Chazal (Our Rabbis) taught: A person should always live in the Land of Israel, even in a city that is mostly populated by idolaters, and he should not live outside the Land, even in a town most of whose inhabitants are Israelites; for anyone who lives in the Land of Israel is considered as one who has a God, but whoever lives outside the Land is considered as one who has no God. As it I stated: “To give you the land of Canaan, to be your God” [Vayikra 25:38]. Anyone who does not live in the Land, is considered as one who has no God!? Rather, (the posuk (verse) intended) to tell you, that anyone who lives outside the Land is considered as one who worships idols.
Questions on the Gemara
At first glance, the Gemara’s comments are incomprehensible. Why should a Jew who lives outside the Land be considered as having no God? What is the great shortcoming in this situation if one observes mitzvot while living in a vibrant Torah community outside Eretz Yisrael? For numerous generations, virtually all Jews lived outside the Land, yet they maintained the traditions of Torah study and fulfillment of mitzvot. Apparently, this is the Gemara’s question “Anyone who does not live in the Land, is considered as one who has no God!?” What is the meaning of the Gemara’s answer?
First Answer: National Fulfillment of Mitzvot
The Torah presents 248 positive mitzvot and 365 negative mitzvot, some are communal, others personal and individual obligations. There are a few verses in the Torah and more in the prophets which speak of God’s will in our observance of mitzvot; the goal of our observance. Beyond the underlying reasons for each individual mitzva, there are general objectives of fulfilling mitzvot. There is a deep Divine reason that we are commanded to fulfill mitzvot, God did not command us in vain. “For it is not a vain thing for you;” [Devarim 32:47] “If it is vain, it is vain from you.” [Midrash Tana’im, ibid.]
The mitzvot are intended to bring each and every Jew to fear Heaven, as the posuk states: “And the Lord commanded us to perform all these statutes, to fear the Lord, our God …” [Devarim 6:24]. Sefer HaIkarim (Rabbi Yosef Albo 1380 – 1444) explains that mitzvot were commanded as well in order to bring Jews to love of Heaven. There are other reasons which are the basis of observance of mitzvot in general and concerning specific mitzvot which remain unknown to us.
A significant number of mitzvot cannot be fulfilled outside Eretz Yisrael, not only those which are dependent upon the Land, such as terumot and ma’aser, but as well all mitzvot related to monarchy, Beit Hamikdash (the Temple) and the Sanhedrin. In his sefer (book) “The Concise Book of Mitzvot,” which enumerates those mitzvot which are in force today, the Chafetz Chayyim concludes that only 77 positive mitzvot and 194 negative mitzvot apply outside the Land, while an additional 26 mitzvot apply today exclusively within Eretz Yisrael.
The Torah declares “And you shall be to Me a kingdom of princes and a holy nation” [Sh’mot 19:6] and Isaiah states, in God’s name “and I made you for a people’s covenant, for a light to nations” [42:6] and “This people I formed for Myself; they shall recite My praise” [43:21]. That is, fulfillment of mitzvot includes a Jewish national aspect. Numerous other pesukim stress this point. Without Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel) within its Land, full of holy people and prophets reaching every corner of the Land, without the Beit HaMikdash and Sanhedrin, the Kohen Gadol and the Urim V’Tumim, there is a great void in the Divine service of Am Yisrael.
One might assume that the shortcoming would be only in those mitzvot which are obligations of the community, but this is not the case. In his work “Orot,” Rav Kook zt”l writes: “Through adding an abundance of Ruacḥ Hakodesh within the nation, the connection between the individual and the collective is strengthened”. The more the Nation of Israel is filled with Ruacḥ Hakodesh, which is empowered though performance of communal mitzvot, the greater the connection between the individual and the sanctity of Am Yisrael, and the greater the sanctification of God’s name within the world through the individual’s fulfillment of mitzvot. Mitzvot performed outside the Land lack the aspect of sanctifying God’s name throughout the world, since they lack the facet of Israel’s nationality. This is sanctification of God’s name in a different dimension, not simply on a quantitatively lower level.
Perhaps this is Rashi’s intent in quoting Midrash Sifrei on the verse “And you shall set these words of Mine upon your heart and upon your soul” [Devarim 11:18] – “Even after you are exiled from the Land, continue to make yourselves distinctive with My commandments: Put on tefillin and make mezuzoth , so that these will not be new to you when you return.make yourselves distinctive with mitzvot; put on tefilin and make mezuzuot so these will not be novel to you when you return to the Land”. Ramban expands upon this Midrash in his commentary on Vayikra [18:25]. Are mitzvot to be performed outside Israel only so they not be forgotten when we return to her? Is a sense – the answer is yes. It is only within Eretz Yisrael that the mitzvot of the individual take on a communal dimension, for only there does the community fulfill mitzvot as a single, united nation.
Based on this, we can understand that for the Nation of Israel “having a God” requires fulfillment of His mitzvot to their fullest, and this can be fully accomplished only within Eretz Yisrael, thus Jews outside the Land are considered as having no God.
Second Answer: Am Yisrael Can Truly Live Only in its Land
Kuzari presents a metaphor for the connection between Am Yisrael and its Land. One who plants a vineyard or any other crop, must plant in soil which suitable, otherwise even if he fertilizes and waters his crop, it will not produce the proper yield. So it is with Am Yisrael, its ability to grow and blossom properly, and to achieve sanctity, depends on its being in Eretz Yisrael.
Kuzari adds that all agricultural work is for the purpose of helping the crop grow properly, while the most basic requirement is that the crop be connected to soil which is appropriate for that crop. The “work” of Torah is great and holy, but it is primarily a means to allow Am Yisrael to be a vibrant nation and to fulfill its God-given mission of being a “a kingdom of princes and a holy nation.” Every Jew living outside Israel lacks the connection to one of the nation’s life-sources, the soil of Eretz Yisrael. It is likely that Kuzari’s source is the comment of Zohar, which compares the connection among Eretz Yisrael, the Nation of Israel and Torah to a tree which grows in soil and produces fruit. The soil is Eretz Yisrael, the tree is the Nation of Israel and the fruit is the Torah of Israel.
Essentially, according to this approach, the Gemara’s statement that “whoever lives outside the Land is considered as one who has no God” relates God’s connection to His subjects, Am Yisrael. Jews outside the Land do not receive the full emanation of the Shechina, they lack a portion of their connection to physical and spiritual life which is conveyed by Eretz Yisrael.
We saw two ways in which a Jew living outside Eretz Yisrael is considered as one having no God:
1) “From below to above” – one living outside the Land lacks the communal aspect of mitzva observance, even within the mitzvot incumbent upon the individual. One whose fulfillment of mitzvot lacks this major component cannot be considered as truly having a God.
2) “From above to below” – one who lives outside Eretz Yisrael lacks the nurture of Israel’s national life which comes from the Land. Essentially, he lacks the full manifestation of the Shechina which animates life.
Based upon these points, Chazal teach that a Jew living outside Eretz Yisrael is considered as one having no God.
Eretz Yisrael in our Days
In our days, Am Yisrael has multiplied within the Land. Following the waves of aliya with the establishment of the State, the situation in Eretz Yisrael was difficult, both physically and spiritually. Today, thank God, there are hundreds of yeshivot and kollelim in Israel, with tens of thousands of Torah students. The state continues to develop and to be built up, and through the state the individuals of the Am Yisrael, who are scattered across the globe, connect to each other. Gathering Israel into the Land creates public awareness of Am Yisrael, not merely of individual Jews. God is returning us home, to our natural habitat, the place best suited for our national development. There is increased engagement with communal mitzvot, such as those connected to the Beit HaMikdash, and all mitzvot take on the additional aspect of sanctifying the name of God throughout the world and in the eyes of all nations.
May it be God’s will that we all merit seeing the life force with which Eretz Yisrael endows the Nation of Israel directly and with clarity. Amen.