The Place Where God Rests his Presence
What is a holy place? Modern man has a justifiable hesitancy to acknowledge the holiness of holy places. Great wars have been fought because of holy places and here we must understand something.
The common mistake in the religious traditions over the generations has been to ascribe holiness to the actual space. This is actually the basis of paganism. On the other hand, we cannot have monotheistic belief without acknowledging the divine presence in places. If not, we would have to make all our worship exclusively spiritual, that has nothing to do with geography or topography. But we want a world that is whole, that is abundant, that is one.
So Judaism also talks about sanctifying places, only that the sanctity of the place does not begin with the place. It is said about the holy temple, “and you shall fear my temple.” Our sages teach “You must not fear the temple, but rather He who has rested his presence there.” And so, at the time of the event of Mount Sinai, the entire mountain was imbued with holiness but the moment the divine presence departed, the mountain returned to be just like any other.
Regarding the holy temple, God promised us that his presence there would be eternal.
And this is why until today the place is holy. But not because of its natural properties, a pantheistic holiness, but rather because God, the ultimate King, decided that he would meet with us through these special places, and specifically at the place of the temple. In a wider sense, all of the land of Israel is the place that sanctifies all the places of the world. If we relate properly to this holy place, we can reveal holiness in everything.
The Torah says that when the nation of Israel enters the land of Israel and conquers it from the corrupt Canaanites who were there first, “You must surely destroy all the places that the nations worshiped.” It says, that before you must destroy the altars made for idolatry, and before you must uproot the trees that were made into idols, first you must destroy the places and must not attribute to them inherent holiness. You must void them of the ‘life-spirit’ that the Canaanites attributed to them. Only afterwards may you go up to the place that God has chosen.
The place is holy because God chooses it, and through this the holiness of places are raised up to the holiness of the soul. So let us not disregard the holy places. The places are holy when God’s holiness rests in them. We desire to encounter God, the Creator of the world, not only though the soul, not only through prayer, study, and though holy times. We want a world in which God will fulfill “Blessed is Hashem’s honor from his place.”
God’s Covenant with the Jewish People
The land of Israel is the geographic heart of the world, and it is also the spiritual heart of the world. All of the spiritual movements, all the life-forces in reality converge on one central point and that is the land of Israel. It is no coincidence that the whole world is interested in this land. Both the Christian and the Muslim worlds, not to mention the Jews, everyone senses that this place has tremendous spiritual potential.
The question arises what is the source of the right of the Jewish people to this land?
We, the students of Moses, say that the Jews have the rights to the land of Israel. Do the Christians and Muslims agree with this? Actually they do. In both their traditional texts it is explicit that God made a covenant with the nation of Israel for this land and that it is an eternal covenant that cannot be broken or changed. If so, why all the wars over it? Why do the nations want to take it away from us?
This is because they believe that since from this land will spring forth the perfection of the world, it should belong to the entire world and not to any particular nation. And here is their mistake. For if, for instance, Jerusalem would become, God forbid, an internationalized city, it will become like a tourist museum. There would be some mosques, some churches and a little Western Wall, but the place would cease to be truly significant. It would be merely an interesting place for tourists.
But the truth is that we are talking about the perfection, the rectification, of the entire world. Therefore it is critical to put this place in the charge of the nation who is inherently universal. The Jewish people is the nation who took upon itself to perfect the world and so it must be the one to run the affairs of the land of Israel, for the benefit of the entire world.
Using Force in the Name of Justice
Let’s discuss the Land of Israel a little further. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) opens his commentary on the Torah with an odd remark: Why did the Torah begin with the creation account? So that the Jews will respond to the nations’ claims on the land of Israel. In his words: “ ‘He has showed his people the power of his works, that He may give them the heritage of the nations.’ That if the nations say ‘You are bandits for conquering the land of the seven nations’ ” … they will reply based on what it says in Genesis.
This question is, though, which nations is he talking about here? About nations that believe in the Tanach or nations that don’t? If we are talking about nations that do believe in the Tanach, we need not begin with Genesis, as the Tanach includes a number of places where it says that this land was given to the nation of Israel by God.
And if we are talking about nations who do not believe in the Tanach, then what good will it do to quote them from Genesis in order to convince them?
Rather, it must be that Rashi is referring to people who believe in the Tanach. Who could this be referring to? The Christian world of course. The Christian world does not believe that we stole the land, and Rashi does not say that. Rather he quotes them as saying ‘you are bandits for conquering the land.’ Meaning, that ‘even though the land is yours, you should not have taken it while applying force. You should have waited for God to hand it to you on a silver platter. And then it would be OK for you to settle it.’
The fact that we used military and political force seems to the Christians to be illegitimate. This is because they do not recognize the rights of man, as man is born in sin, and therefore cannot earn the right to anything by his own actions. Therefore you must speak about the chapter that says to man, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the land and conquer it.” The injunction to ‘conquer it’ teaches us that the way God grants his gifts is by joining man’s actions with His. When this comes to the land, this means that man must make an effort to acquire the land which is his.
We could say that if God gave me something, the land for example, not only do I have the right even to use force to rectify an injustice, I may even have the obligation, in the name of justice to use force, in order to ensure the perfection of the world.
The Holiness Within Nature
In the land of Israel, a dimension of holiness that we are not used to encountering is revealed. This is the sanctity within nature. We are used to understanding holiness as an entity that is in opposition to nature, or even downright hostile to nature. Inside man’s soul an internal struggle is played out where we must resist the forces of nature within us in order to achieve personal holiness. This is legitimate but it raises the question, did God not create our natural tendencies as well? Did God not create the set of laws that manage the world? Indeed, He created these too.
If so, we must discover God in nature as well. However, nature does not behave according to moral considerations. Nature acts blindly, with no regard for imperatives of good or bad and so it’s not so simple to find the holiness in nature. Only after man has succeeded in attaining the holiness that is above nature, can he approach nature with a mind to sanctify it, and reveal its holiness.
Thus is the character of the nation of Israel. During the long exile we were disconnected from the land of Israel, and disconnected from the holiness within nature. We spent thousands of years contending with the holiness that is above nature and we were successful. We succeeded in conquering nature and became the most moral nation on Earth. So, with our return to the land of Israel we are not deterred or hesitant about the encounter with the holiness within nature. On the contrary, in this we discover the unity of God’s world, who unites spiritual life with material life, the life of the soul with that of the body, the holiness above nature with the holiness within nature.
You Have No Clearer Sign of the Redemption than This
The history of the Jewish people can be divided into two categories: Exile and Redemption. During the time of exile, the nation was dispersed amongst the nations of the world. During the time of redemption Israel returns to its land and radiates holiness, light and morality from its land to the entire world. The question is though, how can we distinguish between a time when we are meant to be in exile and a time when we are meant to make efforts to leave the exile and live out the redemption as an independent people in their land?
Many signs were given to us by the prophets, among them Ezekiel. The prophet Ezekiel says, “But ye, O mountains of Israel, shall shoot forth your branches, and yield your fruit to my people of Israel; for they are at hand to come.”31 One of the great Talmudic sages, Rabbi Abba, says that when this passage comes about, “You have no more revealed end than this.”32 Rashi explains Rabbi Abba’s comment on Ezekiel, “When the land of Israel gives its fruit abundantly, then the end is near, and there is no more distinct end than this.”
Meaning, the agricultural renewal of the land of Israel. When a country that was entirely desolate and full of ruins becomes renewed and fruitful like a Garden of Eden, this is a sign that the land is ‘smiling’ at its people and anticipating the return of its children to settle it.
During in the 19th century we began to see a turnaround in the condition of the land.
Anyone who travelled the land in the 19th century spoke of a deserted and desolate region. Toward the end of the century, agricultural settlements were established in a number of places that were at the time desolate. The land of Israel has returned to give its fruits and you have no clearer sign of the redemption than this. Indeed, we have seen that as a result of the agricultural renewal in the land of Israel, the millions of the dispersed Israelites have returned to the land, and have re-established their state in the name of perfecting the entire world.