The classical commentator Rashi gives this verse a most practical explanation, “only if you drive out the inhabitants will there be room enough for you to live in this land.”
Our great legalist-philosopher Rambam (Maimonides) adjures us to love the land and live in it (Laws of Kings 5:10-12), he nevertheless does not count dwelling in Israel as one of his 613 commandments.
It is the Ramban (Nahmanides, 13th-century, Spain) who derives from this verse the command upon every Jew in every generation to live in Israel. He even goes one step further, saying that the fulfillment of commandments outside of Israel is only in order that we not forget how to perform them when we are forced to live in exile. The true fulfillment of the mitzva can only be experienced in the Land of Israel.
Why should the commandments be so “land” oriented? Why is Judaism not a religion akin to Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, disconnected from any specific piece of territory, connecting us to heaven and God-in-heaven rather than to real estate on earth? Why do we have to be a nationality? Is it not significant enough, or even more significant, to be a religion? And why was our very first covenant with God, Abraham’s Covenant between the Pieces (Genesis 15), a national covenant tied to the borders of the Land of Israel, whereas our religious covenant at Sinai, the 613 Commandments, only the second covenant which came later, after we had already emerged from Egypt as a free nation? And while I am in an “asking” mode, why does the commandment to live in the Land of Israel come at the end of a catalogue of journeys, the Hebrew wanderings in the desert, “And they traveled from this place and they encamped in that place”? If indeed their final destination is to be the Land of Canaan, then the finale of this 40-year long travelogue should be, “And they journeyed from the Jordan, until the plains of Shittim in the plains of Moab, and they encamped in the Land of Canaan,” the Land of Canaan being their final destination; that should have been chapter 33 verse 50, following which would then come the command of God that they drive out the inhabitants and destroy all objects of idolatry. Had that been the text, the Land of Canaan would clearly be listed as the final and ultimate destination of the people of Israel! I would submit that a religion, in modern parlance, is a set of rituals which bind the individual (re-ligare – to bind or to tie) to God, which enable the individual to escape, even to transcend, the physical world to soar aloft with the Divine into sacred celestial spheres. Familial ties, ethnic history, are totally superfluous; spirituality is separation from the physical world.
Nationality, on the other hand, is very much rooted in familial origins (a nation is a family writ large; the Hebrew nation developed from the first Hebrew family), shared experiences, and special days connected to places, events, foods and collective memories. The goal of our Jewish nation is not to escape this world for the transcendent world of the Divine, but rather for us to perfect the world and to perfect humanity so that we may bring the Divine into this physical world and sanctify it: “They shall make for me a Sanctuary so that I [God] may live in their midst” (Exodus 25:8).
Nationality therefore includes historic peoplehood, their artistic expressions and their literary creations, their morals, their ethics and their sense of national purpose.
Since our national purpose has been biblically defined as bringing the blessing of compassionate righteousness and moral justice to all the families of the earth (Genesis 18:18-19), since we are charged with being a kingdom of priest-teachers (to all humanity) and a holy nation, we cannot influence other nations unless we prove ourselves to be a successful and even powerful nation, dealing with the same issues of proper forms of government, poverty and illness, minorities and their rights, peace and ethics of warfare.
Hence, the Land of Israel is not merely our final destination after thousands of years of wandering; the Land of Israel is the structure of our existential life as a nation, the form which hopefully expresses the soul-content of our being, the Torah which must inform every aspect of our civilization, encompassing every possible human concern, and extending its light to all the families of the earth.
That is why the biblical command to live in Israel uses the Hebrew word “ve’horashtem,” and “you shall bequeath” (give over as an inheritance, a heritage) the land (from generation to generation) “and dwell in it” (root letters: vrsh, yrsh). The term morasha, a heritage or bequest (rather than a yerusha, an inheritance) is only used with reference to Torah – “the law that Moses gave us, a heritage of the assembly of Jacob” (Deut.
33:4, morasha Kehilat Ya’acov) and with reference to the Land of Israel; “And I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. I will give it to you as a heritage. I am the Lord” (Exodus 6:8). Both of these are expressions of the people of Israel and the Shechina which dwells within. Both are given by God as sacred trusts which every Jewish generation must give over to the following generation.
The Land of Israel is not only our destination; the Land of Israel is our destiny hopefully expressing the reason for our national being.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone colleges and graduate programs, currently celebrating their 30th anniversary, and chief rabbi of Efrat. The fifth volume of his acclaimed Torah Lights series of parsha commentary was recently published by Koren Publishers.