Parashat Ekev 5781
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk made Aliyah with three hundred Hasidim in 1777, first to Tzfat and finally settling in Tiveria. He was considered the foremost student of the Maggid of Mezritch, with extraordinary wisdom and kabbalistic skills. When he arrived in Israel he confided:
It’s true that “the air of the Land of Israel makes one wise.” Before I was in the Land, all my thoughts and desires were focused on saying a prayer just once in its proper way. But since I have been in this Land, all I want is just once to say “Amen” in its proper way.”
And he added:
This is what I attained in the Land of Israel. When I see a bundle of straw lying in the road, the fact that it is lying lengthwise and not widthwise is, in my eyes, a revelation of the divine Presence.
I don’t take these statements as hyperbole at all. Both comments make a similar point: that there’s an intensity and clarity in this Land that highlights everything in space and time, even little things and little moments. And I don’t take these statements as referring to superstitious reading of signs or omens or anything silly like that. When he says that here in the Land the way the bundle of straw lies is a revelation of the Shekhinah, it’s that he feels in his heart the reality of it, the factuality of it, as intrinsically meaningful presence. We are all put in place by God. Here you can really feel it.
Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk cites his experiences as examples of the observation of Rabbi Zeira, the great third to fourth century Amora who also made Aliyah to Tiveria, that “The air of the Land of Israel makes one wise (Baba Batra 158b).” This is Rabbi Zeira who, after he made Aliyah, fasted one hundred fasts in order to forget the Torah of Babylonia and open his mind to the Torah of the Land of Israel — an approach to Torah more vital and direct (Baba Mezia 85b).
It’s not a guarantee the air of Israel makes everyone wise. For sure there’s plenty of foolishness that goes on Israel, especially these days, among some political and religious leaders who should know better. And there is much of the mentality of galut, of exile, that persists in many sectors of society. But for people who are sincere about moral and spiritual growth, the atmosphere of the Land of Israel really can be helpful.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov explains on the basis of a verse in this week’s parashah, whose central theme is the preciousness of the Land of Israel:
כי טעם ארץ ישראל יכולין לצייר לפני מי שיודע טעם שכל…אך עיקר מעלת קדושת ארץ ישראל הוא, רק על ידי השגחת השם יתברך. ומחמת שהש”י מסתכל בארץ ישראל תמיד, כ”ש (דברים יא) תמיד עיני ה’ אלקיך בה מראשית השנה ועד אחרית שנה, עי”ז א”י מקודשת, ואוירה מחכים…. אך מהיכן נמשך ונתעורר זאת אצל הש”י, …. זה נעשה ע”י נשמות ישראל, שהש”י מתפאר בהם… ומזה נעשה השגחת הש”י כביכול, שעי”ז נעשה קדושת א”י, בחי’ אוירא דא”י מחכים כנ”ל. ועל שם זה נקרא ארץ ישראל, שמקבלת קדושתה מבחי’ ישראל אשר בך אתפאר כנ”ל. .. רק כשא’ מישראל נתקרב להש”י, ונתוסף עוד ישראל שרוצה לעבדו ית’, וכל מה שנתוספין יותר רבים מישראל שרוצים לעבדו ולהתקרב אליו, אזי נתגדל ונתוסף יותר התפארותו ית’, שהוא ית’ מתפאר בעמו ישראל המתקרבים אליו. ועי”ז ההתפארות, נעשין תפילין, מוחין. ומזה נעשה קדושת א”י, בחי’ אוירא דא”י מחכים, ע”י עיני השגחתו כנ”ל
The taste of the Land of Israel can be sensed by someone who knows the taste of insight… The essence of the level of holiness of the Land of Israel is only on account of the providential care of the Holy One, blessed be He, because HaShem, blessed be He, examines the Land of Israel constantly, as it says “the Land that HaShem your God examines, constantly the eyes of HaShem your God are upon it from the beginning of the year to the end of the year (Dt. 11:12).” By virtue of this the Land of Israel is sanctified and its air makes wise… But from where is this aroused in God? This is done by the souls of Israel, in which HaShem glories… But this is only when Israel draws close to HaShem, blessed be He, and more of Israel wants to serve Him, blessed be He, and the more that the multitude of Israel want to serve Him and draw close to Him, His glorification grows and increases… and from this is composed the sanctity of Israel, the air of Israel that makes wise, by His providential care (Likkutei Mohara”n 2:40).
Rebbi Nachman loved the Land of Israel and went to great lengths to visit, putting himself in great danger during the Napoleonic war. He describes a reciprocal process between human beings and God: our continual, increasing longing to be closer and closer to God draws to us and to our Land God’s providential care and attention, which grants holiness to our Land and the power to facilitate wisdom. With all respect, this explanation, reasonable as far as it goes, is still not quite expressing the integral connection to the Land and its atmosphere. The Torah, and the experiences of Rabbi Zeira and Rabbi Menachem Mendel, point to an intrinsic quality in the Land of Israel itself.
Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak haKohen Kook addresses this issue directly. He says:
The Land of Israel is not an external thing, an external acquisition of the nation, just as a means to the goal of the general binding together and strengthening of physical and even spiritual existence. The Land of Israel is an essential part tied with a living tie with the nation, embracing its existence with its inner treasures. Because of this, it is impossible to understand the content of the treasure of the holiness of the Land of Israel, and to actualize the depth of its love, with any rational human intellectualization, only by the spirit of HaShem that presides over the nation as a whole, in the natural spiritual nature of the Israelite soul… The vision of salvation is the sustaining power of exilic Judaism. The Judaism of the Land of Israel is the salvation itself (Orot, 9).
There are some things that are hard to account for or explain in conceptual logic. You could invoke the theory of Rabbi Yitzhak Luria that of reality, from the most sublime spiritual revelation to a solid rock, is of the field of emanation of divine consciousness, so yes, even a land can be essentially alive. Or you can back it up scientifically, that somehow the planet Earth really has brought forth life, and life has brought forth consciousness, so you could say yes, a land can express consciousness. But I think it’s more an experience. The rocky soil that meets your step. The mountains and valleys that welcome and embrace. The trees and vegetables and wildflowers and even the colorful weeds that seem downright joyful to be growing in this Land. When David HaMelekh in Tehillim sings “let the Heavens be happy and the Land rejoice, let the sea and its fullness shout out. The fields will exult and everything in them, then the trees of the forest will sing… the streams clap hands and the mountains sing together (Ps. 96, 98)” it’s no longer just metaphor. King David awakens us to appreciate that the Land, the fields, the trees and streams and mountains really do sing in their own way. When we fulfill the mitzvot of taking the tithes of Terumot and Ma’aserot from the fruits and vegetables we pick, and when we thank God for the food we eat from “the good Land He has given to you,” we participate in this gratefulness. There’s something about HaShem’s living Land embracing us that can help open our hearts and sensitize our minds and bring us to living wholeness, as it says in Midrash Tehillim (56):
As it says in Midrash Tehillim (56):
להתהלך לפני א-להים באור החיים. בארץ ישראל
To walk before God in the light of life – in the Land of Israel.
In this living Land, what ever way we walk, the length or the breath, it can be a revelation of HaShem’s presence. And once we get this, we might awaken, and help the whole world awaken, to HaShem’s presence throughout His Creation. This is the Torah of the Land of Israel.