Yaakov plans to return to Eretz Yisrael…
Question #1: This Land is My Land!
How do we take possession of Eretz Yisrael?
Question #2: This Land is Your Land
How do you make Eretz Yisrael into “your” land?
Question #3: From California
How far west does Eretz Yisrael extend?
In honor of a parsha in which Yaakov must leave Eretz Yisrael, with assurances that future generations will return, it behooves us to emphasize some of the special qualities for which Eretz Yisrael is so famous. Let us begin by mentioning some of the many pronouncements of Chazal regarding the uniqueness of Eretz Yisrael:
“Eretz Yisrael was created first, before any other part of the world” (Ta’anis 10b). “Hashem Himself waters Eretz Yisrael directly” (Ta’anis 10b). The Gemara teaches that there was no mabul in Eretz Yisrael (Zevachim 113a). It also states that Eretz Yisrael lacks nothing (Berachos 36b; Yoma 81b; Sukkah 35a).
The centrality of Eretz Yisrael to all our prayers is expressed in the halacha, based on Shelomoh Hamelech’s tefillah when he dedicated the Beis Hamikdash (Melachim 1:8:48; Divrei Hayamim 2:6:38), that we face Eretz Yisrael when we pray (Berachos 30a).
Then there are the many halachic unique qualities to Eretz Yisrael. As we know, most agricultural mitzvos, including bikkurim, terumos, ma’asros, leket, shikcha, peah, peret, oleilus and shevi’is apply only in Eretz Yisrael, and most of the laws of kelayim, orlah, and revai’i apply min haTorah only in Eretz Yisrael.
The Gemara (Sotah 14a) asks: Why did Moshe desire so much to enter Eretz Yisrael? Was it because he wanted to enjoy its fruits? The Gemara answers that he wanted to fulfill the mitzvos that can be observed only in Eretz Yisrael!
There are mitzvos that are not agricultural that can be observed only in Eretz Yisrael. For example, the mitzvah of challah applies min haTorah only to dough kneaded in Eretz Yisrael.
A much more basic mitzvah is the requirement every month to establish and declare which day is rosh chodesh — kiddush hachodesh — and to determine each year whether it should be a leap year containing thirteen months — ibur shanah — or a common year containing only twelve months, which requires the decision of a special beis din that meets in Eretz Yisrael (Berachos 63a). Thus, the creation of all our Yomim Tovim is dependent on the sanctity of Eretz Yisrael. (Hillel Hanasi introduced the use of our current calendar, which is based completely on calculation and not on observation. He realized that there would no longer be a beis din in Eretz Yisrael able to fulfill this mitzvah, and, therefore, it was required and necessary to implement a backup calendar with all the decisions predetermined and automatic.)
This land is my land!
An even greater emphasis on the primacy of Eretz Yisrael in keeping all the mitzvos can be noted in the following comments of the Sifrei, Rashi and the Ramban. To quote the Sifrei (Parshas Eikev #43), “Although I am exiling you, you will still be noticeably different because you perform mitzvos. This way, when you return to Eretz Yisrael, keeping mitzvos will not be a novel experience for you. We can compare this to a king who became angry at his wife and sent her back to her father’s house. Yet, at the same time, he instructed her, ‘Remember to wear your royal jewelry, so that upon your return, you will not find it foreign to dress like a queen.’ So, too, the Holy One, Blessed is He, said to Yisrael: ‘My sons, always be distinguished by doing mitzvos so that, when you return, they will not be unfamiliar to you.’” Even non-agricultural mitzvos, such as mezuzah and tefillin, apply in chutz la’aretz in order to keep us in the habit of observing mitzvos (Rashi, Devarim 11:18). From this Sifrei, we see that the primary place for observing all mitzvos, even the non-agricultural ones, is in Eretz Yisrael (Ramban, Vayikra 18:25; see also Ramban, Devarim 11:18).
One of the blessings of Eretz Yisrael is that its air makes one wise (Bava Basra 158b). The Gemara states that ten units of wisdom arrived in the world and Eretz Yisrael took nine of them (Kiddushin 49b).
Eretz Yisrael is compared to a deer or an antelope. Aside from their natural grace and beauty, these gorgeous creations of Hashem possess a hide that stretches to cover all their innards. When the animal is skinned, its hide shrinks, such that it is hard to imagine how it possibly was sufficient to enclose the animal. Similarly, Eretz Yisrael, which is called eretz tzvi, “the beautiful land,” appears too small to provide residence and sustenance for all its inhabitants, yet it “stretches” to make available everything that all its residents need (Kesubos 112a; Gittin 57a).
How can we demonstrate our love for Eretz Yisrael? The Gemara reports that Rabbi Yosi bar Chanina kissed the gate of Akko, which was the halachic border of Eretz Yisrael in his day (Yerushalmi, Shevi’is 4:7).
This land is your land
How do you make Eretz Yisrael into “your” land?
The Gemara (Berachos 5a) teaches that “three wonderful gifts, olam haba, Eretz Yisrael and Torah, were granted to the Jewish people, but each can be acquired only through difficulties (yissurin).” As anyone who moves to Eretz Yisrael will attest, aliyah never happens without serious hitches. Growth in Torah learning requires much sacrifice, as does achieving the rewards awaiting us in olam haba. All these require major personal investment. But, to the extent that one endures difficulty, he internalizes “possession” of them. Thus, it is impossible to take possession of olam haba, Eretz Yisrael or Torah without encountering and surmounting obstacles on the way.
Taking these ideas further is a statement (Pesachim 113a) that someone who dwells in Eretz Yisrael inherits olam haba. Even more is conveyed by a different passage of Gemara (Kesubos 111a), that someone who walks just four amos in Eretz Yisrael is guaranteed olam haba!
The midrash teaches that five things are more cherished by Hashem than the worlds of heaven and earth that He created. One of these five things is Jews settling in Eretz Yisrael.
The Gemara also states that the shuls andthe batei midrash of chutz la’aretz will be transported to Eretz Yisrael (Megillah 29a).
How far west does Eretz Yisrael extend?
Eretz Yisrael does not stretch as far west as California. Let us briefly discuss the westernmost parts of Eretz Yisrael, as described by various pesukim in Tanach. Every mention of the borders of Eretz Yisrael defines its western border simply as the “Yam Hagadol,” the “Great Sea.” (Although there are seas larger than the Mediterranean, it is called the “Great Sea” because of its relationship to Eretz Yisrael. In other words, it is considered “great” not because of its own qualities — it is “great” because anything associated with Eretz Yisrael is great!)
What about islands in the Mediterranean? Are they part of Eretz Yisrael?
This question is the subject of a dispute among tanna’im. According to Rabbi Yehudah, bodies of land due west of Eretz Yisrael are part of Eretz Yisrael. However, accepted halacha follows the opinion of the chachamim who draw an imaginary line from the northwestern corner of Eretz Yisrael to its southwestern border, Nachal Mitzrayim and include in Eretz Yisrael only islands in that easternmost part of the Mediterranean (Gittin 8a).
Where will I find the northwestern corner of Eretz Yisrael on my map of the Middle East?
From the redwood forest
North of the land that most people identify with Eretz Yisrael are the famous cedars of Lebanon. However, most opinions consider the Promised Land to include current day Lebanon, or at least significant areas of it, as part of Eretz Yisrael. In the various Biblical descriptions of the borders of the Holy Land, we can observe that one location in the north, Har Hahor, figures prominently. First, I must note that the mountain called Har Hahor where Aharon was buried is a different place from the northern boundary marker of Eretz Yisrael. The reason why two different mountains would both be called Har Hahor is because the term means simply “the mountain of the mountain,” what Rashi describes as “an apple situated on top of another apple” — a mountain with a higher vertical rising peak on top. Thus, Har Hahor is as much a description as a name, and refers both to Aharon’s burial place, a mountain outside the southern or southeastern boundary of Eretz Yisrael, and to any one of the many choices suggested for Israel’s northwestern border, where the northern border reaches the sea.
I am aware of at least six different mountains identified as the Har Hahor of the northwestern-most point of Eretz Yisrael. All are mountains located on the eastern Mediterranean coast, all are north of what is today’s modern State of Israel, and each has this feature of a mountain with a mountainous peak rising on top. In other words, all opinions agree that true Eretz Yisrael spreads north of the borders of the current state. Opinions as to how far north will indeed be ultimately “ours” range from Lebanon, all the way up to Turkey. In other words, the consensus is that there are coastal areas north of Rosh Hanikra that are properly part of Eretz Yisrael, yet it is uncertain how far north.
To the Gulf Stream waters
Thus far we have discussed the western and northern borders of Eretz Yisrael; now we will discuss the southern border. In Parshas Mas’ei (Bamidbar 34), the Torah defines the easternmost point of the southern border of Eretz Yisrael to be the Dead Sea (Bamidbar 34:3), and its westernmost point to be Nachal Mitzrayim, the Stream of Egypt. We should first note that Avraham Avinu was promised from “Nahar” Mitzrayim, the River of Egypt, whereas in Parshas Mas’ei, we are promised from the Stream of Egypt. Are these the same body of water? Indeed, Targum Yerushalmi explains both terms as referring to the Nile. Others do not. If so, what was Avraham promised, and why did we not receive it?
The Malbim (commentary to Bamidbar 34:2) explains that the borders promised at the end of Parshas Eikev (Devarim 11:24) reflect a promise for the future, when the Jewish people will acquire much more territory than what was possessed in the days of Yehoshua.
According to this approach, no part of Egypt is yet part of Eretz Yisrael. Similarly, others contend that the Stream of Egypt is the Wadi El Arish in the northeastern part of the Sinai Desert, whereas the River of Egypt is the Nile. According to this approach, Avraham Avinu was promised that, one day, his descendants would have much more extensive holdings to the south and southwest than they have ever controlled in history, even after Ariel Sharon crossed the Suez Canal and captured the Egyptian Third Army to end the Yom Kippur War. (The Gulf of Suez and the Suez Canal both lie east of the Nile and the area in between is the breadbasket and cotton growing area of Egypt.) Avraham Avinu was promised the land of ten nations, including Keini, Kenizi and Kadmoni, which Rashi (Bereishis 15:19) equates with Edom, Moav and Amon, but these are not the borders of Benei Yisrael’s territory when we entered the land in the days of Yehoshua. Until the era of moshiach, Klal Yisrael received the land of only seven of those ten nations, the rest going to other family members of Avraham Avinu, including the descendants of Amon and Moav, Avraham’s grandnieces, and of Eisav.
This land was made for you and me!
The Ramban (Devarim 11:24) explains the verses at the end of Parshas Eikev differently, understanding that those borders describe the area that we are commanded to conquer. This is consistent with his opinion that one of the taryag mitzvos requires that we conquer Eretz Yisrael, a topic in which both Rashi and the Rambam appear to disagree with him, and which we will leave for a different time.
I roamed and rambled
On the other hand, some major commentaries interpret the Stream of Egypt of Parshas Mas’ei to be the Nile, not the Wadi el Arish, making the Eretz Yisrael promised to Yehoshua far more expansive in the south and southwest. Since much of Cairo is on the eastern bank of the Nile, this approach considers that part of Cairo to be located in Eretz Yisrael!
I’ve followed my footsteps
Thus far, we have noted that the western border of Eretz Yisrael is the Mediterranean Sea. The middle of Eretz Yisrael originally had a very narrow “waist,” bound on its east by the Jordan River. The lands to the east of the Jordan were chutz la’aretz.
The sparkling sands
How did Transjordan, the land to the eastern part of the Jordan River, become part of Eretz Yisrael?
The answer is that the Benei Yisrael did not have a mitzvah to conquer Transjordan. Klal Yisrael requested permission to travel through the lands of Sichon in order to enter the Holy Land from the east. Sichon came to attack the Benei Yisrael, and, in this battle, Sichon, Og and their entire armies were eliminated. As spoils of war, everything they owned, including their extensive holdings east of the Jordan River, became the property of Benei Yisrael and, henceforth, all the laws of Eretz Yisrael apply. But only because Sichon and Og attacked the Jewish people and not because of any divine promise.
That golden valley
This background introduces a new question: When Dovid Hamelech conquered what the Gemara calls “Suria,” a huge tract of land east and north of the Jordan, the Mishnah and Gemara rule that it did not have the status of Eretz Yisrael because of a principle the Gemara calls: kibush yachid lav shemei kibush, literally, “the conquest of an individual is not considered a conquest.” But why not? What is the difference between Moshe Rabbeinu’s capture of Transjordan from Sichon and Og, which is now part of Eretz Yisrael, and Dovid Hamelech’s capture of Suria, which remains outside Eretz Yisrael? Was Dovid Hamelech’s conquest inferior to that of Moshe Rabbeinu?
Responding to this question created much literature among the rishonim. Among the approaches we find:
1. Dovid Hamelech conquered Suria to be a personal possession and did not involve the entire nation of Yisrael in its conquest (Rashi, Gittin 8b s. v. kivush).
2. The Rambam seems to hold a very similar approach, that conquered land becoming part of Eretz Yisrael is dependent on the involvement of most of the Jewish people, or acting as agency for the Jewish people (Hilchos Terumos 1:2).
3. At the time that Dovid Hamelech conquered Suria, the Benei Yisrael had as yet not taken possession of all of the land that they were supposed to acquire. Once the lands that the Jews were commanded in Parshas Mas’ei have been conquered, any land additionally conquered will have the halacha of Eretz Yisrael, but not land conquered earlier (Tosafos, Gittin 8a s. v. kivush).
Her diamond deserts
Although we have just demonstrated that the lands of Transjordan became endowed with the sanctity of Eretz Yisrael, and that, therefore, virtually all the laws of Eretz Yisrael apply to them, they still are not fully considered the Holy Land. For example, the midrash criticizes the tribes of Gad and Reuvein for prioritizing wrongly when they asked to receive their inherited lands in Transjordan. To quote the midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah, Parshas Matos 22, 7), which compares them to Korach and Haman (!?), “Similarly, we find that the Benei Gad and the Benei Reuven, who were wealthy and owned large herds, cherished their wealth and therefore elected to dwell outside Eretz Yisrael. As a result, they were the first of all the tribes to be exiled, as we are taught (Divrei Hayamim I, Chapter 5).
The wheat fields waving
Of course, we all know that Eretz Yisrael is famous for its seven special fruits — wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates — and the unique mitzvah, bikkurim, which is performed only with these seven fruits. I know that someone is going to criticize my calling wheat and barley “fruits,” since you will not find them in the produce department of your local supermarket. However, wheat and barley kernels are indeed “fruits,” and this is why the Mishnah frequently refers to them as peiros. We all commemorate this mitzvah annually at the Pesach Seder, when we read the story beginning with the words “Arami oveid avi,” which is part of the recital made by the pilgrim bringing his bikkurim to the Beis Hamikdash.
A voice was sounding
We are meant to be “a light onto the nations,” which charges us with the responsibility to act in a manner that we create a kiddush Hashem. This means we are to live as a nation in Eretz Yisrael following the mitzvos of the Torah that Hashem commanded us individually and nationally, and that only Hashem could have commanded!
The Beis Hamikdash represents our relationship to Eretz Yisrael as being completely dependent on the Torah; this is why the bikkurim must be brought to the Beis Hamikdash and placed alongside the mizbei’ach. Our acquisition of Eretz Yisrael is only for the purpose of observing the Torah.