As Alan Dershowitz writes in the introduction to his book “What Israel Means to Me”:
It’s a tiny country, barely the size of New Jersey. It’s population of six million Jews ranks it among the least populated member states of the United Nations. Yet, with the possible exception of the United States… the Jewish nation of Israel provokes more passion, receives more media coverage and engenders more criticism than any other country in the world today. It is fair to say that few people are neutral about Israel.”
So what is it about this tiny country that sets it apart from the rest of the world? Why do we care so much about the Land of Israel and what makes it so special?
Today many people dispute the legitimacy of the Land of Israel belonging to the Jewish people. Thankfully, the Torah records quite clear borders, instructed to the Jewish people in Parashah Masei thousands of years ago: G-d spoke to Moses, saying: “Command the Children of Israel and say to them, ‘When you arrive in the land of Canaan, this is the land that shall fall to you as an inheritance, the land of Canaan according to its borders. Your southernmost corner shall be from the desert of Zin along Edom, and the southern border shall be from the edge of the Sea of Salt (Dead Sea) to the east…The border then continues down along the Jordan, and its end is the Sea of Salt (the Dead Sea); this shall be your land according to its borders around.” (Bamidbar 34:1-13)
The reason these borders are recorded in the Torah is for legal purposes. There are many mitzvot that can only be performed in Eretz Yisrael. From the 613 mitzvot, 343, which mostly deal with Temple and agricultural laws, cannot be fulfilled outside the Land of Israel.
This helps us understand what is so special about our Holy land. The Torah makes the specialness of Israel even more relevant to us by making it clear that it provides for us a greater opportunity to serve H”S.
Many of our blessings and prayers are full of our yearning for the Land. In the Amidah prayer for example it says: “Raise a banner to gather our exiles, and bring us together from the four corners of the earth into our Land. Blessed are You, L-rd, who gathers the dispersed of His people, Israel…” And every year we end the Pesach Seder and Yom Kippur services with the words: “Leshanah Habaah B’ Yerushalayim/ Next Year in Jerusalem!” Until this very day, people kiss the earth when they land in Israel, and we are buried too with some of Jerusalem’s earth.
A person doesn’t need to be religious to feel this love, it is something that is in our DNA. So what is it that gives us such a feeling of ownership and belonging. History can be a great reason and international recognition too, but there is something more than that. As for the historical claim to the land it is true that Jews have lived in Israel for a long time, but they have also lived outside of Israel for a long time. Jews have lived for thousands of years in other places and this doesn’t give them the right to demand that a certain place is theirs. As for international recognition, especially in this days this is an even shakier argument. The Israeli Declaration of Independence states: “This recognition by the UN of the right of the Jewish people to establish their state is irrevocable.” But what would happen if the UN would revoke its acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state?
Turns out, the only true and dependable claim we have to Eretz Yisrael is simply that G-d gave it to us. When H”S established his covenant with our forefather Abraham, He promised that the Land of Israel would belong to his children: “On that day, G-d formed a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your seed I have given this land, from the river of Egypt until the great river, the Euphrates river.’” (Bereshit 15:18)
At the beginning of the book of Genesis it says: “In the beginning of G-d’s creation of the heavens and the earth…” Rashi comments on this: “Why did the Torah begin with “In the beginning” rather than “This month is to you,” which is the first commandment the Israelites were commanded? Why then did it start with the story of creation? Because “the strength of His works He related to His people, to give them the inheritance of the Nations.” (Tehillim 111:6) For if the nations of the world should say to Israel: “You are robbers, for you conquered by force the lands of the seven nations of Canaan,” they will reply, “The entire earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it and gave it to whoever He deemed proper. When He wished, He gave it to them, and when He wished, He took it away from then and gave it to us.”
The magnitude of what Rashi is saying is humongous. The entire book of Bereshit and the beginning of the book of Shemot exists only for us to assert our legitimacy of ownership in the eyes of the nations and for ourselves to be reminded of what it means the Land of Israel to us and our responsibility towards it.
Now that there is no undeniable proof against our case, lets understand what makes the Land so special. Let’s go back to Abraham: “And G-d said to Abraham, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Rabbi Berachia said, “What did Abraham resemble? A bottle of perfume closed with a tight-fitting lid, lying in a corner so that its fragrant smell could not spread. When it was moved, however, its fragrance was spread. Similarly, G-d said to Abraham, ‘Travel from place to place, and your name will become great in the world.’”
Abraham’s mission was to spread the sweet perfume of G-dliness throughout the world. The reason that G-d sent Abraham to the land of Canaan and away from the land of Charan, was that the Land of Canaan or Israel as we know it today, is the place that G-d chose to be the launching pad of holiness for the whole world.
Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, in the Kuzari (holy and pure book that contains the basics of Jewish faith from 1140) echoes this theme by saying: “This Land of Israel was appointed and designated to teach the proper way of behavior to the entire world.”
Now that we understand the importance and precious mission of the Holy Land, the remaining question is: “Why this land? What makes this tiny country the epicenter of the world? And why is it relevant to everyone? Couldn’t all this be accomplished anywhere else? The world is so vast and big and there are places that are so empty, so what is the fight all about?
The Rebbe Lubavitch explains: “G-d did not choose the Land of Israel because of the holiness in it, on the contrary- the holiness comes as a result of G-d’s choice. G-d’s decision to choose the Land of Israel is an example of “bechira atzmit”- an uncompelled choice made of G-d’s own pure power of free will- and this is why the Land of Israel is the heritage of G-d.” (Likutei Sichot 18,p.409)
A good analogy to explain this concept could be: No two people are exactly the same. This fact is easy to prove. G-d made everyone different, each person has unique qualities, purpose, and mission that make them special and distinct. The same could be said about time. No day is exactly like another, each day has its own energy and purpose. Shabbat feels different from a weekday. Pesach feels different from Shabbat and even from other holidays. Someone with spiritual sensitivity can distinguish one weekday from the next, and definitely there is something different about Mondays. We could also analyze this concept regarding space as well. Every country has its own character, foods, customs, and lifestyle. And the country that was chosen as the environment in which the Jewish mission can be fulfilled is Eretz Israel.
In contrast with the land of Egypt, in which the land is irrigated by the Nile river, in Israel one must look up to Heaven and pray for rain in order to get our sustenance. In Egypt G-d established the natural order so the people felt they didn’t need to depend on Him for their sustenance, this lured them into believing: “My strength and the might of my hand has accumulated this wealth for me.” (Devarim 8:17) But in Israel one must remember H”S every second of the day to be able to survive as the next verse states: “For you must remember the L-rd, your G-d, for it is He that gives you strength to acquire wealth.”
We must always remind ourselves that Israel is much more than a land where we can be safe with our own military, or some sort of economic miracle to be proud of. Most importantly, Israel is a place where the presence of G-d is more palpable, Divine intervention is mostly felt all the time. Israel is the place in which a Jew can realize his or her connection to G-d. Israel represents the fusion of spirit and matter, which is the goal of our existence. When we keep the spirit of Israel in our minds, we can bring that fusion wherever we are and by this we can permeate the whole world with the sanctity of the Holy Land, ultimately bringing Mashiach.
Excerpts taken from “Torah Studies” by JLI Teachers Manual