If a Jew is thrown into prison and he doesn’t have tefillin, then he can’t perform the mitzvah of putting on tefillin. But the mitzvah of tefillin isn’t cancelled because of this. The very first morning that he gets out of jail, he once again must perform the mitzvah of putting on tefillin.
In the same way, during the almost 2000 years that the Jewish People were in the prison of exile in foreign lands, we didn’t have the means to re-conquer and resettle the Land of Israel in a national way. However, as soon as the means returned to our hands, as it has in the last one hundred years, then we are obligated once again to conquer and live in the Eretz Yisrael.
It says in this week’s Torah portion, “Re’eh”:
“These are the statutes and the judgments which you shall observe to do in the Land, which the Lord God of thy fathers gives thee to possess it, all the days that you live upon the earth” (Devarim, 12:1).
Can anything be clearer than this verse from the Torah? First, we are told that the Jewish People are to perform the commandments in the Land of Israel. Then the verse goes on and emphasizes that this is not something reserved to the time of Moshe and Yehoshua, but for “all the days that you live upon the earth.” That means that the Land of Israel is the place where the Jews are to live and practice the Torah forever.
What can be confusing or unclear about this?
It is true that for the almost two thousand years that the Jews were expelled from the Land of Israel in punishment for our sins, we had no way of returning to Israel en masse, and we were thus physically prevented from living there in a national way. Individual Jews and small Jewish communities always continued to live in the Holy Land, but without ships, weapons, and a practical way of re-conquering the Land, we were compelled to exist in galut as foreigners in foreign lands. Like a Jew in prison without tefillin, we couldn’t do the mitzvah of living in our Land.
Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook said that this situation resembled what happened many times in Jewish villages in Russia, when the Jews couldn’t obtain etrogs on Sukkot. Without the etrogs, they couldn’t perform the commandment of waving the lulav, but this did not cancel the mitzvah. The mitzvah remained. Come the following Sukkot, if the Jews had etrogs in Russia, they continued performing the mitzvah just as before.
So too with the mitzvah of living in the Land of Israel. If we are physically prevented from doing so because we lack the financial, economic, and military means necessary to establish Jewish sovereignty over Eretz Yisrael, then the mitzvah is not in our grasp. However, living in Eretz Yisrael, and putting it under Jewish control, remains a mitzvah, and the minute the capability returns to our hands, the Jewish People are beholden to do so.
In the past century, the Almighty gave us the capability of returning to our homeland. Disguising His guiding hand behind a curtain of seemingly natural, historical events like World Wars and international declarations and agreements, and through people like Herzl, Balfour, Jabotinsky, Rabbi Kook, Ben Gurion, and Allenby, and through an awakened Jewish spirit that led to the fighting forces of the Jewish Brigade, the Hagana, Etzel, Lechi, and Tzahal, the State of Israel was reborn. Metaphorically, the etrog and tefillin returned to our hands. The mitzvah to live in the Land of Israel became reactivated for all the nation.
Hundreds of thousands have come. But many others still wallow in jail, even though the gates of the prison have opened.
I don’t understand. These same people will examine the tip of a lulav with a magnifying glass. They will pay a small fortune to acquire a beautiful etrog. They will pay large sums of money to send their children to Jewish schools. In supermarkets, they will search out all the tiny OUs they can find. What’s the difference with the mitzvah of living in Israel? Why don’t they rush to fulfill it with the very same zeal?