its development. Rabbi Kook stressed to his students that there is a great mitzva in touring and seeing the Holy Land. At times, Rabbi Kook even gave his students money so they could hire transportation to reach various places in the Land, in order to create a perpetual feeling of interest in the Land and a feeling of responsibility for her.
Indeed, it is a great mitzva, for it is only through accepting responsibility for the Land and its settlement that her sanctity can be manifest.