Eretz Israel

  • Rav Chaim Navon
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Theological Issues In Sefer Bereishit

Yeshivat Har Etzion


By Rav Chaim Navon


Our first encounter with Eretz Israel in the Torah is in God's command to Avraham:

Go you out of your country, and from your homeland, and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you. (Bereishit 12:1)

Eretz Israel is not presented here as Israel's homeland. On the contrary, Eretz Israel is portrayed here as the land on behalf of which one leaves his house and homeland. We first encounter Eretz Israel as the antithesis of a homeland, as Avraham's place of exile, as a place whose name is not even mentioned. Eretz Israel is not the natural homeland of the Jewish people, but rather the land that God gave them so that they may serve Him there.

The Torah emphasizes the fact that Eretz Israel is not our natural homeland. There is a two-fold danger in seeing Eretz Israel as the Jewish people's natural homeland: viewing it as an absolute value and viewing it as an absolute fact. The "ma'apilim" mentioned in Parashat Shelach (Bamidbar 14:40-45) exemplify those who see the land of Israel as an absolute value. After having been informed of their punishment for their part in the sin of the spies, the people wish to correct their mistake and enter the land of Israel. Moshe warns them: "Go not up, for the Lord is not among you; so that you may not be smitten before your enemies!" (Bamidbar 14:42). But the "ma'apilim" ignore the warning; they fail to understand that the value of living in Eretz Israel is conditional upon the will of God, and that when God commands not to go to Israel, going to Israel is a sin. The "ma'apilim" erred in their understanding of the true lesson of the sin of the spies, mistakenly concluding that Eretz Israel is above and beyond all other values. In the end, the "ma'apilim" were routed: "Then the Amaleki came down, and the Cana'ani who dwelt in that hill, and smote them and discomfited them, as far as Chorma" (Bereishit 15:45). This is what happened to those who transformed the land into an absolute value.

There are others who turn the settlement of Eretz Israel into an "absolute fact," as if the holiness of the land guarantees that its inhabitants will never be driven out into exile. To counteract this idea, the people of Israel are warned over and over again:

You shall therefore keep My statutes and My judgments, and shall not commit any of these abominations ... that the land vomit not you out also, when you defile it. (Vayikra 18:26-28)

The prophet Yechezkel also comes out against this perception of our continued existence in Eretz Israel as a sealed promise:

Son of man, they that inhabit those waste places of the land of Israel speak, saying, Avraham was one man, and yet he inherited the land: but we are many; the land is given us for inheritance. Therefore say to them, Thus says the Lord God; You eat with the blood, and lift up your eyes toward your idols, and shed blood: and shall you possess the land? You stand upon you sword, you carry out disgusting deeds, and you defile every man his neighbor's wife; and shall you possess the land? (Yechezkel 33:24-26)

The land of Israel is a temporary dwelling place; our continued living there depends at all times upon the will of God, who rewards us for our good deeds. Not only does our very existence in Eretz Israel depend upon God, but also the quality of that existence. The verses in the book of Devarim compare the land of Egypt to the land of Israel:

For the land, into which you go to possess it, is not as the land of Egypt, from whence you came out, where you sowed your seed, and watered it with your foot, like a garden of vegetables. But the land into which you go to possess it, is a land of hills and valleys, and drinks water of the rain of heaven; a land which the Lord your God cares for; the eyes of the Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year. (Devarim 11:10-12)

The commentators explain the significance of this passage. In Eretz Israel adequate watering of the fields is not guaranteed; it depends upon the rainfall. For that reason, those who live in Israel depend at all times, openly and explicitly, upon the grace of God. Once again, the same principle is emphasized: Even from an agricultural perspective, Eretz Israel is "a temporary dwelling," its living conditions being dependent upon the will of God. These verses are meant to counter the very natural inclination to see our settlement in Israel as self-evident, an inclination that in certain circumstances may receive theological support, relying on the sanctity of the land and the eternal connection between it and the people. Over and over again, the Torah stresses in unequivocal manner: Our settlement in Eretz Israel is neither absolute nor unconditional; Eretz Israel is for us a "temporary dwelling."

Rashi's opening words to his commentary on the Torah are often cited in this context:

Rabbi Yitzchak said: The Torah should have commenced with (Shemot 12:1) "This month shall be unto you the first of the months," which is the first commandment given to Israel. What is the reason, then, that it commences with [the account of] creation? Because of (Tehilim 111:6): "He declared to His people the strength of His works, in order that He might give them the heritage of the nations." For should the peoples of the world say to Israel, "You are robbers, because you took by force the lands of the seven nations [of Cana'an]," Israel may reply to them, "All the earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it and gave it to whom it seemed proper in His eyes. When He willed He gave it to them, and when He willed He took it from them and gave it to us." (Rashi, Bereishit 1:1)

It is important to emphasize that Rashi is not asserting that it is God's arbitrary will that the land of Israel should always belong to the Jewish people. It is God's will that the land pass over to Israel because of "the sin of the Emorites," because the land vomits out its inhabitants, as is mentioned many times in Scripture. Therefore, Israel too, if they are not heedful of the Torah, will be spewed forth from their land. This follows from the linguistic context of the words of Rashi.

The midrash's statement that God gave the land "to whom it seemed proper in His eyes" is rooted in the book of Yirmiyahu:

I have made the earth, the man and the beast that are upon the ground, by My great power and by My outstretched arm, and have given it to whom it seemed proper in my eyes. And now have I given all these lands to the hand of Nevuchadnetzar, the king of Bavel, My servant; and the beasts of the field have I given him also to serve him. (Yirmiyahu 27:5-6)

Here, the same expression is used with respect to Nevuchadnetzar; and later in the chapter Tzidkiyahu is warned that he too must submit himself before the king of Bavel! In other words, the very formulation used by Rashi emphasizes how tenuous is our presence in Eretz Israel, and how in need it is of constant reinforcement. Eretz Israel is not our natural homeland, but rather our mission and destiny. This point is explicitly stated by Ramban, who explains the midrash cited by Rashi:

Rabbi Yitzchak then gave a reason for it. The Torah began with the chapter of "In the beginning God created" and recounted the whole subject of creation until the making of man, how He granted him dominion over the works of His hands, and that He put all things under his feet; and how the Garden of Eden, which is the choicest of places created in this world, was made the place of his abode until his sin caused his expulsion therefrom; and how the people of the generation of the flood were completely expelled from the world on account of their sin, and the only righteous one among them - he [Noach] and his sons - were saved; and how the sin of their descendants caused them to be scattered to variplaces and dispersed to different countries; and how subsequently they seized unto themselves places after their families, in their nations, as chance permitted.

If so, it is proper that when a people continues to sin it should lose its place and another people should come to inherit its land, for such has been the rule of God in the world from the beginning. This is true all the more regarding that which is related in Scripture, namely that Cana'an was cursed and sold as a servant forever. It would therefore not be proper that he inherit the choicest of places of the civilized world. Rather, the servants of God - the seed of his beloved one, Avraham - should inherit it, even as it is written: "And He gave them the lands of the nations, and they took the labor of the peoples in possession; that they might keep His statutes, and observe His laws" (Tehilim 105:44-45). That is to say, He expelled those who rebelled against Him, and settled therein those who served Him so that they know by serving Him they will inherit it, whereas if they sin against Him, the land will vomit them out, just as it vomited out the nation before them." (Ramban, commentary to Bereishit 1:1)

It is important to note that, according to Ramban, Rabbi Yitzchak means to say that the primary message of the creation saga is that man is judged according to his actions, and that when an individual or nation sins before God - they are cast out of the land. This message is directed at Eretz Israel even when its inhabitants are Jews.

This notion also comes to expression in the Torah section that is read when first-fruits are offered:

And it shall be, when you come in to the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance, and possess it and dwell therein: that you shall take of the first of all the fruit of the earth, which you shall bring of your land that the Lord your God gives you, and shall put it in a basket, and shall go to the place which the Lord your God shall choose to place His name there. And you shall go to the priest that shall be in those days, and say to him, I profess this day to the Lord your God, that I am come to the country which the Lord swore to our fathers to give us. And the priest shall take the basket out of your hand, and set it down before the altar of the Lord your God. And you shall speak and say before the Lord your God, An Aramean nomad was my father, and he went down to Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous... And the Lord brought us out of Egypt... And He brought us to this place, and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. (Devarim 26:1-9)

What nation opens the description of its connection to its land with the assertion that that the nation's founding father was an Aramean nomad, a foreign stranger?[1] This, indeed, is the essence of the passage recited when bringing first-fruits: a declaration that we are strangers in the land, and therefore what we bring to God belongs to Him, and not to us. This perception is also the basis of the laws pertaining to the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, as well as the laws of tithes: The land belongs not to us, but to God:

The land shall not be sold forever: for the land is Mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with Me. (Vayikra 25:23)

Let us conclude with the piercing words of the Shelah, Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz:

One who lives in Eretz Israel must always keep in mind the name Cana'an, which denotes servitude and submission [hakhna'a]... On the contrary, in the land which God cares for, one must be more of a servant and more submissive. As King David, may he rest in peace, says: "I am a stranger in the land." That is to say: I make myself more of a stranger in the holy land... The rule that emerges: Those who live in the land [of Israel] must live in submission, like strangers; they must not see themselves as living in a strong dwelling place. (Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz, Shenei Luchot ha-Brit, III, 11)


There is another fundamental idea regarding Eretz Israel that finds expression in Scripture. Even though God is sovereign Lord of the entire universe, Eretz Israel is His unique and outstanding portion. This idea is reiterated many times throughout Scripture. Thus, for example, the tribes who settled in western Eretz Israel said to the tribes who settled on the eastern side of the Jordan as follows:

However, if the land of your possession be unclean, then pass over to the land of the possession of the Lord, where the Lord's tabernacle dwells, and take possession among us: but rebel not against the Lord, nor rebel against us, in building an altar for yourselves besides the altar of the Lord our God. (Yehoshua 22:19)

King David expressed the same idea:

For they have driven me out this day from being joined to the inheritance of the Lord, saying, Go, serve other gods. (I Shemuel 26:19)

Modern scholars see this as a remnant of ancient idolatry which restricted the realm of each god to the borders of a particular country. Yechezkel Kaufmann dismissed their arguments:

Monotheism teaches that there is but one God in the world, creator and master of the entire universe, and therefore, of necessity, "universal" in the cosmic sense. However, monotheism is not bound in any essential way to the idea that the one God reveals Himself to all people in equal measure, or that He extends His grace to all of them in the same way...

The entire universe is divided between two domains - the land of Israel, the holy land, and the lands of the nations, the defiled land. God, the God of the universe, contracted His holy presence into the land of Israel. Outside this land - the impurity of idolatry... God rules over all the lands, He acts in Sodom, in Shin'ar, in Egypt, in Nineveh, in Tarsus, and in all places. But His cultic sanctity He gathered into one land, the place where He is to be worshipped. (Yechezkel Kaufmann, Toledot ha-Emuna ha-Yisre'elit, pp. 613-616)

Rabbi Chasdai Crescas argues that we are not dealing here with an arbitrary or even a well-considered decision on God's part to reveal His Presence in one particular country. He understands that God reveals Himself everywhere in equal measure. But because of the unique qualities of Eretz Israel, its residents are specially prepared to reveal and give expression to that providence:

As for whether there is more providence in one place than in another, many verses in the Torah indicate that there is a great difference between places... What must be explained is the reason for this difference in providence between places, if God relates to all of them in the same way. This is not difficult to explain. Even if God relates to all places in the same manner, if those over whom He extends His providence do not relate to them in the same manner, there will perforce be a difference in the providence. Since those over whom He extends His providence do not relate in the same manner to all places, this explains why in different places there will be a difference in the preparations necessary for true service, such as abstinence and seclusion. This is for heavenly and terrestrial reasons, as alluded to by the Sages that Eretz Israel is unique, to the point that they knew by tradition that prophecy rests only in Eretz Israel. (Rabbi Chasdai Crescas, Or Ha-Shem, ma'amar II, 2, chap. 6)


What is the uniqueness of Eretz Israel, and why was it chosen over all other countries? Many Jewish thinkers did not relate to this question at all. Many others, however, suggested a variety of answers.

During certain periods, rational explanations prevailed, which spoke of the climactic or other such advantages of Eretz Israel. Thus, for example, writes the author of the Keli Yakar:

And similarly, the Holy Land is home to peaceful harmony because of its combination of opposites and because it is midway between cold and heat, it being the center of the world and having the middle climate and elevation among the seven climates and elevations, as the verse states: "Beautiful in elevation, the joy of the whole earth." The mixing of cold and heat corresponds to the quality opeaceful harmony. (Ollelot Efrayim, Jerusalem, 1991, I, p. 67)

Jewish scholars of the early modern period adopted this position with certain modifications:

So too, Eretz Israel, called Cana'an from time immemorial, is distinguished in its merits and qualities over all other lands... Physical features that distinguish it from all the neighboring countries effect not only its yield and produce, but also the traits of the people living therein... The winds that blow from the mountains and the ocean blend the air, and therefore the climate of Eretz Israel is good, bringing good health to the body. (Heinrich Graetz, Sefer Divrei Yemei Yisra'el, I, p. 9)

The scholar and traveler Henry Baker Tristram emphasized that the variety in climate and terrain found in Eretz Israel allowed it to become a universal focal point:

This land, which was chosen as the place where God revealed Himself to man and the cradle of the faith that was to spread across the entire world, has two impressive qualities: First, there is nothing romantic in its terrain - nothing to shock the imagination or reinforce superstition; and second, the amazing variety of climate, terrain, and yield, from desolate wilderness in southern Judea to the forests of the Gile'ad and the Galilee; from the scorching lower Jordan valley, four hundred meters below sea level, to the almost Arctic elevations of the Hermon and Lebanon... This land, in which the date, the vine, and the oak almost touch each other - it would have been impossible to find a more fitting place to provide parables for the book which was intended to be carefully read by the peoples of the north and the south, to teach the truth to the peoples of the entire world, from the tropics to the polar regions. (H.M. Tristram, Masa Be-Eretz Yisra'el, p. 2)

There is a famous midrash that emphasizes the culture prevailing in Eretz Israel, rather than its particular geographical qualities:

When Avraham was travelling through Aram Naharayyim and Aram Nachor, he saw its inhabitants eating and drinking and reveling. "May my portion not be in this country!" he exclaimed. But when he reached the promontory of Tzor and saw them engaged in weeding and hoeing at the proper seasons, he exclaimed: "Would that my portion might be in this country!" Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to him: "Unto your seed have I given this land" (Bereishit 15:18). (Bereishit Rabba 39:8)

It would seem that this midrash does not recognize any unique qualities of Eretz Israel, other than the culture that developed there. It may be argued, however, that it is the unique qualities of Eretz Israel which led its cultural development in this direction.

Those with a mystical bent have adopted an entirely different approach. Thus, for example, writes Rabbi Moshe Alkabetz:

Just as some countries yield more agricultural produce than others, and some countries produce more silver, gold and precious stones than others, so too all types of perfection flow from this country. Therefore, it is called "the city of justice," because justice grows there, as do other types of perfection. The sanctity of the land is not like that of other lands; it also has a divine element... Those who reside in its pure air will day and night be surrounded by holy things. (Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, Brit Ha-Levi, Teshuva, Third Principle, 41)

Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Levi is one of the founding fathers of this approach. Ha-Levi understood that the uniquely miraculous qualities of Eretz Israel prepare it for the influence of divine revelation:

You will have no difficulty in perceiving that one country may have higher qualifications than others. There are places in which particular plants, metals, or animals are found... Priority belongs, in the first instance, to the people which, as stated before, constitute the essence and kernel [of the nations]. In the second instance, it would belong to the country, on account of the religious acts connected with it, which I would compare to the cultivation of the vineyard. No other place would share the distinction of the divine influence, just as no other mountain might be able to produce good wine. (Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Levi, Kuzari, II, 10-12)

A direct continuation of Ha-Levi's approach may be found in the famous words of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook:

Eretz Israel is not a superficial element, a possession external to [the essence] of the nation, merely a means to the goal of [establishing] a comprehensive union and fortifying its material, or even its spiritual, existence. Eretz Israel is an essential element connected by way of a living bond to the nation, attached through its inner qualities to its essence. (Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, Orot)

Ha-Levi and Rabbi Kook emphasize two points: 1) the mystical uniqueness of Eretz Israel; 2) the harmony it enjoys with the inner qualities of the people of Israel.

On the mystical plane, many formulations of the uniqueness of Eretz Israel have been proposed: Only Eretz Israel is watched over by God Himself and not by His angels, Eretz Israel is closely connected to the gates of Heaven, etc. Even a non-observant Jew like A.D. Gordon gave expression to this feeling:

It seems that here (i.e., in Eretz Israel), the entire essence of the divine profusion that flows from all the worlds into the soul of man, and especially into the soul of the Jew, is altogether dissimilar, entirely different from [that found] in the lands of the Diaspora. In the language of the soul - and only in the language of the soul - I would say that the essence of the infinite, the essence of truth, sanctity, beauty, might, the essence of all the spheres, is acquired here by the soul in a different manner, in a different way, and absorbed in different combinations. (A.D. Gordon, Mivchar Ketavim, p. 203)

Prof. Yehuda Elitzur developed an entirely different approach to this issue. Elitzur made an interesting proposal, connected to the issues raised above at the beginning of this lecture:

The climactic factor, that is, that Eretz Israel depends upon rainfall, is not the exclusive reason for the choice of Eretz Israel, but rather an example of the many, varied and weighty reasons. It is only because the rain factor is evident to all, so simple and obvious, that it serves as an example. Most of the people of Israel settled in the mountains of Eretz Israel and worked the land. In their eyes, the rain cycle was the clearest and most evident sign of the nature and quality of Eretz Israel, that it is the land of providence, the land which God seeks out, the land upon which His eyes rest from the beginning of the year to the end of the year. Rainfall is [merely] a sign and an example; the main thing is that it is the land of providence...

What do the prophets say? It stands to reason that they too would admit that Egypt is mighty, that the North is great in strength, and that Israel cannot control their fate. But that this constellation is successful - this they would reject. It is this land that God seeks out. God's eyes rest upon it from the beginning of the year to the end of the year. Why were you brought to this land? Because here you are dependent upon Divine providence. This is Scripture's definition, stated in the lofty and poetic style which characterizes it. Had we asked a Jew of the old style for his definition, his answer would have been: This is a land where one can only survive on miracles. (Yehuda Elitzur, Yisra'el ve-ha-Mikra, pp. 276-277)

According to Prof. Elitzur's profound words, Eretz Israel was chosen from among all countries precisely because, from all perspectives, continued existence in that country is at all times dependent upon the grace of God. Climactically, politically, economically, and security-wise - it is the feeling of insecurity and utter dependence that sets the land of Israel apart. Those who live in Eretz Israel are in greater need of Heaven's mercy than the residents of any other country.


[1] This is the plain sense of the text, which appears to be referring to Ya'akov.

(Translated by David Strauss)