WHAT IS THE RELIGIOUS SIGNIFICANCE OF ISRAEL?
God tells Moses: “Take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess” (Num. 33:53).
This, according to Nahmanides is the source of the command to dwell in the land of Israel and inherit it.
The centrality of the land of Israel cannot be doubted. Whatever the subplots and subsidiary themes of Tanach, its overarching narrative is the promise of and journey to the land.
Jewish history begins with Abraham and Sarah’s journey to it. The four subsequent books of the Torah, from Exodus to Deuteronomy, are taken up with the second journey in the days of Moses. Tanach, as a whole, ends with Cyrus, king of Persia granting permission to Jews, exiled in Babylon, to return to their land – the third great journey (II Chr. 36:23).
The paradox of Jewish history is that although being promised and chasing a specific territory, the holy land, Jews have spent more time in exile than in Israel. More time longing for it than dwelling in it. More time travelling than arriving.
Hence the tension. On the one hand, monotheism must understand God as non-territorial. The God of everywhere can be found anywhere. He is not confined to this person, or that place – as pagans believed. He exercises His power even in Egypt. He sends a prophet, Jonah, to Nineveh in Assyria. He is with another Prophet, Ezekiel, in Babylon. There is no place in the universe where He is not.
On the other hand, it must be impossible to live fully as a Jew outside Israel, for if not, Jews would not have been commanded to go there initially or to return subsequently.
Why is God beyond a place to be found specifically in this place?
The Sages formulated the tension in two striking propositions. On the one hand, “Wherever the Israelites went into exile, the Divine Presence was exiled with them.” On the other, “One who leaves Israel to live elsewhere is as if he had no God”.
Can one find God, serve God, experience God, outside the Holy Land?
Yes and no. If the answer were only yes, there would be no incentive to return. If the answer were only no, there would be no reason for the Jewish to stay in exile. On this tension, the Jewish existence is built.
What then is special about Israel?
Different environments have different ecologies. Just as there are some countries, climates, and soils particularly suited to growing vines, there is a country, Israel, particularly suited to growing Prophets – indeed a whole Divinely-inspired people.
“No other place shares the distinction of the divine influence, just as no other mountain produces such good wine.”
Nahmanides gives a different explanation:
“God created everything and placed the power over the ones below in the ones above and placed over every people in their lands according to their nations a star and a specific constellation…. But the land of Israel, in the middle of the inhabited earth, is the inheritance of God…. He has set us apart from all the nations over whom He has appointed princes and other celestial powers, by giving us the land [of Israel] so that He, blessed be He, will be our God and we will be dedicated to His name.” (Commentary to Lev. 18:25)
Though every land and nation is under the overarching sovereignty of God, only Israel is directly so.
But why Israel, specifically?
Because it is and has always been, a key strategic location where three continents – Europe, Africa, and Asia – meet. Lacking the extended flat and fertile space of the Nile Delta or the Tigris-Euphrates valley (or today, the oil fields of Arabia), it could never be the base of an empire, but because of its location, it was always sought after by empires. So it was politically vulnerable.
It was and is ecologically vulnerable, because its water resources are dependent on rain, and rains in the region are always unpredictable (hence the frequent famines mentioned in Genesis).
Its existence could never, therefore, be taken for granted. Time and again its people, surviving challenges, would experience this as a miracle.
Small geographically and demographically, it would depend on outstanding achievement – political, military, and economic – on the part of its people. This would depend, in turn, on their morale and sense of mission. Thus the Prophets knew, naturally as well as supernaturally, that without social justice and a sense of divine vocation, the nation would eventually fall and suffer exile again.
These are, as it were, the empirical foundations of the mysticism of Halevi and Nahmanides. Their thoughts are as true today, as they were in ancient times. There is a directness, a naturalness, of the Jewish experience in Israel that can be found nowhere else. History tells us that the project of constructing a society under divine sovereignty in a vulnerable land is the highest of high-risk strategies. Yet, across forty centuries, Jews knew that the risk was worth taking.
For only in Israel is God so close that you can feel Him in the Sun and wind, sense Him just beyond the hills, hear Him in the inflexions of everyday speech, breathe His presence in the early morning air and live, dangerously but confidently, under the shadow of His wings.