The Land of Israel is central to Judaism. It is an intrinsic part of the covenant that God promised to Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 12), and most events recorded in the Bible took place in Israel.
The mitzvah to live in Israel is based on the verse, “You shall possess the Land and dwell in it” (Numbers 33:53). The Talmud states that “every 4 amot (about 7 feet) that a person walks in Israel is another mitzvah.”
The question, however, is whether this mitzvah is compulsory in our times when the Holy Temple is not standing. This is the basis of a dispute between two great Talmudic commentators, Maimonides and Nachmanides. A leading 20th century sage, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, concludes that living in Israel is a “mitzvah kiyuma” – while it is a great mitzvah, there is no absolute obligation to do so.
from Ask the Rabbi
“Mitzvah to Live in Israel”
I used to want to live in Israel. I gathered together various reading materials related to making aliyah. I often imagined what it would be like to permanently move to the Holy Land. It was a rather romantic notion and it wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility. I’m not Jewish, but my wife is. If she made aliyah, it’s not like the state of Israel would deny her just because she was married to a goy. I’d “go along for the ride,” so to speak.
As the years passed, my passion cooled and reality settled in for the long haul. I realized that my wife had no desire to actually live in Israel (though she and my daughter have visited). According to the Ask the Rabbi quote from above, there’s not an absolute obligation for a Jew to live in the Land, so I guess Jews can still choose to live where ever it pleases them.
But reading the article about the mitzvah of living in Israel reminded me of what I wrote yesterday about Abraham, Jews, and Christians. (I decided not to make this blog post part of The Jesus Covenant series since it’s more of a “side note” on the covenant than a direct investigation, however the relationship between this and the “covenant” series is obvious) The giving of the Land of Israel to the Jewish people in perpetuity is part and parcel of the Abrahamic covenant (see Genesis 12). As I outlined in my previous blog post, while one of the conditions of said-covenant provides a blessing to the nations through Abraham’s seed; through the Messiah, that is the only condition of the covenant that applies to Christianity.
In other words, the Land is promised to Israel through the Abrahamic covenant, but that doesn’t translate into Israel also “belonging” to Christians. My wife, as a Jew, has the perfect right to request and receive legal citizenship in Israel while I, a non-Jew, do not, even if I really, really want to live there.
This is sort of a metaphor for a larger set of obligations and permissions vs. human desires that I experience in my little corner of the blogosphere. As much as I may have wanted to live in the Land of Israel at one point in time, that would only have been accomplished in my case, if I accompanied my Jewish wife when she made aliyah. If she never makes aliyah, then I’m staying in the good ol’ U.S. of A. with her. She has the right to make aliyah to Israel. I can only live in Israel because of her being Jewish.
That covers so many other things. We Christians may see the many advantages the Jews have (see Romans 3:1-2) and we tend to want them for ourselves. That’s probably the desire that is at the heart of supersessionism in Christianity. We’ve been taught that every promise God made to the Jewish people has been taken from them and transferred to us, so when we see the beauty of the various aspects of Judaism, the lighting of the shabbos candles, praying the Shema, reading from the Torah scroll in the synagogue (another form of aliyah), we, or at least some of us, want them, too.
Nevermind that a “want” is not a “deserve,” we still want, much like a child in pre-school sees a playmate who has a cool toy, we want it for ourselves. It doesn’t matter if that toy belongs to our playmate. At that age, kids don’t have a terrific understanding of empathy, boundaries, and distinctions. They are very egocentric. If they want something, they take it. It doesn’t matter that the toy belongs to someone else. That’s why pre-school age children need adults to remind them that they can’t have everything they want, even when they see other kids playing with a really cool toy.
When you’re a small child, you think and feel like a small child and there are many things that you don’t understand. We adults are tolerant of this in our children and grandchildren because we know this behavior is a normal stage of development. We gently provide correction and eventually, the child grows and learns. The problem is when people grow up and they don’t learn, and they still keep thinking like children.
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.
–1 Corinthians 13:11 (ESV)
If we don’t develop properly and we cling to childish ideas, we grow up continually mistaking wants for needs and privileges for rights. In the western nations, we are taught to stand up for our rights, and then we believe that everything is a right. Our Constitution guarantees the right to pursue happiness but that’s no promise that we’ll actually attain it. There are a million things in the world we can have and a million things we can’t. It’s no fun facing that fact, but that is the reality of our existence. Some Christians may want all of the advantages of being a Jew, but it is not our right to take them. Taking something that doesn’t belong to you is called stealing.
The Land of Promise was given to the direct, physical descendents of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jacob was the father of the twelve tribes of Israel and those tribes eventually became the Jewish people. The promises were handed down like a baton in a relay race, from older to younger, down, down across the long generations and to this present day. But each of those runners is a Jew, not a Christian.
That does not mean, in an ultimate sense, that if a Christian finds beauty in Judaism, they are barred from any of the Jewish practices. Many Christians visit their local synagogues and respectfully worship with the Jewish congregation. Many classes are available at those synagogues and anyone, Jew or Gentile, is allowed to attend. No one will object if you choose to light the Shabbos candles on Friday night, or construct a small sukkah in your backyard at this time of year.
It’s like the two metaphorical pre-school children I was talking about before. We can’t just reach out and take what belongs to the other child and pretend that it is ours by right. But we can say something like, “Cool toy. Can I play with it for a little bit?” There is much beauty and joy in the mitzvot of the Jews that can also belong to us. We can feed the hungry, give a thirsty person a drink of water, visit the sick and the prisoner, give to worthy charitable causes, stand out of respect when an elderly person enters the room, and many other things. For those things that belong only to the Jews, some would be ridiculous for a Christian to perform, such as referring to ourselves as “Israel” while davening with a siddur. But there are many others that, even if they don’t belong to us, we can politely ask to share.
I will never live in Israel as a citizen, but someday before I die, I hope to visit and perhaps share in the experience of praying at the Kotel.