“… וכל הארץ הזאת אשר אמרתי אתן לזרעכם ונחלו לעלם”
… And all this Land which I said that I would give to your seed, they shall keep it as their possession forever.
[Shemot (Exodus) 32:13]
“ונחלו לעולם – מלמד שאין לה הפסק, ואפילו בשעה שגולים ממנה הרי היא שלהם אלא שגולים ממנה”
“As their possession forever” – this teaches that there is no interruption; even when Am Yisrael is exiled from the Land, she remains theirs.
[Ha’amek Davar (Netziv)]
Netziv’s comment teaches that the exile of the Am Yisrael (Nation of Israel) from its Land and even their complete absence from her do not modify the Land’s legal status as being the possession of the Am Yisrael. The fact that foreign rulers forcibly captured the Land and exiled her sons from her does not impact Am Yisraels’ connection or ownership of the Land.
For nations other than Am Yisrael, being exiled from their land which was conquered by foreigners, inevitably leads to the situation in which, after a few generations, the exiled feel no connection to their former land. Once a land has been conquered and its original inhabitants lost to it, the land is no longer considered belonging to them; it becomes the possession solely of the conqueror. Not so with Eretz Yisrael. The deep connection between Am Yisrael and its Land is so firm that it can never be broken, and even after thousands of years of exile the Land is still called “the Land of Israel,” the Land of Am Yisrael.
The substance and validity of Am Yisrael’s ownership of the Land are expressed not only on the general level of the Land belonging to the nation collectively, but on the individual level as well. Thus, every Israelite has four cubits of the Land which are his personal property, as the Rishonim assert in the name of Rav Naḥshon Gaon, and as Tosafot say “דאין לך אדם שאין לו ארבע אמות בארץ ישראל” (“There is no Jew who does not have four cubits within Eretz Yisrael) [Bava Batra 44b].
Indeed, even when the Land was under foreign rule and devoid of its sons, Am Yisrael’s legal ownership was neither invalidated nor even weakened.
The Inner Meaning of this Connection
The inner significance of Netziv’s comment is expressed in Rabbi Kook’s words: “Eretz Yisrael is an independent unit, bound with a living attachment with the nation, bound with inner qualities with the nation’s existence.”
Rabbi Kook clarifies that Eretz Yisrael is not merely a practical geographic means which facilitates the development and success of Israel as a national entity; rather it is an exalted spiritual creation, a Divine revelation within the world which is bound with hidden spiritual cords to the soul of Am Yisrael.
Based upon Rabbi Kook’s words, Netziv’s comment is understandable and even necessary. Once we understand that the connection between the Land and Am Yisrael is based upon spiritual links, it is self-evident that this connection cannot be severed by the physical removal of Israel from its Land.
We must understand how this indelible connection is manifest. The inner relationship to a supreme spiritual source such as Eretz Yisrael should have an impact on all who are connected to it, even when they are in exile from the Land.
Exile is Unnatural
Maharal of Prague, in his work Netzaḥ Yisrael, in explaining the “Three Vows” that God elicited from Israel – that “they not ascend as a wall,” that “they not push the end” and that “they not rebel against the nations,” [Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 111a] comments that it is unnatural that Israel’s exile from its Land should last more than a short period. Maharal’s consistent approach is that Israel’s presence outside its Land is counter to the nature of the world, and therefore if not for some force which adapts nature to the fulfillment of the Divine decree of exile, the exile could not be maintained beyond a short period. In the natural situation, Am Yisrael should have returned to its Land without having to experience subjugation to any other nation. The three vows, a Divine decree, which overrides nature, are the sole factor which facilitated the unnatural situation of Israel’s existence outside its Land.
Maharal’s approach indicates that even after Am Yisrael was exiled from its Land and scattered throughout the four corners of the world, the natural connection between the nation and the Land remained intact, to the point where it is necessary to have an external force which prevents the reunion of the nation and the Land until the appointed time for the end of Am Yisrael’s exile.
Thus, Am Yisrael’s ownership of the Land results from a deep inner connection between the nation and its Land, a connection unimpaired despite the many years of the nation’s exile. It is this inner connection which arouses Jews to love and yearn for the Land, in thought and in deed, and to rebuild her. Just as the inner connection remains completely intact despite the long exile, so too the nation’s legal and fiscal ownership of the Land continue despite the geographic distance between the nation and the Land. It is the inner connection between the nation and the Land which facilitates yearning for the Land and longing to return to her and to see her redeemed and rebuilt, despite the thousands of years since the Land’s destruction and the nation’s exile from her. This connection is so powerful that God, as it were, was forced to employ the unnatural means of the three oaths in order to prevent Am Yisrael’s premature reunion with its homeland.
So far, we have seen how the inner spiritual connection fosters yearning and desire for the Land’s redemption within the hearts of Am Yisrael, and how it is manifest in the nation’s ownership of the Land.
Delving into the words of Rabbi Ya’akov Moshe Charlap will raise an additional perspective.
“ההתרחקות מן הגלות הוא לפי ערך ההתקשרות עם ארץ ישראל. בזמן שהקשר עם א”י מתרפה – מתחזקת הגלות, ובזמן שהקשר עם א”י מתחזק – מתרחקים יותר מן הגלות”
[מי מרום חלק ו’ עמ’ צב]
Distancing oneself from the exile is proportional to connecting oneself to Eretz Yisrael. When the connection to the Land is weakened, the exile intensifies, and when the connection to the Land is strengthened, we are distanced from the exile.
Rabbi Charlap explains that the quality and difficulty of exile are not fixed, rather the extent of the burden and the difficulty of the exile change in accordance with the nation’s connection to the Land.
Beyond spiritual efforts, it is possible and indeed it is our duty to act in a direct manner to strengthen our connection to Eretz Yisrael. The more we increase our longing to return to the Land and to rebuild her, the less the impact on us of the exile and the greater the light of redemption shines.
The relationship between our inner spiritual connection to the Land and our active efforts to return to her and rebuild her is bi-lateral. Our eternal connection to the Land guarantees that our ownership of her cannot be ended, but remains valid even during periods of exile, so too our ownership of the Land reinforces our attachment to her, strengthening the power of the impending redemption and catalyzing the nation’s full return to the Land. To the same extent that our inner connection to the Land empowers our possession of her, our arousal to actively develop the Land strengthens the inner connection with her and arouses the light of redemption.
Rabbi Yissachar Shlomo Teichtal HY”D, in his work Eim haBanim S’meiḥa quotes a letter of the Ba’al haTanya (Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi [1745-1812], the first Lubavitcher Rebbi) to Rabbi Levi Yitzḥak of Berditchev, in which he states that he was released from his imprisonment and the threat of execution through the merit of his support for the development of the Holy Land.
All our efforts to build up the Land and improve her, to gather her sons into her borders, to develop her physically and spiritually and to deepen our hold on her soil have effects not only in the limited specific area dealt with, but also in the broad realm of hastening the appearance of the light of redemption.
The extent to which we have this goal in mind is the extent to which we can act together with God and be among those who receive eternal reward for their work.
 Translation of Rabbi David Samson “The Teachings of haRav Avraham Yitzhak haKohen Kook – Eretz Yisrael,” Torat Eretz Yisrael Publications, 5756