When approaching a subject as vast and deep as the nature and understanding of the holiness of the land of Israel, one can only hope to open a few doors, explore momentarily a great treasure, and then take a lifetime to develop and experience what has been found. For the nature of holiness itself is innately in a state of hiddeness, as it says in the Song of Songs (4:12): “A garden locked, My sister, bride, a spring locked up, a fountain sealed.” We know of the garden, can describe it, love it, explore it, meditate on it, but still it is just beyond our reach, sealed, but just enough so as to keep our longing search “as strong as death” (Song of Songs 8:6).
The idea of calling the Land of Israel “holy” immediately brings to mind a very essential question, which in turn leads to a whole progression of other questions. Do we mean that the land becomes holy because holy people live on it, or do we mean that the people become holy by the fact of their living on the land. Once the land was given to us, does the holiness increase or decrease depending on whether we are settled on the land or in exile? Other questions follow: is the land only holy to us or to everyone? Are certain parts more holy then others and if so why? Is Israel a set land within borders or can its holiness expand to other lands? And finally a question which is essential to our whole understanding: how do we define holiness?
There is a famous story of the Rebbe from Vitebsk, who along with his Hassidim came on Aliyah in the 1700’s and settled in Tiberias and Safed. One day after living in Israel many years he called his students together and told them that they must have a great celebration. Who could argue with celebrating? So they drank and sang and danced with great fervor all night until it occurred to them that they had no idea why they were rejoicing! “Rebbe, Rebbe” they called out, “Why are we celebrating?”
“Ah, I am so glad you finally asked – let me tell you a story. When I was a young boy I longed for the Holy Land so much that each time I heard that an emissary from Israel was in Vitebsk, I would run to him and beg him to please tell me of Israel and all its holiness. Inevitably he would describe the Holy cities of Jerusalem and the Western Wall, Hebron and the cave of Machpela, Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee, Safed with its secretive back alleyways. ‘Isn’t there more, there must be more’ I would say.
“One day after asking many times one of the emissaries said to me “I can see you really long to know of the holiness of our Land. When every stone, every blade of grass sings their song to you, when you see every tree and spring as holy, when the desert and the forest whisper their secrets to you, then you will understand.” “For years after coming to Israel I have gone out in nature in order to experience what he told me, but I was never able to grasp that level of revelation. Today, after so many years of being here, I went out among the trees and the flowers and for the first time I began to hear their song, to see the holiness emanating from every rock and blade of grass, and I knew I had finally arrived in our holy land.”
King David, who was awoken every night at midnight by a north wind blowing through his harp, wrote and sang of this phenomenon many times in the Psalms. It would be very easy to delegate to allegory alone mountains skipping, forests singing, rivers clapping hands, the heavens rejoicing, animals and birds praising. What King David and the Rebbe of Vitebsk were trying to reveal was the idea of all creation being “conscious,” on some level, and that every creation has a particular “vibration” or “song” animated by the spark of G-d, a pure spark of holiness within.
This idea is developed by the ancient Midrash called Perek Shira, “Chapter of Song,” where the verse each of seventy archetypal creations sing is recorded. From inanimate to vegetable, from animal to human, all creations have their inner song, that in effect defines their very nature. This idea is very attuned to string theory, the cutting edge theory of modern physics, which describes the smallest sub atomic particles as “strings” which are vibrating. Each entity in the universe is essentially defined by its vibrational field or its “song.” Both Perek Shira and string theory are actually describing the same reality, albeit in different symbols and language. A very deep hint in Kabbalah of this revelation is found in the morning prayers, when in response to certain angels proclaiming: “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of Hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory,” other angels reply: “Blessed is the Glory of God from His place.” In Hebrew gematria, numerology, the words “Glory of God” when multiplied by each other equal (32×26=832), the words Eretz Yisrael, “Land of Israel.” This level of holiness which is manifest everywhere, is most concentrated and abundant in the Land of Israel.
From this idea we can begin to understand how Jewish law relates to the Land of Israel. For if we believe the land to be holy, this must be manifest in not just an intellectual or emotional attachment to the land, but in the very way we treat the land. Just as every seven days men and animals are given rest from their labors and a chance to rejuvenate themselves, likewise the earth is given a year’s rest every seventh year. “When you come into the land which I give you, then will the land keep a Sabbath to the Lord… for it shall be a year of rest for the Land” (Leviticus 25:2-5).
We are taught that when eating bread we should put our ten fingers on the loaf to symbolize the ten mitzvot which accompany the wheat from its seeding, through the harvesting and the making of the bread (Shulchan Orech; Orech Chaim 167:4). Certain parts of the crop grown in Israel are considered holy, as are the first fruits and the seventh year produce. The seven fruits of Israel – wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates – are held in such esteem that a special blessing is said after eating them.
The second paragraph of the Shema, which we say twice daily, can be seen to be a synthesis of the ideas we’ve mentioned so far. It states that if we love God with all our heart and all our soul, then the rain will fall in its season, giving us bountiful crops and we will increase our days and our children’s days on the earth which God promised us “like the heavens over the earth.” If on the other hand we go after other gods and serve them, then the rains will stop and eventually we will be driven out of the land into exile (Deuteronomy 11:13-21). The rain mentioned here is both physical and spiritual and its falling depends directly on our actions.
The “soul connection” between the land and the people, keep the Jewish people innately tied to the Land of Israel through countless exiles, only to return again and again. To understand in its deepest aspects how and why God chose this particular place for the Jewish people and how only in the Land of Israel can we fulfill our unique mission as a people, is to be connected to the source and mystery of all Jewish history.
When God first told Abraham to leave his home and his previous ways and beliefs and go “to the land that I will show you,” (Genesis 12:1) it is clear that Abraham was lead to a certain place already chosen for him, and not that he wandered till he chose a site and then God gave it to him. The fact that God brought him to a particular place already hints that the land possessed certain qualities and energies which G-d wanted for Abraham and the Jewish nation which would come from him.
An event in the Torah will help reveal this in a clearer manner. When Sarah, the wife of Abraham died, he sought out a place to bury her. It is described in great detail how Abraham managed to buy the Cave of Machpela in Hebron and the field around it. (Genesis 23:1-20). The place of the Cave is also referred to as Kiryat Arba, the “town of the four [couples].” Three Patriarchs and Matriarchs are buried there, and according to tradition, the fourth couple is Adam and Eve.
If we look in various Midrashim, we see that Israel was central to all the generations before Abraham. After Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden they came to Israel and lived on the same spot where the Temple would later be built (Breishit Rabbah 21:11). When Noah sent the dove from the ark in search of dry land, it brought back an olive twig from the land of Israel (Breishit Rabbah 33:9). Noah also built an alter, as did Adam on the very spot the temple would eventually be built (Breishit Rabbah 38:9). The descendents of Noah – Shem and Ever – had a school in Israel for teaching all the existing spiritual traditions (Breishit Rabbah 68:5). Malchizedek, who according to tradition was Shem, was a High Priest in Shalem (Jerusalem) at the time of Abraham (Genesis 14:18). From time immemorial Israel was like a spiritual magnet drawing people of knowledge to it.
When Abraham brought the cave he began a process which can help us answer our original question. For certainly the land already possessed great holiness long before Abraham first set eyes on it, and yet, like a “fountain sealed up,” its real spiritual depths had not even begun to be tapped. The Torah states that when Abraham took possession of the Cave of Machpela, “the field of Ephron which is Machpela, which was before Mamre, the field and the cave which was in it, and all the trees that were in the field, in the borders around it rose up…”(Genesis 23:17). This “rising up” is the key to the soul connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. For the land gives us our rightful place in which to rise up in holiness and produce physical as well as spiritual fruit, while we raise up the land through the tender love and care it needs to bring forth its holy bounty.
To take this one level deeper, the Hebrew words for human being (Adam) and earth (adamah) come from the same root. The simple reading of “dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19) means that when we die we return to the earth – but what is the significance of “dust you are?” The Torah states that man was formed from the dust of the ground and that G-d “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7). One version of the Midrash says the dust was gathered from all over the world and brought to the Temple Mount where God formed Adam (Sanhedrin 38; Rashi). The connection of the essence of earth and the body and soul of man teaches us that in general man’s relationship to the earth, and specifically, the Jewish people’s bond to the Holy Land is deeper then intellectual – it runs through our blood, it is the foundation of our bones themselves.
When Joshua divided up the land of Israel among the tribes, each family received their portion through divine prophesy, that everyone should be given the very piece of land which was connected to their soul root.
We can see from the last two thousand years that the land would simply not produce or give over its fruits to a nation other then the Jewish people. Only in the last hundred years when the Jewish people returned to the land of Israel has the land become green and fertile again. This is what it means when the Torah describes how barren the land will become when Israel is in exile “…that the whole land is brimstone and salt and burning, that it is not sown, nor bears, nor does any grass grow on it… then all the nations shall say; why has the Lord done this to the land? What means the heat of this great anger? Then men shall say, because they have forsaken the covenant of the Lord of their fathers…” (Deut. 29:22-24). When Israel is punished, so is in effect the land; when the people return, the land becomes redeemed and bursts forth again in new growth. This mystical relationship is a reflection of a similar occurrence when Adam and Eve are “cursed” for eating from the Tree of Knowledge. The Torah does not say that Adam was cursed but “cursed is the ground for your sake” (Genesis 3:17).
Directly following the above quote from Deuteronomy of the desolation which will result if we act in a certain way, and right before the description of our return from exile, the Torah sandwiches in this sentence: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God and the revealed things to us and our children forever” (Deuteronomy 29:28). The relationship between Israel and the Holy Land is wrapped in deep mystery, yet enough has been revealed to see its clear application in history.
For Israel is the allegory of an unfolding process, an enigma and a focal point in an ongoing revelation of G-d as well as man’s coming to grips with the world in which we live. As much as G-d is everywhere, at all times and in every point of creation, this all encompassing revelation is too abstract for us to see clearly. God has hidden Himself in His world so that in our search and struggle we may raise ourselves to be a worthy recipient of revelation; an “image of G-d” through our own deeds. There was one place though where God allowed this revelation to be felt and experienced in a very concentrated way, and this was in the Temple in Jerusalem, which has always been held to have a special sanctity. The site of the Temple is described in the Midrash and Kabbalah to be like a ladder or direct channel to the spiritual worlds and the Heavenly Jerusalem.
Christians and Moslems to some degree, through their own history and traditions, also recognize the special spiritual quality of Jerusalem. Our prophets emphasize that in the future Jerusalem will be the spiritual capital of the entire world and that all peoples will come to worship the One God there together. Just as the Land of Israel allows the earth and man’s soul to be connected, Jerusalem allows those two to be united directly to the upper worlds. This is why at the time of prayer we always turn toward Jerusalem, and more specifically, to imagine that we are standing before the Holy of Holies, the inner most chamber in the Temple. From this point, considered the center of the world, holiness expands outwards in concentric circles: first to the Temple, next to Jerusalem, then to the entire Land of Israel, and finally to the rest of the world.
This is of course a very general way of perceiving how holiness is determined and experienced. The term “holy” according to Jewish law is most times associated with different forms of separation, discipline and refinement. When we remove ourselves from evil, impurity, and all of the worldly energies which tend to clog up our spiritual channels and sensitivities, we then become proper vessels to receive and radiate holiness. This is one of the fundamental premises on which the mitzvot are based; to learn to separate and distinguish between good and evil, pure and impure, holy time and space and ordinary time and space. This is why Israel was given the land of Israel, like man and wife separated and sanctified to each other.
Jewish history has seen us living within constantly changing borders, at times with a Temple and Sanhedrin, at other times with just a small portion of people living in Israel, while the rest were scattered among the nations. In Jewish law, the factors of borders, the existence of the Temple and Sanhedrin, and Jews living in Israel all have direct and far reaching consequences as to which mitzvot are applicable, in which ways they are done, and the different levels of sanctity to be applied to land, time, holidays, etc. This is not the proper forum to enter into a discussion of these intricacies, for it is an enormous subject in its own right. It would suffice to say that the symbiotic relationship between the Jewish people and the land of Israel directly effects the extent of our borders and whether we merit to have a Temple and Sanhedrin in our midst, let alone to dwell in the land at all.
When reflecting once again on our original questions we can begin to see how intertwined and interdependent the answers are. Exile and redemption, the central themes of history, become greatly magnified when dealing with Jewish history. God has chosen Israel, both land and people, to be witnesses and a testing ground for God to reveal His holiness in the world and through them the ultimate purpose of creation should be unveiled and clarified.
There is a Midrash that states that after the Messiah comes, the holiness within the Holy of Holies will expand to the whole Temple, the holiness of the Temple will spread to all Jerusalem, the holiness of Jerusalem will spread out to all of Israel and the holiness of Israel will encompass the entire world (Pesikta Rabati, Shabbatv’Rosh Chodesh 2). For the ultimate purpose of separation is unity; to learn to unify all the different parts of creation in the correct manner so that true unity can be revealed. According to our tradition, the Third Temple will be called “The House of Prayer for all people” (Isaiah 56:7) and then the “knowledge of God will cover the earth like the water covers the seas.” May this come quickly in our days.