In the light of this introduction, we can take a more meaningful look at the essay’s first sentence:
“Eretz Yisrael is not a peripheral matter, an external acquisition of the nation; it is not merely a means toward the goal of the general coalescing of the Nation, nor of strengthening its material existence, nor even its spiritual.”
Generally, people believe that the reason a nation needs a land is to insure its physical existence. Obviously, a place to live is a foundation of any nation. According to this world view, the land only provides a physical shelter. The culture of the nation evolves from the society which the people establish, and not from the land, which possesses only external importance.
Rabbi Kook begins his essay on Eretz Yisrael by rejecting this way of thinking. He tells us that Eretz Yisrael is not merely a means towards a goal, lacking value in itself. A means is something which you can live without if you have a suitable replacement. This is the world view which led Theodore Herzl to look toward Uganda as a possible site for the reestablishment of the Jewish Nation. To his way of thinking, the land was merely the means toward the goal of creating a national homeland. Of course, the Land of Israel had historical significance, but Uganda or Argentina could do just as well. Herzl and other early Zionists also understood that a Jewish homeland was needed for cultural reasons – to prevent assimilation and shelter the Nation from the dangers of foreign ideologies, but the land itself, its location, climate, features, and history were not for them the deciding factors. The goal was the physical coalescing of the nation – the land was merely a vehicle to help achieve this end.
Obviously, the plan for Uganda never materialized. “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but the counsel of God is what stands.” Among the laws of the universe which God created is that the Jewish People belong in Israel. Jewish life outside of Israel is abnormal – a devastating punishment and curse. Jews can live as scattered individuals throughout the world, from Yemen to Brooklyn to Paris, but they can only live as a sovereign Nation in Israel.
Rabbi Kook writes that Eretz Yisrael is not merely a place of physical refuge for downtrodden Jews. Nor is it just a place to attain spiritual heights or to do extra mitzvot. It is not to be seen merely as a wonderful place to send Birthright kids on a ten-day trip in order to strengthen their Jewish identity and pride. How then are we to relate to the Land of Israel? Once we are freed from erroneous understandings, we can attempt to discover a deeper, more encompassing vision: “Eretz Yisrael is an independent unit, bound with a living attachment with the Nation, bound with inner Segulot with the nation’s existence.”
What is the meaning of this difficult sentence? Firstly, the Land of Israel is not merely a means, but a value and goal in itself. It is connected by a living bond which is inseparable from the Nation. The Land and the Nation cannot attain their full life and expression, one without the other. They are complementary, united, with an active spiritual and physical union. Without the Jewish People in Israel, the Land is doomed to lie in desolation, as it had throughout nearly 2000 years of exile. Similarly, just as the Land is desolate when Jews are not in it, the Jewish People are desolate when they are not in the Land. Outside the Land of Israel, the Jewish People are wanderers without their own country, waiting to rise to resurrection and rebirth. True, Jews in the Diaspora can be successful and make outstanding contributions to world civilization, but only on an individual level. Without our own Land, we exist as individuals, stripped of our national foundation and splendor.