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In Honor of the State of Israel and the IDF

Jewish law defines ארץ ישראל. It is necessary to have a precise definition as many mitzvot are specifically relegated to the land. These commands are in a separate category called “mitzvot that depend on the land.” The command to give “terumah,” a special food gift to the priestly tribe, is one such mitzvah. Maimonides in his Mishnah Torah, Laws of Terumah, states, “The land of Israel is any land conquered by the king of Israel or prophet with the consent of most of the people, after they subdue all the land of Canaan.” So, for example, should that situation exist and then Israel conquers Florida, we would then be living in Israel. All the mitzvoth that apply to the land of Israel would then apply to Florida. The “kedusha” or specialness of the land of Israel would be extended there as well. Our produce (oranges, grapefruits, etc.) would be subject by Torah law to all the laws of tithing.

What, however, is ארץ ישראל philosophically? The Torah repeatedly ties the land of Israel to keeping the mitzvoth and the bounty of its produce to fulfilling the specific commands of the Sabbatical and the Jubilee years. The Torah also warns us that failure to do so results in the loss of the land of Israel. While there have always been Jewish inhabitants in the area of Israel since the time of Joshua’s initial conquest, from the year 70 until 1948 of the Common Era there was no nation or recognized land of Israel. What is the idea? Why do we need a land? Can’t we live as Jews anywhere?

The philosophic concept behind having a “land of Israel” is to be understood in the following way. It is part of a class of things called ברכות, blessings. Blessings are bestowed upon us by God to help support our earthly existence. They are provided to us to help us live the correct way of life. They are a means to help us advance, personally and collectively. The purpose of Israel is not so we have a place we control and dominate, a place where we can be president or make the laws we want to live by. Having our own land is necessary so we can spend our time and energy freely for achieving two main purposes, first study and gaining knowledge and second living a life of Torah and mitzvot. In other words, the land of Israel is a means to learning and living properly.

Another aspect to having a land of Israel relates to God’s plan for mankind. ארץ ישראל is not just for Jews; rather it is for all people so they can look at its society and emulate it. Jews being dispersed amongst other nations thwarts the recognition of that important message to others, not to mention the negative and destructive impact on Jewish life that occurs to Jews not living in their own land.

Having the land of Israel is not something we automatically get by virtue of our heritage. The land of Israel is not something we can take for granted. Having it requires not only a change in our living habits but requires self-sacrifice as well. It is not only the secular society that must adjust their attitude but the religious as well.

The current issue of conscripting religious Jews into the IDF is complex. It is wrong, however, for anyone to create the impression that Torah study qualifies as an exemption from military service. Our greatest Torah personalities, Avraham, Moshe, Joshua, King David, Bar Kochbah and others were great scholars and also military leaders. According to Torah law, certain categories of people are exempt from military participation in “optional wars,” wars undertaken, for example, just to expand Israel’s borders. The stated exemptions do not include Torah study. However in a “mandatory war,” for the very survival of the nation, the halacha, Jewish law, is very clear. “All must go out and fight even a bride and groom from their wedding chamber.” The Holocaust should remove all doubt about the necessity of a superb Jewish army, capable and ready to defend Jews anywhere.

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the IDF. All Jews secular and religious should appreciate their heroic efforts and sacrifice. They make it possible for anyone who wants to live a Torah way of life in the land of Israel. Especially the “chareidim,” who revere the holy sites and landmarks, should remember who makes it possible for them to go to these places.

As we marked Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut this week, all of us should be mindful of the words used by Maimonides concerning those who engage in military service for Israel. “Whoever fights valiantly, without fear, and is inspired by the desire to sanctify God’s name, may be assured that he will not come to harm and will meet no adversity. He will be granted a worthy family in Israel and gain everlasting merit for himself and his family. He will also merit eternal life in the world to come…”

On this 70th anniversary of the modern State of Israel, let us pray for the welfare of the IDF and recognize the holy responsibility they shoulder. May both sides, religious and secular, be motivated by the spirit of “ahavat Yisroel,” a love of Israel. Out of that love, let us search for understanding and commitment to the true purpose for having a nation of Israel that lives securely and peacefully within its own sovereign borders.

Shabbat Shalom and עם ישראל חי

Rabbi Robert Kaplan