By Rabbi Yair Spitz
If Only My Nation Were With Me in Israel – Even if They Defile it
(ילקוט שמעוני רמז תתרל”ח)
Years ago, a colleague of mine shared with me a strange question he was asked by congregants of his. A long standing, observant couple, were contemplating Aliya to Israel. They shared with him that if indeed they were to move to Israel they planed on significantly reducing their level of religious observance. Their rational being, that when in Chutz La’aretz, they felt the only way to keep their children Jewish was by supplying them with an observant lifestyle but that in Israel they could be Jewish even without doing so. They asked the rabbi what he felt was better for them to do – remain in Chutz La’aretz as part of the insular Jewish community, maintaining their religious lifestyle, or, making Aliya with the full intent of forsaking much of their observance. Their question could almost be phrased as: “is it better to be an observant Jew outside of Israel or a non observant Jew in Israel?” Though one could cast serious doubts on this specific couple – is their current observance of a religious nature at all? What does it mean that they will ‘reduce their religious observance’? etc… – one could still find merit in the question. More refinely put, it could be phrased in the following way – ‘what value is there to living in Israel regardless of religious observance compared to living outside Israel?’ In the following pages I will attempt to answer this question.
The Gemara in Masechet Ktubot 110b states:
Our Rabbis taught: One should always live in the Land of Israel, even in a town most of whose inhabitants are idolaters, but let no one live outside the Land, even in a town most of whose inhabitants are Israelites; for whoever lives in the Land of Israel may be considered to have a God, but whoever lives outside the Land may be regarded as one who has no God. For it is said in Scripture, “To give you the Land of Canaan, to be your God”. Has he, then, who does not live in the Land, no God? But to tell you, that whoever lives outside the Land may be regarded as one who worships idols. Similarly it was said in Scripture in David: “For they have driven me out this day that I should not cleave to the inheritance of the Lord, saying: Go, serve other gods”. Now, whoever said to David, ‘Serve other gods’? Rather to tell you that whoever lives outside the Land may be regarded as one who worships idols.
Though one could easily regard this Gemara as an Agadeta praising Yishuv Eretz Yisrael, holding no practical-normative value, we find that Rambam brings it as an actual Halacha. In Hilchot Melachim 5:12 he writes:
At all times, a person should dwell in Eretz Yisrael even in a city whose population is primarily gentile, rather than dwell in the Diaspora, even in a city whose population is primarily Jewish.
This applies because whoever leaves Eretz Yisrael for the Diaspora is considered as if he worships idols as I Samuel 26:19 states ‘They have driven me out today from dwelling in the heritage of God, saying ‘Go, serve other gods.’ Similarly, Ezekiel’s (13:9) prophecies of retribution state: ‘They shall not come to the land of Israel.’
The fact that Rambam rulled according to this Gemara (albeit with certain interesting changes) is especially difficult, considering what he writes in several places regarding the prohibition to live amongst gentiles and Resha’im due to their inevitable influence:
It is nature for a man’s character and actions to be influenced by his friends and associates and for him to follow the local norms of behavior. Therefore, he should associate with the righteous and be constantly in the company of the wise, so as to learn from their deeds. Conversely, he should keep away from the wicked who walk in darkness, so as not to learn from their deeds…
A person who lives in a place where the norms of behavior are evil and the inhabitants do not follow the straight path should move to a place where the people are righteous and follow the ways of the good. (De’ot 6:1)
Similarly, he writes in Igeret Hashmad:
if the place was of the gentiles, a Jew who remains there must – even more so – leave that place and go to a place of good and attempt to do even if it means putting himself in peril, until he is saved from the place of evil where he cannot properly uphold his faith and should go until he reaches a place of good. And it has already been explained by the prophets that anyone who dwells among the heretics is like them. Samuel 1, 26, 19 “they have driven me out today from dwelling in the heritage of God, saying ‘Go, serve other gods’”. We see that his dwelling among the gentiles is likened to worshiping foreign Gods. And this is if he isn’t being coerced by the heretics to do as they do, that a person needs to leave from among them.
The Rambam’s base assumption is that people are deeply influenced by their social surroundings. Among these influences he mentions ‘friends’, ‘associates’ but also ‘local norms’ referring to a wider societal circle which a person is subject to without choice. Rambam states that this influence is part of human nature to such a degree that the only way to escape them is to do just that – physically escape them to a place of positive influences. If so, how could Rambam Pasken in Melachim 5:12 that it is preferable to live in Israel among a majority of idle worshipers (negative influence) than among a majority of Jews (positive influence) outside of Israel?
In addition, when looking more carefully at the Gmara in Ktubot and the Rambam we find the question to be even greater; who are they referring to in each side of the equation? If the man dwelling outside of Israel is not observant, then, of course ‘he is like someone who does not have a God’! and if the man dwelling in Israel is observant, obviously ‘he is like someone who does have a God’!
Rather, the only way the רבותא of the Gemara and Rambam make sense is to say that they are talking about an opposite scenario; the man living in Israel is behaving like someone who does not have a God but is still considered someone who does and vise-a-versa; the man living outside of Israel acts like someone who does have a God but even so is considered as someone who does not.
What could account for these seemingly “upside down” statements – that regardless of the inevitable influences one would be subject to and regardless of one’s actions, it is preferable – and of greater value – to live in The Land of Israel?
In an attempt to understand this, we must first understand some aspects of the value of building Eretz Yisrael as well as the importance of those who dwell there.
In Sanhedrin 102b it is said:
R. Johanan said: Why did Omri merit sovereignty? Because he added a region to Eretz Yisrael, as it is written, And he bought the hill Samaria of Shemer for two talents of silver, and built on the hill, and called the name of the city which he built, after the name of Shemer, owner of the hill Samaria.
Even though the city was filled with idle worship (as stated in the following verses), the mere building of a city in Eretz Yisrael is of great merit, rewarding Omri with sovereignty for many years. The Yalkut Shimoni adds that this merit extended to three of his offspring who succeeded him as king, as well. This point is even more poignant when we consider how Omri is described immediately following the establishment of Shomron: “And Omri did what was bad in the eyes of the Lord, and he was more wicked than all those that preceded him. He went in all the ways of Yarovam, the son of Navat, and in his sin, that he caused Israel to sin, to anger Hashem, the God of Israel with their false gods”.
In reference to this Gemara, the Em Habanim Smecha states:
It is clear that Omri fulfilled the positive commandment of settling Eretz Yisrael. After all, if he did not fulfill a Mitzvah there would be no reward (p. 83 in the English edition)
And after continuing to discuss the case of Omri he applies it to our times as well:
The simple Jew who builds the land without any spiritual intent (kavanah), merely for his own benefit, accomplishes a greater rectification (tikkun) in the supernal worlds than the greatest Tzadik with his tearful and lamenting midnight prayers (tikun chatzot) recited for the sake of the Shechinah and the end of exile. The later certainly accomplishes a great rectification yet it cannot compare to the rectification caused by the simple Jew who physically builds the Land even if he has no Godly intent”. (p. 84)
The question now becomes, how can it be that building a city in Israel, as in Omri’s case, or settling the land, per the example of Eim Habanim Smeicha, can offset the fact they are not Shomrei Mitzvot, possibly even Resha’im?
The beginning of an answer can be found in the Gemara in Horayot 3a:
R. Assi said: In [the case of an erroneous] ruling [of a court] the majority of the inhabitants of the Land of Israel are to be taken into account, for it is said, “So Solomon held the feast at that time, and all Israel with him, a great congregation, from the entrance of Hamath unto the Brook of Egypt, before Hashem our God, seven days and seven days, even fourteen days”. Now, consider, it is written, ‘and all Israel with him a great congregation’ what need was there for ‘from the entrance of Hamath unto the Brook of Egypt’? From this it may be inferred that only these are included in the ‘congregation’ but those (that dwell outside the land) – are not
The Gemara is saying something that at first glance could be very troubling – only those who live in Israel are considered קהל ישראל ‘congregation of Israel’, whereas those who dwell outside of Israel – are not. This concept holds practical Halachic ramifications; whether the Sanhedrin needs to bring a sacrifice due to a mistaken ruling based on which a majority of the Jewish people erred; only those living in Israel are taken into account for the sake of determining said majority. The actions of Jews outside of Israel have no bearing on the matter. Their actions don’t seem to matter (at least for the purposes of this issue). Rambam, in Hilchot Shgagot 12:1, rules this Gemara as Halacha, explicitly stating that we only take into account those who “are in the Land of Israel”.
Rambam applies this concept in Hilchot Brachot as well:
The following should be recited when one sees 600,000 people at one time. If they are gentiles, he should recite the verse (Jeremiah 50:12): “Your mother shall be greatly ashamed; she that bore you will be disgraced. Behold, the ultimate fate of the gentiles will be an arid wilderness and a desolate land.” If they are Jews and in Eretz Yisrael, he should recite the blessing: Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, the Wise [who knows] secrets. (Brachot 10:11)
Interestingly, the Gemara itself does not condition the blessing over seeing 600,000 Jews on them being in Israel. Rambam does. The Kesef Mishne addresses this difference and tries to explain why the Rambam added this condition:
And what our rabbi wrote ‘and in the Land of Israel’… possibly the reason of our rabbi was from what Ulah said (in Brachot 58) that “there is no congregation in Bavel”, meaning that even though one sees 600,000 they don’t count as a congregation for the sake of reciting a blessing upon them.
The Kesef Mishne carries on, questioning this possibility but concludes that indeed the Rambam holds there is no congregation outside of Israel.
An explanation to why it is that only in Israel Jews are considered to be a קהל, can be found in the Avnei Nezer
Regarding the value of Eretz Israel over those who dwell in Chutz La’aretz the Maharal wrote (Netivot Olam, Netiv Hatzdaka, 6) about the ערבות (co-dependency) established when they first came to the land because the land makes its dwellers as one man. Being the unique and designated land for Israel, the land forms them into one, therefore, when they crossed the Jordon they becameערב (co-dependent) to each other.
And look carefully at his words there. This was hinted to in the Gemara in Horayot as well, that ‘in instruction go according to the majority of the dwellers of Eretz Yisrael… those are called a congregation but the others-are not’.
It is clear from his words that the foundation of the case we are discussing relates to the categorization of a ציבור (collective); that when Bnei Yisrael are in Eretz Yisrael they are called a ציבור(collective). As a result of the holiness of the land Bnei Yisrael unite as one, which is not the case when they are outside the land they are categorized as individuals, even when they are a majority of the people, as they are just a collection of individuals”. (Orach Chaim 314)
The Avnei Nezer emphasizes the distinction between a collection of individual Jews vs. a collective of Jews. They are not the same thing.
This is similar to the difference between having 9 Jews in a room vs. having 10 Jews in a room. The difference between the groups isn’t just that one group has one more Jew. They are different entities. One is a ‘Minyan’ while the other is just a bunch of Jews standing next to each other. The Avnei Nezer makes clear what creates a Jewish collective – Land of Israel. Based on this idea we can now better understand the sources emphasizing the value of living in Israel and building Israel, regardless of ones level of observance, or despite them. Which is greater – the Tfila of a Tzadik praying on his own with the greatest devotion and deepest Kavanah, or, a simpleton participating in a Minyan? If we compare their individual thoughts and Kavanah, obviously, the Tzadik’s Tfila is better and more significant. But, the Tfila of the individual will never be more than the sum of their thoughts and emotions at that given moment. As such, it will always be but a shadow of the true purpose of Tfila – the connection between the Jewish People as a whole and Hashem (“תפילות כנגד קרבנות תקנום”, “Sacrifices were instituted to replace the communal sacrifices”). A person participating in a Minyan, on the other hand, is part of a collective. He is a member of Tfila Betzibur (communal davenning). Regardless of what his individual thoughts and feelings are, he is part of a collective Tfila which serves as a fulfilment of the core purpose of Tfila. That is the difference between being an individual and being a collective.
Similarly, when a person settles Israel, participates in building it, strengthens it, they are building the collective entity called ‘The Jewish People’. An observant Jew outside of Israel – is not. He fulfills his personal religious obligations but does not affect the Jewish People as a whole. The value of strengthening the Jewish collective, by anyone, be they observant or not, is far greater than any private Mitzvah done by an individual. And a life of Torah and Mitzvot outside of Israel is always individual. (The value of completing a Minyan, thus allowing Tfila Be’Tzibur to take place, is far greater than the greatest Tfila of the individual Davenning alone).
A strengthening to this point can be found at the end of Rambam’s Iggeret Hashmad:
If a person remains in a place he sees that the Torah will cease and as the years go by the species will be lost and that he cannot sustain his faith and says ‘I will remain here until Mashiach comes and then I will leave’, this is nothing but evilness of heart and great destruction and a nullification of the faith and wisdom.
Rambam adds one more element to the equation. The consideration needs to include not only our evaluation of the ‘here and now’, rather, a broader outlook of the Jewish People over generations. The Land of Israel is the framework for the manifestation and expression of The Jewish People as a collective. In Israel, Torah, Judaism and the Jewish People will be sustained and multiplied. Outside of Israel on the other hand, Torah, Judaism and the Jewish People are destined to wither and die. A person who settles the land and even more so, someone actively participating in building it, is not judged (only) according to his private actions, rather, based on the communal, collective aspect of his actions.
Rav Kook clarifies these points further in his explanation of the Halachot of Bracha precedence regarding the seven species of fruits of Israel. Based on the verse in Devarim, “A land of wheat and barley, vines and figs and pomegranates, a land of oil producing olives and honey”, Halacha states that proximity to the word “land” is the deciding factor to precedence of the Brachot. Halacha also states, though, that the fruits closer to the second mention of the word “land” take precedence over the species which are further away from the first mention of the word “land’. (E.g – olives have precedence over grapes, as olives appear closer to the second “land” than grapes do to the first). Rav Kook explains this in the following way:
We learn from here how great the level is of one who desires to settle the holy land, even if for the material purpose of the collective. This is due to the fact that with regard to the collective all physical things are transformed into spiritual ones and the ultimate goal will indeed be achieved by connecting God’s people to God’s land. Therefore, one who has greater affinity to the holy land even on its lower level, should be strengthened, supported and given preference of blessing than one who is later and distant (from the connection to the holy land), even if in their heart they are on a higher level. The practical love and settling of the Land of Israel is a lofty thing as the sages said regarding Omri who merited kingship due to adding a city in the Land of Israel, even though his intention was certainly a material one. From this we need to learn that we must strengthen the physical faculties of the nation as a collective and from this will also come strength to its spiritual faculties as well. (Olat Re’aya p. 303)
Rav Kook’s final sentence completes the circle. The true answer to the questioning couple is – ‘it is not better to be observant in Chutz La’aretz or to be non observant in Israel. It is better to be observant in Israel’. But, if one hasn’t yet reached that ideal stage, it is more important and valuable to build The Jewish People in Israel, thus enabling the complete ideal to form – Am Yisrael in the Land of Israel according to Torat Yisrael. Go to Israel. The rest will come…