At that time I begged the Lord: “Lord God, You have begun to show Your greatness and power to Your servant, for what god is there in heaven or on earth who can perform deeds and mighty acts like Yours? Please let me cross over and see the beautiful Land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country and Lebanon.”
Mitzvot Which are Dependent on the Land
The implication of Moshe’s request to enter the “beautiful Land” on the western side of the Jordan River is that only the land west of the river has the sanctity of the Land promised to the Forefathers, to the exclusion of the eastern side. This implication apparently is supported by the Talmudic statement [Gemara Sota 14a] concerning Moshe’s motivation to enter western Eretz Yisrael. The Gemara wonders “Did Moshe need to eat its fruit?” Is it possible that Moshe’s motivation was to taste the delicious pomegranates and grapes of the Land? Rather, the Gemara asserts, Moshe said “Many mitzvot that Israel was commanded can be fulfilled only in Eretz Yisrael; I shall enter in order to fulfill all of them.” That is, Moshe’s motivation was to fulfill the mitzvot which are dependent upon the Land. This comment seemingly indicates that the eastern side of the River Jordan lacks sanctity, since the mitzvot which are dependent upon the Land do not apply there.
Lift Your Eyes to the East
When God commanded Moshe to ascend to the mountain peak and look at Eretz Yisrael, He instructed him, “Go up to the top of the hill and lift up your eyes westward and northward and southward and eastward and see with your eyes, for you shall not cross this Jordan” [Devarim 3:27]. Given that Moshe was east of the Jordan, the instruction to look west, north and south is clearly understandable, but why did God instruct Moshe to look east to see the east bank of the Jordan, where he was already located? This posuk (verse) seemingly implies that the east bank of the Jordan is part of Eretz Yisrael, thus God instructed Moshe to look at the entire Land, since he would not cross the Jordan. This seems contrary to the implication of our posuk and the Gemara comment.
The Sons of Gad and of Reuven in Eretz Yisrael
Rabbi Yehoshua of Kutna (1821-93), in his work Yeshuot Malko, proves that the eastern bank of the Jordan is part of Eretz Yisrael. The tribes of Reuven and Gad and half the tribe of Menashe took their portion of the Land east of the Jordan. If the east bank of the Jordan is not part of Eretz Yisrael, it would follow that there never was a time that all of Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel) resided in the Holy Land. If this were the case, shemitta and yovel would never have been in force by Torah law, since these mitzvot depend upon the presence of all Israel within the Land. Since, in all opinions, shemitta and yovel were in force by Torah law during the First Temple Period, it necessarily follows that the east bank of the Jordan is part of Eretz Yisrael.
Thus, there is an apparent contradiction: the first verse we quoted indicates that only the west side of the Jordan is part of Eretz Yisrael, while the latter verse indicates that the east bank is also part of the Land.
Tashbetz (Rabbi Shimon ben Ẓemaḥ [1361-1444] one of the great rabbis of Algeria) resolves the apparent contradiction, writing “There are two separate matters; the sanctity of the Shechina and the sanctity of mitzvot; the former is limited to western Eretz Yisrael, while the latter applies on both sides of the Jordan.”
The sanctity of the Shechina exists solely on the western side of the Jordan. Whether Am Yisrael conquers additional land, or even if it is not within the Land, the western side of the Jordan maintains this sanctity. All the virtues connected to the lofty status of Eretz Yisrael – that its air conveys wisdom, that prophecy is limited to it, that resurrection of the dead will occur within her without physical remains being dragged through subterranean passages, and more – apply only to western Eretz Yisrael, in which the Shechina resides from the time God promised the Land to Avraham Avinu.
In distinction to the sanctity of the Shechina, the sanctity of mitzvot applies in any area which the Am Yisrael conquers in order to extend the boundaries of Eretz Yisrael – “Every place the sole of your foot treads will be yours” [Devarim 11:24]. Therefore, the east bank of the Jordan has the sanctity which obligates observance of the mitzvot which are dependent upon the Land, as would be the case with any other area captured by Am Yisrael.
Since Moshe Rabbeinu desired to experience the sanctity of the Shechina, which involves the various attributes mentioned above he wanted specifically to enter western Eretz Yisrael, as he pleaded with God in the verses we quoted.
Tashbetz explains that the Gemara’s intention in commenting that Moshe wished to fulfill mitzvot in western Eretz Yisrael is not mitzvot which are dependent upon the Land, rather to experience the greater spiritual influence of western Eretz Yisrael, which alone is the Land of Shechina.
We may suggest further that since western Eretz Yisrael has a higher level of sanctity, all mitzvot performed within her, even those which are not dependent upon the Land, have a greater meaning and are more sublime. Fulfilling mitzvot outside Israel or even in eastern Eretz Yisrael is not comparable to fulfilling them within Eretz Yisrael proper, the Land west of the Jordan. Thus, the Gemara teaches that Moshe wished to enter western Eretz Yisrael in order to fulfill mitzvot, that is, in order to fulfill them in the Land of the Shechina, thereby meriting fulfilling them on the highest level and in the most complete manner possible.
The Land of God’s Possession
It is possible that Tashbetz’s comments have a source in the Book of Yehoshua. After fulfilling their obligation to assist the remaining tribes in conquering the land of Canaan, the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe returned to their portion east of the Jordan. Before crossing the river, the two and a half tribes built an altar on the western bank of the Jordan, despite the fact that at the time, private altars (i.e., other than in the Mishkan) were forbidden. The remaining tribes sent a delegation, led by Pincḥas, to the two and a half tribes in an attempt to dissuade them. The delegation reprimanded the two and a half tribes, telling them “But if the land you possess is defiled, cross over to the land the Lord possesses where the Lord’s tabernacle stands …” [Yehoshua 22:19]. Rashi comments that the message of the delegation is that God chose to rest His Shechina west of the Jordan, to the exclusion of the east bank; therefore they suggest that the two and a half tribes move westward, to “the Land the Lord possesses”. Radak offers another explanation: in fact, the east bank of the Jordan does have sanctity; the delegation’s message was “If, in your (incorrect) opinion, the east bank of the Jordan is defiled because the Mishkan is not there, then cross over to the Land the Lord possesses.”
Based upon the comments of Tashbetz, we may suggest that Rashi and Radak’s comments are consistent with each other. Rashi does not deny that the east bank of the Jordan has sanctity, rather he stresses that the sanctity of western Eretz Yisrael is greater, since it alone is the place where God chose to rest His Shechina. Therefore, relatively, the east bank is “defiled.”
Dwelling East of the Jordan
The above discussion is not simply academic, but has practical halachic ramifications. Yeshuot Malko writes that, given that western Eretz Yisrael has a higher level of sanctity than the east bank of the Jordan, ab initio it is greater mitzva to purchase land west of the Jordan. However, if land west of the Jordan is more expensive or unattainable, land purchases in the east bank also constitute fulfillment of the mitzva of settling the Land.
Tashbetz writes that even though a spouse has the right to force the other spouse to ascend to Eretz Yisrael (or forfeit the ketuba), there is no spousal right to force the other spouse to move from the east bank to western Eretz Yisrael, since each has sanctity. Despite the fact that the level of sanctity of western Eretz Yisrael is higher than that of the east bank, the mitzva of settling Eretz Yisrael is fulfilled on the east bank as well.
Thank God, in our generation we are privileged to live in the “Land of God’s possession,” which contains the sanctity both of the Shechina and of the mitzvot, a situation which the Nation of Israel lacked for many generations.
May it be His will that these sanctities exert their spiritual influence over us in the merit of our dwelling within the Land. Amen.