Parshat Behar: The true master of Israel

"That which groweth of itself of thy harvest thou shalt not reap, and the grapes of thy undressed vine thou shalt not gather; it shall be a year of solemn rest for the land" (Leviticus 25:5)

May 13, 2011 16:11
4 minute read.
Grape vines

Grape vines 521. (photo credit: Israel Weiss ([email protected]) http://artfram)

‘For the Land shall not be sold in perpetuity, because the Land belongs to Me: You are strangers and residents upon it together with Me’ (Leviticus 25:23)

The Zohar teaches that the nation Israel, the Torah, and the Holy One, Blessed be He, are one: This suggests that God may be experienced through those phenomena which are also perceived to be eternal; hence, since the covenantal nation Israel is eternal (by divine oath, Genesis 15) and since the Torah is eternal, Israel, Torah and God are inextricably linked by virtue of their common eternity.

The Land of Israel shares in this eternity. The Earth’s perennial cycles of birth, growth, decay, death and rebirth express a re-generation and renaissance which informs the very nature of the most primitive forms of life. There are intimations of immortality in the Earth’s movement from life to life: Fruit falls from a tree when it no longer requires the physical sustenance provided by the branch, and the tree regenerates its fruit once spring returns. Trees shed their leaves and fruits onto the earth, and once they decompose and merge with the soil, that very soil provides the nutrients for the tree to continue to bear fruit in the future; plants leave their seeds in the ground, which continue to sprout after the “mother” herb has been eaten. And so the cycle of life, decay, death and rebirth is grounded in the eternal, infinite and natural dimension of the planet. In the words of the wisest of men: “One generation passes away and another generation arrives, but the Earth abides forever” (Ecclesiastes 1:3).

In a more national sense, it is the biblical tradition to bury our dead, specifically in the Land of Israel. The biblical idiom for death is: “And he is gathered to his nation, or his family,” for if one is buried in one’s homeland, one’s physical remains merge with the physical remains of one’s family, of those who came and died before, as well as of those who will follow.

Furthermore, the Land of Israel is invested with a special metaphysical quality inextricably linked to Knesset Yisrael, historic Israel. The first Hebrew, Abraham, entered into the Covenant between the Pieces: the divine mission of a nation founded on the principle of freedom for every individual – in the city of Hebron, and according to prophecy, God’s promise of world peace and messianic redemption will be realized in the city of Jerusalem. The Cave of the Patriarchs (Cave of the Couples) – Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah – was the first acquisition of land in Israel by a Jew – an earthly resting place for the founders of our faith, but which at the same time is the womb of a future informed by the ideas and ideals of our ancestors: “Grandchildren are the crowning glory of the aged; parents are the pride of their children” (Proverbs 17:6).

It is for this reason that the Talmud maintains that only in Israel is there a true and authentic “community” (kehilla – B.T. Horayot 3) – for only in Israel do we see the footprints of historic Israel, the sweep of the generations, the “common unity” of tradition from Abraham to the Messiah. Israel formed, prophesied and taught its eternal traditions, and continues to live out its universal destiny within the Land of Israel.

Moreover, the eternal Torah is rooted in the very earth, stones and vegetation of the Land. This is true not only in terms of the biblical promise which guarantees our constant relationship with and eventual return to Israel; it is also true because of the myriad of mitzvot (commandments) embedded in its bedrock, its soil and its agricultural produce. The seventh Sabbatical year provides free fruits and vegetables for anyone who wishes to take them; the corners of every field actually “belong” to the poor every day of the year, and they may come and reap; tithes from the Land’s produce immediately go to the kohen/priest-teachers, the Levite cantors and the poor. The Land of Israel itself cries out to its inhabitants in the name of God: “for the land shall not be sold in perpetuity because the land belongs to Me. You are strangers and residents [on the land together with Me]” (Leviticus 25:23) Hence God Himself, as it were, becomes inextricably linked – even “incorporated” or “in-corporeal-ized,” if you will – within the peoplehood, the Land and the Torah of Israel – the very objects and subjects which express God’s will eternally, and out of which our essence and destiny are formed.

Indeed, historic Israel, the Land of Israel, the Torah of Israel and the Holy One, Blessed be He, God of Israel and the universe are truly united in an eternal bond.

The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.

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