Centrality of Israel

May 9, 2009

18 min read


Why is Israel so important to Judaism, and why does the world pay it such an extraordinary amount of attention?

Excerpt from "Gateway to Judaism" -- The What, How, and Why of Jewish Life (ArtScroll)

The first commandment God ever gave to the first Jew in history was to go to the Land of Israel. The Torah relates that God spoke to Abraham, and said:

Go [for your benefit], from your land, from your relatives and from your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation; I will bless you, and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. (Genesis 12:1-2)

Abraham, his wife Sarah, their extended family and their retinue1 all came to Israel, then known as Canaan. They traveled throughout the land, engaged in commerce and, of course, in spreading the idea of monotheism.2 God promised Abraham that although his descendants would go into exile and be enslaved, ultimately He would free them, bring them back to Israel and make Israel the eternal homeland of the Jewish people.3

All the Patriarchs, Matriarchs and the Children of Jacob (the Twelve Tribes) lived in and were buried in Israel. Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Rebecca, Isaac and Leah were all buried in Hebron, in the cave purchased by Abraham. Rachel was buried on the road to Bethlehem4 and even Joseph (who died in Egypt) was buried in the city of Shechem (Nablus).5 Joseph had specifically ordered that the Jews should take his remains with them at the time of the Exodus and bury him in Israel. 6

Following Joshua's conquest of Israel, the Jews lived there as an independent commonwealth (and later under a monarchy) for 800 years. Judges ruled the people for almost 400 years until the coronation of the first king, Saul. Saul was succeeded by King David, who was followed by his son, Solomon. King Solomon built the First Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel.7 This Temple stood for 410 years until it was destroyed by the Babylonians, who conquered Israel and exiled the Jews to Babylon (modern-day Iraq).

Although the Jewish people were in exile they did not forget the Land of Israel. After 70 years in Babylon, the prophets Ezra8 and Nehemiah9 led many of the exiles back to Israel where they built the Second Temple. The Jewish Commonwealth was renewed and the Temple services were once again performed in Jerusalem. The Jews lived in Israel from the time of their return until the Roman destruction of the Temple and subsequent exile in about 70 C.E.

The era of the Second Temple, which lasted approximately 420 years, was a time of great upheaval. The Jewish state experienced invasion by the Greek Seleucids, which led to the Maccabean revolt in 165 B.C.E. (the Chanukah story). Later came the Roman occupation, the despotic rule of Herod and the Jewish revolts against Roman rule that ultimately ended in the disastrous events of 70 C.E.

We Shall Not Be Moved

Despite all the invasions, exiles and hardship, two Jewish states existed in Israel during this time, the first lasting for 840 years, the second for 420 years. Even during the long exile that followed the Roman destruction of the Temple, a continuous Jewish presence (albeit, sometimes quite small) was maintained in the Land of Israel. The land was invaded by Arabs, Crusaders, Saracens, Mongols, Mamluks, Ottoman Turks and the British Empire, but through it all Jews not only remained, but produced monumental works of learning and liturgy. Rabbi Judah the Prince, for example, wrote the Mishnah in the north of Israel in 200 C.E.; and the Jerusalem Talmud was edited there in 350 C.E.

Throughout the centuries, Jews undertook the dangerous journey to Israel from other lands.

Throughout the centuries, Jews undertook the dangerous journey to Israel from other lands. The great scholar Nachmanides came from Spain and established a synagogue in Jerusalem in the 13th century. In the 16th century, Rabbi Yosef Karo wrote the Code of Jewish Law in the city of Tzfat; and the song Lechah Dodi (in the Friday night service) was composed and first sung there by Rabbi Shlomoh Alkabetz, student of the great Kabbalist of Safed, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (known by the acronym AriZal).

In the 19th century, during the Ottoman rule, groups of Chassidim came to Israel on the instruction of their leaders in Europe. The famous Lithuanian rabbi known as the Gaon of Vilna sent many students to settle in Israel. In the late 19th century, the Zionist movement brought thousands of people to Israel to establish agricultural settlements and industry there. The attachment of the Jews to their land throughout 1,900 years of exile culminated in the establishment of the modern State of Israel in 1948, now home to more than 5 million Jews from all over the world.

Jews of the 21st century take for granted the presence of Jewish communities in Israel. From a historical point of view, however, the return of a people to their Land after nineteen centuries of exile (in the case of some, 2,500 years of exile10) the establishment of an independent Jewish state and the ingathering of Jews from virtually every country in the world are miraculous and unprecedented events in world history.

The building in which I lived in Jerusalem represents a microcosm of the "ingathering of the exiles" that has taken place. Although it contains only fifteen apartments, at one point, the countries of origin of the inhabitants of our building included Australia, Canada, France, Gibraltar, Greece, Morocco, South Africa, the United Kingdom, the USA and Israel!

Land of the Spirit

It is not only the historical attachment of the people of Israel to the Land of Israel that makes it special, but its intrinsic, spiritual qualities as well. Most of the prophets either lived in Israel or prophesied about it.11 In Jewish philosophy, prophecy is considered to be a "product" of the Land of Israel.12 Based on the principle that the structure and nature of the physical world reflects the underlying spiritual nature of reality, Rabbi Yehudah Halevy explains that the spiritual capacity to produce prophecy is similar to the physical capacity to grow crops.

Israel has the capacity to cultivate spirituality more than any other place in the world.

Different regions have the capacity to grow certain crops better than other places -- Idaho potatoes, French grapes and the rubber trees of India are some examples. So too, different areas have different spiritual influences and potentials. Israel has the capacity to cultivate prophecy, connection to God and intense spirituality more than any other place in the world.13 It is not a coincidence that many religions feel a special connection to Israel,14 that the bulk of the Bible was written in Israel and that the Psalms, which form the basis of prayer for literally hundreds of millions of people around the world, were written in Israel.

Of the 613 commandments of the Bible, 343 are directly dependent on the Land of Israel -- that is, fully 56 percent of Jewish law is, in some way, contingent upon being in Israel.15 Even those commandments that are not directly dependent upon the Land will have a different and deeper spiritual dimension when performed in Israel.16 Maimonides maintains that if, in theory, a time ever came when no Jews at all lived in the Land of Israel, the entire Jewish calendar would lose its validity, and we would not be able to observe any of the festivals.17

The Model State

The Land of Israel is also central to Judaism because it is the best vehicle for demonstrating Jewish values and ethics in practice. Israel is supposed to be the place to which the people of the world look for guidance in moral behavior.18 The tremendous media scrutiny of Israel and the extraordinary amount of attention paid to this tiny country in the Middle East may well be due to the fact that, deep down, people expect something more of Israel and the Jews. There is a sense that the State of Israel should have higher standards than its neighbors and the rest of the world -- and indeed it should. This idea is beautifully expressed in the following verses in the Book of Isaiah (2:3):

And many nations will go and say, "Let us go and ascend to the mountain of God, to the Temple of the God of Jacob; and we will be instructed in His ways, and we will walk in His paths"; for from Zion shall come forth the Torah, and the word of God from Jerusalem.

The Jewish ideal is not withdrawal from the physical world in an attempt to become an angel.19 On the contrary, we want to be involved in many different facets of the world and apply the moral and spiritual guidance of the Torah to every aspect of life. This is one of the reasons that the Twelve Tribes of Israel were so diverse in their characters. They represented a microcosm of all humanity and demonstrated that it was possible for anyone to be a righteous person. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch discusses the reason for this diversity within the Jewish people:

The Jewish nation is to represent agriculture as well as commerce, militarism as well as culture and learning. The Jewish people will be a nation of farmers, a nation of businessmen, a nation of soldiers and a nation of science. Thereby, as a model nation, to establish the truth that the one great personal and national task which God revealed in His Torah is not dependent on any particular kind of talent or character trait, but that the whole of humanity in all its shades of diversity can equally find its calling in one common spiritual and moral mission and outlook in life.20

There is no better way to teach people how to live than by personal example.21 If a person is successful in all spheres of life while remaining moral and good, others will be more inclined to imitate him than if he were a moral, noble pauper.22 Although the modern State of Israel is far from perfect (as virtually every Israeli will be happy to tell you for hours on end), there are still ways in which it can teach the world Jewish ideals by example.

During one stint on reserve duty in the Israeli army, I noticed an amazing picture on the cover of an army magazine.23 A senior member of the Argentinean military had come to visit Israel and was meeting with Ehud Barak, then Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces. The Argentinean was covered with medals, braid, campaign ribbons and badges from head to foot -- there was not an inch that did not brilliantly reflect the camera's flash. Barak, on the other hand, was wearing a simple khaki uniform with paratrooper wings and a few stars on his shoulder boards to indicate his rank. Now, consider the fact that Barak was the most highly decorated soldier of a very successful army, while the Argentineans had recently lost the Falkland Islands!

This photo was a demonstration of the Jewish abhorrence for war and violence that still prevails in Israel, even though we have fought and won so many wars. The glorification of military prowess that exists in some countries is thankfully absent in Israel. The contrast between Barak's modest attire and his counterpart's shining armor painted a striking picture of their opposing values.

I had been 'held hostage' for prayers!

Jewish values and priorities come to the fore even in the most mundane situations. Permit me a personal recollection of one of my favorites: During my first week in Israel in 1978, I went to a bank in the Meah Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem at about noon. The bank was scheduled to close at 12:30 p.m. and I expected to perform a minor transaction and leave. After waiting in line for about 20 minutes and listening to the teller argue with his wife on the phone for another eight minutes, I was finally able to complete my business. As I walked to the exit, the security guard rushed over and locked the door before I could get out. I asked him, very politely, to open the door, but he gestured for me to wait. I pointed out to him (a little less politely this time) that I had come in for a two-minute transaction that ended up taking half an hour!

Now that I had finally finished, how dare he actually imprison me in the bank against my will? He yawned and again gestured for me to wait. Just then, one of the tellers stood up and announced, "Minchah!" (afternoon service). I did a quick count and realized that together with myself, the security guard and the tellers we had exactly the 10 men required for a minyan (quorum for prayer). I realized then that I was being "held hostage" for prayers! Only in Israel!

The Shechinah Is Here

The Hebrew word Shechinah means "Divine Presence." Although in reality, God permeates all of time and space equally,24 we are not able to perceive His presence equally in all times and all places.25 Venice Beach, California (as a purely random example) is a place where the Divine Presence is well concealed, and Super Bowl Sunday is a time when the Divine Presence is difficult to perceive.

There are moments when God allows us more of a glimpse of the Divine Presence -- at sunset toward the end of Yom Kippur, for instance.26 There are also places where God allows us a greater degree of perception, such as in the Land of Israel. The Torah calls Jerusalem the "Gates of Heaven27 and our Sages point out that even after the destruction of the Temple, the Divine Presence has never left the Western Wall.28

Tens of thousands of Jews from all over the world, representing every level of religiosity, ignorant and learned, Zionist and non-Zionist, visit the Western Wall every year. The Western Wall (Hakotel Hama'aravi or, simply, the Kotel) is the westernmost retaining wall of the Temple Mount, and dates from the Second Temple era. (In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the English began referring to the Western Wall as the Wailing Wall, based on the old Arabic name for it, El Mabka, the place of weeping. Jews, however, have always referred to the wall as the Western Wall, preferring to relate it to the Holy Temple.29)

Many Jews who visit have no knowledge of the Temple at all; many know little or nothing about Judaism or Jewish history. And yet, the Western Wall draws them like a magnet and often elicits from them deep spiritual feelings. For many people, a single visit to the Western Wall has changed their lives by prompting them to investigate their Jewish roots. We believe that much of this remarkable energy is due to the fact that "the Shechinah never left the Western Wall."

Once on a trip outside of Israel with my two oldest sons, we had a long stopover in Athens. I decided to take the boys to see the Acropolis, one of the most famous and magnificent archaeological sites in the world. On top of the Acropolis, a hill overlooking Athens, stands the remains of the Parthenon -- a massive pagan temple dedicated to the Greek goddess, Athena. I asked my children to compare the Parthenon with the Western Wall. They pointed out that the Parthenon is made of white marble, while the Kotel is made of limestone; the Parthenon is supported by scaffolding and the Kotel stands unassisted. The Kotel has hyssop growing out of it, while the Parthenon is quite bare of vegetation.

Hey, no one is praying at the Parthenon!

The most astute observation made, however, was, "Hey! No one is davening (praying) at the Parthenon!" My children saw through the pomp and grandeur of the Parthenon. They saw that the Parthenon and what it represented is dead and long gone, while Judaism and the Divine Presence that can be felt at the Kotel are living entities. Many tourists visit the Parthenon, but very few, if any, find the same inspiration and feeling of connection that is regularly experienced at the Western Wall.

In 1967, toward the end of the Six Day War, when the Kotel returned to Jewish hands after 1,900 years, there was an unprecedented outpouring of emotion from all Israelis.30 Although rarely articulated publicly, there is a widespread recognition that the Kotel is more than just a place -- it is a portal to a spiritual dimension and an opportunity to connect with God.

Jerusalem: Palace of the King

The Jewish people have a special relationship with the entire Land of Israel, but our bond specifically with the city of Jerusalem is as deep as the bond between mother and child. Jerusalem is first mentioned as the city of Malchizedek, the grandson of Shem, a monotheistic priest who greeted Abraham with bread and wine.31 It was to the mountain at the center of the city, Mt. Moriah, that Abraham later came for the binding of Isaac.32 The city was originally called Shalem, which means "whole" or "peaceful" but Abraham renamed it "Yireh," "God will see." God combined these two names and called the city "Yerushalayim," Jerusalem.33

The geography of Jerusalem precisely reflects the role that the city is meant to play.

The Bible relates that when Jacob fled Israel to escape his murderous brother Esau, he went to sleep on Mt. Moriah the night before leaving the Land. There he dreamed of a ladder that extended from the earth to the heavens.34 The ladder symbolized the future role of Jerusalem as the site of the Holy Temple which joined together heaven and earth.

Jerusalem was the capital during both the First and Second Jewish Commonwealths. It was chosen to be the capital by King David with the assistance of Samuel the prophet,35 and King Solomon built the Temple there.36 The Sanhedrin, the supreme court of Israel, had its seat in Jerusalem,37 and Jews from all over Israel and the Diaspora would come to them for guidance. Today, Jerusalem is the capital of the State of Israel.

It is fascinating to note how the geography of Jerusalem precisely reflects the role that the city is meant to play. Jerusalem is situated near the trade routes connecting Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. It is in proximity to, but not part of, the great civilizations of Egypt, Babylon, Greece, Phoenicia, Rome, Persia, Arabia and Assyria. Jerusalem is located on a mountain, because it is meant to be a beacon, but it is also surrounded by mountains,38 as if to show that it must remain somewhat isolated39 and insulated from foreign influences. Jerusalem is meant to be a place where people absorb spirituality, learn morality and find a connection to the Divine. Many empires have conquered Jerusalem, many pilgrims have passed through it and Jerusalem has left an imprint on them all.

Excerpt from "Gateway to Judaism" -- The What, How, and Why of Jewish Life (ArtScroll)

  1. Genesis 12:5, Rashi ad loc.
  2. Ibid. 12:8, Nachmanides ad loc.; ibid., 21:33, Rashi, ad loc.
  3. Ibid. Chap. 15.
  4. Genesis 35:19.
  5. Ibid. 23:19, 25:9, 35:19, 35:29, 50:13; Joshua 24:32.
  6. Genesis 50:24-26.
  7. I Kings 6:1. The Temple was completed by King Solomon 480 years after the Exodus.
  8. Ezra, Chap. 1.
  9. Nehemiah, Chap. 2.
  10. The Jewish community of Iraq, for example, has been in existence since the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians.
  11. Rabbi Yehudah Halevy, Sefer Hakuzari, (also known simply as Kuzari) Israel, 1979. 2:14, 4:3.
  12. Nachmanides, Commentary on Deut. 18:15.
  13. Sefer Hakuzari, 2:8-14. See also Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, Michtav M'Eliyahu, III, pp. 193-196.
  14. Christianity, Islam, Bahai; Kuzari, 4:11.
  15. Calculation of Rabbi Yishayahu Halevi Horowitz, Shnei Luchot Habrit, Heichal Hasefer, Bnei Brak. Notes to Introduction of Torah Shebichtav. In exile, we are obligated to 270 commandments, hinted at in Song of Songs 5:2, "I was asleep [but] my heart was awake." The numerical value of the Hebrew word for "awake" is 270. See also Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, Pachad Yitzchak, Rosh Hashanah 4.
  16. Nachmanides, Commentary on Leviticus 18:25; Deut. 11:18.
  17. Maimonides, Book of the Commandments, Positive Commandment 153.
  18. Kuzari, 2:16.
  19. Rabbi Moshe Sofer, Teshuvot Chatam Sofer, Mekor Press, Jerusalem, 1970. Introduction to Responsa on Yoreh Deah, Pituchei Chotam.
  20. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Commentary on Genesis 48:3-4. See also Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, Responsa Seridei Aish Vol. 4, p. 365; Shem MiShmuel, Parshat Balak.
  21. Otzar Midrashim, Tzedakot 3 - Gadol shimushah yoter milimudah.
  22. Nachmanides, Commentary on Genesis 25:34.
  23. Bamachaneh (In the Camp).
  24. Zohar, Raya Meheimnah 3:225a; Rabbi Chaim Volozhin, Nefesh Hachaim, Sha'ar 3, Chap. 4.
  25. Ibid. Sha'ar 3, Chaps. 5-6.
  26. Talmud - Yoma 87b.
  27. Genesis 28:17. See also Shnei Luchot Habrit, Notes to Tractate Tamid, Ner Mitzvah 13, First Note; Teshuvot Chatam Sofer, Responsa Yoreh Deah, 233.
  28. Midrash Shmot Rabbah, 2:2; Midrash Tanchuma, Shmot 10; Midrash Tehillim 11:3.
  29. Hillel Halkin, "Philologos" column from The Forward, January 12, 2001.
  30. Noted in a speech by Yitzchak Rabin at Hebrew University on receiving an honorary doctorate. See also Follow Me, a video of the Six Day War, filmed by Israeli combat photographers, produced by The Jerusalem Post.
  31. Genesis 14:18.
  32. Ibid., Chap. 22.
  33. Pesikta DeRav Kahana, Vayera 22:14.
  34. Genesis 28:11, Rashi ad loc.
  35. Zevachim 54b.
  36. I Kings, 6:14.
  37. Talmud - Yoma 19a.
  38. Psalms 125:2.
  39. Tosafot Bava Kama 82a "ve'eina"; Tosafot Bava Batra 23b "beyoshevet."
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