“וישב יעקב בארץ מגורי אביו בארץ כנען”
Yaacov dwelt in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan.
[Bereishit Genesis 37:1]
“ביאר המקרא על מה לא התנהג יעקב כדרכו לפנות הדרך לפני עשו אחיו, והרי לא הגיעה השעה עד אחר הגלות בארץ לא להם. מפני וכו’ שהוא ארץ כנען ויש בזה מצוות יישוב ארץ ישראל, ומוכשרת יותר לטהרות הקודש יותר מבכל הארצות”.
The posuk (verse) explains why Yaacov did not clear the way for his brother Esav [Bereishit 32:8ff.] despite the fact that the time for the fulfillment of the promise of the Land to him was only after exile “in a land not theirs.” [Bereishit 15:13] The reason is that … the land of Canaan has the mitzva of settling the Land and is the most suited for purity and sanctity of all the lands.
Ha’amek Davar (Netziv on chumash)
Netziv notes two advantages of the Land which brought Yaakov to settle within her and hold onto her despite the fact that the time for Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel) to inherit the Land had yet to arrive: 1) the mitzva to settle the Land; 2) the unique suitability of the Land to purity and sanctity.
We shall reflect on each of these points and attempt to understand the character of each.
Holding Onto the Land – Building up the Am Yisrael (Nation of Israel)
The mitzva of settling the Land, as all mitzvot, was not obligatory before the Torah was given at Sinai. Chazal (Our Sages) [Gemara (Talmud) Yoma 28b] teach that the Avot (Forefathers) observed all of Torah, including rabbinic mitzvot, because of their high spiritual level and their desire to cling to God at the highest level, in preparation for fathering the holy seed through whom Am Yisrael will be built.
It is clear therefore, that Yaakov was not legally obligated to settle the Land, but yearned to do us as a reflection of his lofty level and desire to fulfill God’s word and His will even when he did not have a complete obligation to do so.
However, it seems that the Avots’ (Forefathers’) desire to fulfill the mitzva of settling the Land originated in a higher place than their desire to fulfill other mitzvot. The first words God spoke to Avraham were “לך לך מארצך וממולדתך ומבית אביך אל הארץ אשר אראך” (“Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the Land that I will show you”) [Bereishit 12:1]. Before communicating anything else to Avraham, God told him to leave his homeland and come to Eretz Yisrael. When the possibility arose for Yitzchak (Isaac) to go down to Egypt because of a famine, God instructed him “אל תרד מצרימה שכון בארץ אשר אומר אליך. גור בארץ הזאת ואהיה עמך ואברכך” (“Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the Land that I will tell you. Dwell in this Land, and I will be with you, and I will bless you…” [ibid. 26:2-3]. Yitzchak was commanded never to leave the Land, and indeed he never stepped foot outside her borders. Yaakov, the only one of the Avot (Forefather) who left the Land in order to live abroad, did so in the first instance due to the threat to his life by his brother Esav. Even under those conditions, Yaakov left the Land only following his parents’ explicit instructions to do so. The second time Yaakov left the Land was to be reunited with his beloved son Yosef (Joseph), and he did so following God’s explicit command, as He informed Yaakov: “אל תירא מרדה מצרימה וכו’ אנכי ארד עמך מצרימה ואנכי אעלך גם עלה ” (“Do not be afraid of going down to Egypt … I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up”) [ibid. 46:3-4].
In each of these Divine appearances to the Avot (Forefather), the topic of inheriting the Land and its being given as a present to their future generations is central.
It therefore seems that the Avot’s (Forefather’s) efforts to fulfill the mitzva of settling the Land stemmed not only from its being one of the mitzvot, all of which they wished to fulfill completely, but also and especially because of the centrality and indispensible nature of this mitzva to their function as the founders of Am Yisrael.
Returning to God’s first words to Avraham, we note that after instructing Avraham to travel to “the Land that I will show you,” He informed Avraham “And I will make you into a great nation.” [ibid. 12:2] As Maharal of Prague notes [Tiferet Yisrael, chapter 37] the roots and essence of things are conveyed by their initial presentation. Thus, the fact that the first Divine communication to Avraham commences with the command to ascend to the Land and the promise of his becoming a great nation, indicates that these are major aspects of Avraham’s mission. The same is true for Yitzchak and Yaakov, the successors to Avraham.
The mission of the Avot (Forefathers) was to establish an entire nation in which the Shechina will be manifest. Even prior to Avraham, as well as after him, there were individuals within various nations who achieved high levels of service of God, (such as Chanoch [Bereishit 5:22]) and even experienced prophecy (Bilaam), however, they remained individuals and are not indicative of their societies in general. The unique mission of the Avot (Forefathers) was to establish a nation, which as a collective society is designated to be “ממלכת כהנים וגוי קדוש” (“A kingdom of princes and a holy nation”) [Shemot (Exodus) 19:6], a nation whose every member’s soul is rooted in the loftiest levels of sanctity, and of whom all nations will perceive and admit that “The name of the Lord is called upon” them. [Devarim (Deuteronomy) 28:10]
Therefore, prior to informing Avraham of his destiny to establish the nation of God, He commanded him to abandon his homeland and journey to the Promised Land, the one place in the world where the Divine plan to create Am Yisrael can be realized. The basic condition for Avraham’s descendants to develop into a nation is ascending to the Land, and striking roots in the Land designated for them. Only the Land of Israel possesses the conditions and qualities which allow Israel’s national development. Without the Land’s qualities, Israel cannot be a nation, but simply a group of individuals.
This is the reason that Yaakov continued the path of Avraham and Yitzchak and invested special efforts in developing and settling the Land. Upon returning to the Land, even before he found permanent dwelling for himself, Yaakov purchased a parcel of land near Shechem. [Bereishit 33:19] Before taking care of his personal needs, Yaakov acted to establish his holdings within the soil of the Land of Israel. In so doing, Yaakov built and strengthened the connection between the nation-in-the-making and the Holy Land, and paved the way for Am Yisrael to fully establish itself and to hold onto the Land upon its return from exile. Yaakov thereby facilitated the realization of the Divine will to establish and perfect the nation in whom the Shechina will rest within this world.
The Quality of the Land – Spiritual Vitality
We shall now consider Netziv’s second point: the Land has a unique quality which facilitates achieving purity and spiritual advancement, more than any other land. Centuries before Netziv, Rabbi Yehuda haLevi (1075-1141) raised this point in his poem “Zion Will You Not Inquire After the Welfare of your Captives,” which is included within the elegies of Tisha b’Av. In this poem, full of descriptions of the beauty of the Land and its qualities and of a strong and burning desire to see the rebuilding of the Land and its redemption, Rabbi Yehuda haLevi uses the expression “The air of your land is a soul’s very life.” More than its simple physical function of sustaining life, the air of the Land strengthens and uplifts the soul and provides the vitality which is necessary for the soul’s existence and development.
Unlike the body, the soul is dependent upon spiritual nourishment. The greater the spiritual powers and power of purity within the environment, the greater is the soul’s chance of being strengthened. Conversely, in a materialistic environment devoid of sanctity, the soul will be weakened and lose some of its vitality.
In his choice few words, Rabbi Yehuda haLevi describes the great attribute of the Land which was mentioned by Netziv. The Land of Israel has a high concentration of powers of sanctity and of purity, and therefore souls which reside in her are nurtured by the spiritual “food” in the form of enlightenment of sanctity and of purity, which the soul requires to live and develop.
Zohar [Parashat vaYakhel, 287] explains the source of the Land’s extra level of sanctity:
In every level of heaven there is (an angel) appointed to supervise the world and its lands, except for the Land of Israel, which is supervised exclusively by the Holy One, blessed be He Himself.
Zohar teaches a significant fundamental point concerning God’s management of the world: for each land, He has appointed a ministering angel who serves as the conduit through which the abundance designated for that land descends to earth. However, the Land of Israel is different than all other lands in that God Himself takes the place of His angels, and personally supervises her.
Based upon this, it is clear that it is God’s personal supervision of the Land, His presence within her and His personal involvement in her which is the source of the Land’s unique level of sanctity. Certainly the intensity of sanctity within the Land is immeasurably greater than that of all other lands. The place where God Himself is present and in which He uniquely manifests His supervision and influence, necessarily will have a greater power of sanctity and it will have qualities which are conducive to strengthening purity and sanctity.
We, who are privileged to dwell in the Land as Jews who serve God are obligated to recognize the Land’s qualities and her great power to elevate and sanctify all aspects of our lives. The study of Torah and fulfillment of mitzvot, which can ostensibly be done abroad on a similar level, are greatly elevated when done within the Land, and their influence on the individual and the collective are enhanced several fold.
To the extent that we recognize the Land’s qualities and strive to live our practical and spiritual lives in awareness of these qualities, is the extent to which we will be able to experience the great and sublime influences of sanctity and blessings of the Land.