The Good Life in the Diaspora

And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and with your descendants after you, for their generations, as an eternal covenant – to be a L-rd to you and to your descendants after you.  And I will give to you and to your descendants after you the entire Land of Cana’an as a permanent possession.  And I will be to them as a L-rd.  (Sefer Beresheit 17:7-8)

Hashem will be our L-rd

In Parshat Lech Lecha, Hashem communicates to Avraham the commandment of milah – circumcision.  The passages above precede His presentation of the commandment.  In these passages, Hashem tells Avraham that He is entering into a covenant with him and his descendants.  Hashem will be their L-rd.  Generally, this promise is interpreted as describing a special relationship and closeness between Hashem and the Jewish people.[1]

Avraham is promised of the Land of Israel

Hashem tells Avraham that He will also give to him and his descendants the Land of Cana’an as their permanent possession.  Then, Hashem repeats that He will be the L-rd of the Jewish nation.   The commentators note an obvious problem.  In these two passages Hashem twice states that He will be the L-rd of the Jewish people.  First, He announces His covenant with the Jewish people.  This covenant is that He will be their L-rd.  Then, after promising Avraham that his descendants will possess the Land of Cana’an, He repeats that He will be their L-rd.  Why does Hashem restate this relationship?

Rashi addresses the question by citing a comment of the Talmud.

There, (in the Land of Cana’an/Israel) I will be to you a L-rd.  However, one who dwells outside of the Land is comparable to one who has no L-rd.[2]

According to Rashi, in His first declaration, Hashem announces that He is entering into a special relationship with the Jewish people.  In the second declaration, He explains that this relationship is complete only when one lives in the Land of Israel.  This is a difficult assertion to understand.  Some of our greatest and most righteous scholars lived outside of the Land of Israel.  Is it proper to assert that Rashi, himself, had no L-rd because he did not live in the Land of Israel?

A land whose welfare Hashem, your L-rd, seeks.  Constantly the eyes of Hashem, your L-d, are upon it – from the beginning of the year to the close of the year.  (Sefer Devarim 11:12)

Hashem and the Land of Israel

Various commentators on the Talmud discuss the meaning of this text.  Among them is Rashba – Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Aderet.  Rashba’s comments are brief and somewhat ambiguous but he clearly identifies two aspects of the Land of Israel that are relevant to the Talmud’s assertion.  The first is expressed in the above passage.

Hashem has a special relationship with the Land of Israel.  His eyes are upon it constantly.  He exercises greater providence over the Land of Israel.  Karban Aharon and others more fully develop this idea.  They explain that other lands are assigned to Hashem’s ministers.  These minsters determine the unfolding of events in these lands.  Hashem intervenes only occasionally.  However, Hashem does not assign the affairs of the Land of Israel to His minsters.  He more directly determines its wellbeing.[3]

This idea is more easily understood when expressed in contemporary terms.  “Natural” events are the consequence of two influences.  First, nature and its laws were created by Hashem to govern events. Second, He sometimes acts more directly and interferes with these laws.  Outside of the Land of Israel, on balance, nature and its laws play a far greater role than Hashem’s direct providence.  In the Land of Israel, the providential influence plays a much greater role.

Torah observance and the Land of Israel

The second special aspect of the Land of Israel that Rashba cites is that many commandments can only be fulfilled there.  Rashba adds that we are required to observe the relevant laws of the Torah wherever we live but the Torah is intended to be observed in the Land of Israel.  In other words, our observance of the Torah is incomplete outside of the Land of Israel.  We cannot observe all of its commandments and even those we observe are not observed in the setting for which they are intended.[4]

Rashba leaves a question unanswered.  He identifies special qualities of the Land of Israel.  One can only benefit from these attributes by living within it.  But why is one who lives outside of the Land of Israel denounced and compared to one who has no L-rd?

Where one lives makes a statement

A parallel text in the midrash Torat Kohanim provides a solution to this problem.

… they say that any Jewish person who dwells in the Land of Israel accepts upon himself the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Anyone leaving for the diaspora is comparable to one who serves idols…[5]

This text adds an important assertion.  Living in the Land of Israel is accepting the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven.  What does this mean?  How can simply living in the Land be regarded as submitting to Hashem?  When we combine this assertion with Rashba’s comments the meanings of both become clear.

By merely living in the Land of Israel one does not accept the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven.  However, one who understands the unique attributes of the Land of Israel and chooses to live there implicitly makes two statements.  He elects for his destiny to be more closely guided by Hashem and less subject to blind nature and its laws.  Second, this person decides to more fully participate in observance of the commandments.  What does leaving the Land of Israel reveal about a person?  This person is willingly abandoning a more direct relationship with Hashem.  Instead, he is putting his destiny in the hand of Hashem’s ministers – His natural laws.  Also, this person is forsaking the opportunity to more fully serve Hashem and observe His commandments.  This person is described as a one who has no L-rd because he has deserted a more intimate relationship with Hashem, and abandoned more complete and comprehensive observance of His commandments.

Controlling one’s environment

Before preceding a review will be helpful.

  1. We began with a question. Why after promising Avraham that his descendants will possess the Land of Israel does Hashem repeat that He will be their L-rd?
  2. Rashi responds by quoting the text of the Talmud. One who lives outside of the Land of Israel is compared to one without a L-rd.  In other words, the relationship between Hashem and the Jewish people is complete only in the Land of Israel.
  3. Rashba explains that the Talmud’s comment reflects the unique characteristics of the Land of Israel. There is a far greater providential presence in the Land of Israel.  Also, in both quantitative and qualitative senses, the commandments are more fully fulfilled there.
  4. According to Rashba, the person who abandons the Land of Israel is denounced as one who is without a L-rd because he has forsaken Hashem’s providence. Also, he has discarded the opportunity to more completely and comprehensively observe His commandments.

Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno offers a very different response to our initial question.  He explains that in the Land of Israel we will be able to fulfill the will of Hashem.  Only there can the promise that Hashem will be our L-rd be completely realized.  Why is the Land of Israel essential?

We do not control the culture and the environment when we live in the diaspora, ruled by others.  In the Land of Israel, we can fashion a culture and design an environment that encourages and reinforces serving Hashem and observing His commandments.[6]

The bond between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel

Sforno is addressing a more fundamental question than the problem in our passages.  The Jewish people are both a religious community and a nation with its own land.  Hashem promised Avraham that his descendants will be His nation – receive His Torah.  He also promised him the Land of Israel.  We understand the importance of the Torah.  It provides us with the model for serving Hashem. Why is the Land of Israel important?  Does a unique religious community require its own land?  Why can we not live among the nations and observe our Torah?

Sforno is responding that this is not a realistic strategy.  We will be true to our values and remain committed to Hashem and His Torah when we control our environment.  This is ideally accomplished in our own land.  There, we can create a culture and environment that encourages Torah observance.  In the diaspora, our values will always be under siege.

Making good choices in the diaspora

Of course, this does not mean that we cannot work toward controlling our exposure to and the influence of the diaspora culture.  Our understanding of Sforno’s perspective charges each of us to make every effort to counter the negative effects of our environment – wherever we live.

Let’s close with the reflections of a teenager that capture Sforno’s perspective.

While my friends and I grew up, we were presented with challenges by our Modern Orthodox world which made it just as hard to remain loyal to Judaism as it is for the alcoholic to stay away from the alcohol. Modern Orthodoxy provides many opportunities for positive effects on our lives, like the healthy foods have on a person. But it also hasn’t put up enough boundaries for us to avoid the alcohol, or evils, that the secular world has to offer.

As kids, we are proactively exposed to media and entertainment that is anti-religious and contrary to Halacha. Is it realistic to assume that a teenager’s value system will not be corroded by the endless subtle and not so subtle attacks on Torah true values?

Aside from the challenge of not letting the modern world negatively affect our inner world, the supposed balance between religious values and secular values seems to be much more weighted towards the secular than the religious.

Modern Orthodox teenagers can tell you who Kobe, Jay Z, or even Shakespeare is, but very few will know R’ Chaim Kanievsky or R’ Herschel Shachter. We’ll know the history of America in depth, but won’t know how the State of Israel was established. We’ll know how to solve complex math equations, but wouldn’t be able to read a simple mishnah. We are infested with American culture, and forget our past. We care about world values, and neglect our own. We care more about Western morals than the true morals of the Torah. We are high school students before talmidim. We are aspiring sports players before yearning Talmud scholars. We are college graduates before yeshiva bachurim. We are Modern before Orthodox.[7]

We must fully recognize the impact that our environment has upon our values and the development of our children.  Whether in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, New York, or Seattle, we must make choices regarding how much and what portions of the surrounding culture we will allow into our lives and homes.

[1] Rabbaynu David Kimchi (Radak), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 17:7.  See, also, Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 17:7.

[2] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 17:8.  Rashi quotes Mesechet Ketubot 110b.

[3] Rabbaynu Aharon ibn Chayim, Korban Aharon, Commentary on Midrash Torat Kohanim, Parshat BeHar 5:4.

[4] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Aderet (Rashba), Collected Responsa, volume 1, responsum 134.

[5] Midrash Torat Kohanim, Parshat BeHar 5:4.

[6] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 17:8.

[7] Eitan Gross,”Modern Orthodoxy from a Teenager’s Perspective”, Times of Israel, October 22, 2017.