God encouraged the Children of Israel by informing them that He will always treat them with the attribute of mercy; therefore they must not think that they will be unable to inherit the Land, because there is no man who does not sin and the attribute of strict justice is against them and they will be lost. Therefore, Moshe informed them that God is merciful. God’s forgiveness and pardon assist people in His service, as the verse states “But with You there is forgiveness, so that You may be revered.” [Tehillim (Psalms) 130:4]
[Ramban, Introduction to Devarim]
Prior to Am Yisrael’s entry into Eretz Yisrael, Moshe Rabbeinu delivered words of encouragement and rebuke as part of the preparation for his handing the leadership of Am Yisrael to Yehoshua and the nation’s entering Eretz Yisrael. Ramban explains that part of Moshe’s preparation of Am Yisrael is to encourage them to not fear that they will be unable to remain in the Land due to the high spiritual standard which applies within her. To alleviate this fear, Moshe informed the Israelites of God’s great mercy and love of them, as was evident from the exodus from Egypt throughout the nation’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Moshe stressed that God’s love of Am Yisrael and His great mercy will protect the nation and allow it to exist within the Land even if they occasionally succumb to sin.
The above point requires elucidation. Indeed, we find that the Torah is stricter concerning sins committed within Eretz Yisrael that those committed abroad. Ramban himself explains that the citizens of Sodom were punished severely because they sinned within Eretz Yisrael, and therefore they were dealt with harshly. The severe punishment of the Sodomites was intended as a lesson for future generations of Israelites – that they be aware of the strict consequences of sinning within the Land.
In his Rosh Hashana sermon, Ramban focused the point by stating “Those who merit sitting before God in His Land are like those who would sit before the king; if they are scrupulous in honoring him, it is good for them and they are fortunate, but if they defy him, they are the most woeful of creatures, who battle the king and anger him within his own palace. The king will expel such people from his palace.”
The Torah itself states explicitly that Eretz Yisrael does not tolerate those who sin within her, and it is only through careful fulfillment of the Torah’s mitzvot that they can avoid the Land spitting them out as she did to the nations which preceded Israel in the Land [Vayikra 18:28].
These sources make it clear that Eretz Yisrael is not the recommended dwelling place for sinners and that the Divine will is not to have sinners in the Land who defile her by their deeds.
On the other hand, we have statements of Chazal (our Sages) which assert the opposite. Yalkut Shimoni [Eicha 1038] comments on the posuk (verse) in Ezekiel [36:17] “The house of Israel, as long as they lived on their own Land, they defiled it by their way and by their misdeeds” – “God said: ‘Would that My children would be with Me in Eretz Yisrael, even though they defile her.’” According to this, God’s will is that His children be in the Land even if they commit sins which defile her!
How is it possible to reconcile these seemingly contradictory statements?
The First Explanation (based upon the writings of Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzahl)
We can make a simple distinction between those who dwell in the Land out of acceptance of the yoke of heaven and a desire to fulfill Torah and mitzvot within her and those who remove the yoke of heaven from themselves and explicitly distance themselves from fulfilling mitzvot within the Land.
In the first case, when living in the Land is motivated by proper intention, it is indeed fitting in God’s eyes. Therefore, even though “There is certainly no righteous man on the earth who does good and never sins,” [Kohelet 7:20] and it is impossible to live in the Land without occasionally sinning, nonetheless “The Torah was not given to angels” [Gemara Kiddushin 54a]. God commanded Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel) to dwell in the Land despite the inherent risk of sinning within her. Of course, all who live in the Land have a great obligation to exert efforts to fulfill mitzvot and avoid succumbing to sin, but the possibility of sinning and actual sinning within the Land is not a cause for exile from her. A sin committed under the circumstances described above, though it defiles the Land, is not sufficient reason to minimize God’s desire that His children dwell within the Land.
Moreover, a Jew who lives in the Land with the intention of fulfilling the mitzva of settling her, in addition to a sincere attempt to fulfill the mitzva, will merit Divine assistance in fulfilling all mitzvot and in succeeding in settling the Land, since “One who comes to purify himself, (Heaven) helps him” [Gemara Menacḥot 29b]. The sanctity of the Land and the unique Divine presence within her serve as catalysts to arouse the individual to achieve sanctity and closeness to God. The unique spiritual attributes of the Land enable one who loves within her to reach a higher spiritual level and to prevent sinning.
One who, God forbid, chooses the second option and settles in Eretz Yisrael with the expressed intention of freeing himself from the obligation to fulfill mitzvot indeed risks realization of the Torah and Chazals’ words concerning the severity of sinning within the Land and having his actions lead to the awful punishment of exile from her. Intentional rejection of mitzvot within the Land which “God’s eyes are continually upon” [Devarim 11:12], which is constantly under His direct supervision, indeed constitutes rebellion against God and rejection of His mastery over the world. The punishment for such behavior is likely to be severe.
Second Explanation – That of the Holy Or HaChayim
The section of Parashat Aḥarei Mot which deals with illicit sexual relations includes the posuk “Do not defile yourselves by any of these (practices), for the nations I am driving out before you have defiled themselves by all these things” [Vayikra 18:24]. Or HaChayim presents a novel explanation of the posuk, suggesting that the punishment that “the Land will vomit you out” [ibid. verse 28] does not refer to all the sins listed in the section, but to one sin, which the Torah chose not to specify. It is true that the language of the verse “by any of these (practices)” implies that each transgressing individual sin is liable to cause the Land to vomit the sinners out, but the Torah chose this wording as a way of warning us to avoid all of the sins. The Torah chose to not reveal the specific sin which leads to exile to prevent the Israelites from differentiating between sins and to bring us to exert equal care in avoiding any sin.
This explanation offers a second resolution of our apparent contradiction. Despite the seriousness of sinning within the King’s palace, not every sin causes exile. There is a single sin, which the Torah did not reveal, which brings the punishment of ejection from the Land, while other sins do not. While the Torah is stricter in its attitude towards sinning within Eretz Yisrael than to sinning abroad, the punishment of exile is restricted to the one specific but unidentified sin. Thus, Yalkut Shimoni’s comment can be understood, according to Or HaChayim‘s explanation, to refer to those sins for which the Torah did not decree the punishment of exile. This distinction between the sin which requires exile and other sins indicates that for other sins, God prefers to “suffer” the impurity which they generate so long as His beloved children remain in His desired Land.
Third Explanation – Eim HaBanim Semeicḥa
In his work Eim HaBanim Semeicḥa, Rabbi Yisachar Shlomo Teichtal adds an additional level of understanding, based on Or HaChayim‘s words. Concerning mixtures of permitted and forbidden things, Chazal established the rule that “anything which is stationary (kavua) is considered as a case of fifty-fifty and the prohibited part is not annulled by the majority which is permitted. On the other hand, the rule is “whenever something departs (parish) from a stationary medium, it departs from the majority,” therefore if the majority is permissible, it is permitted. Thus, we cannot say that one sin should be annulled by the majority of sins which do not cause Israel’s exile from the Land. Since there are 613 mitzvot in front of us, when someone takes one mitzva and transgresses it, it is considered kavua, (as opposed to something which departs on its own) and it is therefore forbidden. The halachic authorities rule that if someone removes something from the stationary status it retains the law of kavua only when the one removing it is an intelligent person who recognizes that there is doubt in the kavua situation. In such cases, even when something has been removed, its halachic status is still considered kavua and not parish. However, if a mentally incompetent, unintelligent person removes it, the authorities agree that it assumes the law of parish and is annulled by the majority, and hence permitted.
Based upon this introduction, Rabbi Teichtal suggest that when Am Yisrael dwelt in its Land and the Sanhedrin and lower courts taught Am Yisrael, a Jew who sinned was considered as being aware of his transgression, and therefore the status of kavua applied, and transgressing the hidden mitzva which entails exile could not be annulled by the majority of the other mitzvot. However, following Am Yisrael’s exile and dispersion among the nations, the Israelites were influenced by the surrounding nations. The prolonged exile among the nations caused the Jews to forget the ways of Torah and the value of mitzvot. Such Jews undoubtedly fall into the category of infants who were kidnapped by the gentiles, who are not held responsible for their sins. Thus, these Jews are considered “mentally incompetent” and unintelligent, so the rule of parish applies, and the specific sin which causes exile is indeed annulled by the majority of mitzvot, and the Land will not vomit Am Yisrael out.
This distinction, between pre and post exile explains Chazals’ above-cited comment. After Am Yisrael’s exile from the Land and their dispersion among the gentiles, God states “Would that My children would be with Me in Eretz Yisrael, even though they defile her,” since these sinners cannot be held responsible for their transgressions. Under such circumstances, God desires His children to be in the Land even if they are sinners, in order to show His mercy and influence them to reach complete repentance.
Significance for Our Generation
We have seen that the Midrash which expresses God’s desire that His children remain in Eretz Yisrael even when they defile her with their sins can be understood to refer to Jews who attempt to follow in the path of Torah but occasionally succumb to their base instincts and sin. Alternately, the Midrash can be understood to refer to all mitzvot except the single unspecified one which entails exile from the Land. The third possibility we presented is that the Midrash refers to the sins of those who were exiled and negatively influenced by living among the nations of the world.
All the explanations make it clear that the bar of spiritual demands within Eretz Yisrael is higher than that abroad, and living in the Land requires achieving a more exalted life style and greater spiritual perfection than living outside the Land. This is true in connection with vigilance to prevent sinning as well as recognition of the value of the mitzvot performed within the Land, as the Chafetz Chayim is quoted as saying that each mitzva performed in Eretz Yisrael is equal to twenty performed outside the Land.
We must strive to keep these thoughts in our hearts, utilize them as warning signs when faced with the temptation to sin and as a lever to facilitate our performance of mitzvot within Eretz Yisrael.