Even the soil of Israel must keep the Sabbath

This week’s Torah portion is Parshat Behar-Bechukotai, Leviticus 25:1-27:34.

“I am the Lord your God who brought you forth from the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan to be your God.” (Leviticus 25:38)

Citing the verse above from this week’s Torah reading, our Sages make the striking declaration that only one who lives in the land of Israel has a God, while one living outside the land of Israel is comparable to someone without a God [Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 110b].

Rashi, in his commentary, offers a slightly different formulation: “Whoever lives in the Land of Israel, I am God to him; whoever goes out of Israel is as one who serves idols.” Here, too, the text equates the exile (or Diaspora) with idolatry, but the transgression of idolatry is specifically assigned to someone who lived in Israel and left.

Do people outside of Israel not also believe in God? Is God only to be found in Israel?

Rabbi Yaakov Yehoshua Falk, best known by the name of his talmudic commentary Penei Yehoshua, suggests that the Israel is qualitatively different from any other land in the world in that what happens to the Jewish people within it is a direct result of divine activity and intervention.

Rabbi Yitzhak Arama, in his biblical commentary Akedat Yitzhak, sees in the Sabbatical-Jubilee cycle an allegory to ultimate world redemption: Six years of work and one year of rest are intended to invoke the messianic era that will begin at the end of the sixth millennium. At that time, 1,000 years of the Sabbath, or the messianic millennium, will commence.

These unique years, as well as ultimate salvation, are inextricably bound up with the land of Israel,
I would like to add a more prosaic view to these fascinating interpretations. The biblical phrase, “a Sabbath unto God” with regard to the Sabbatical year summarizes exactly how our land is different from all other lands: Jews in all lands are commanded to keep the Sabbath, but Israel is only one place in the world where even the land must keep the Sabbath (six years of work and one of rest).

The significance of the land keeping the Sabbath is that in the essence of Israel’s soil lies an expression of the divine will. God becomes intimately involved in the soil of the land of Israel, something which does not happen anywhere else.

I would also suggest that every other country in the world distinguishes the religious from the civic, the ritual from the cultural. Only in Israel can the Jew lead a life not of synthesis but of wholeness, not as a Jew at home and a cultural, national gentleman in the marketplace, but as an indivisible child of God and descendant of Abraham and Sarah. Here we have a unique opportunity to express our spiritual ideals in Mahane Yehuda as well as in the synagogue.

This sets the stage for a most profound vision of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years: When the values of the Torah permeate both sacred and mundane, then all forms of slavery can be obliterated, financial hardships resolved and familial homesteads restored. Only in Israel do we have the potential to fully experience God both in the ritual and in the social, political and economic aspects of our lives. Only in Israel do we have the potential of taking our every step in the presence of God. n

Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.

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