By: HaRav Mordechai Greenberg
Rosh HaYeshiva, Kerem B'Yavneh
Parshat Behar contains many halachot regarding Eretz Yisrael. It contains the laws of Shmitah and Yovel, as well as the laws relating to the selling and repurchase of fields and houses in Israel. The reason given in the pasuk for these laws, which are all unique to the Land of Israel, is the fact that "the land is Mine" (Vayikra 25:23). This is not merely a statement of legal ownership, but one attesting to the inherent value of Israel. The Ramban writes in parshat Acharei Mot (Vayikra 18:25), "The Land of Israel is the Nachala [heritage] of G-d." Similarly, R. Yehuda HaLevi speaks at length about the significance of Israel as "the land before G-d" (Kuzari 2:9-24).
In the second paragraph of Birkat HaMazon [grace after meals], we thank G-d for giving us the good Land of Israel and for taking us out of Egypt. This order, though, seems backwards. After all, G-d first took us out of Egypt, and only later gave us the Land of Israel. R. Yaakov Emden, in his siddur, explains that although Israel was second chronologically, it is primary in importance. The entire exodus was oriented toward reaching Israel, as is evident from the four phrases of redemption: "I will free you ... I will save you ... I will redeem you ... I will take you...," all for the purpose of "I will bring you to the land" (Shemot 6:6-8).
Although it appears that the exodus had another goal, to "worship G-d on this mountain [of Sinai]" (Shemot 3:12), the two goals are not at all contradictory, and in fact complement one another. R. Yaakov Emden explains (in the introduction to his Beit Yaakov siddur) that both the Nation of Israel and the Land of Israel are referred to as the heritage of G-d. Just as the Torah says regarding the land, "The land is Mine," so too it says regarding the nation, "the Israelites are My servants" (Vayikra 25:55). The glory of the Torah depends on the linkage of the two - the Nation of Israel in the Land of Israel. Conversely, the greatest cause of Bittul Torah is the exile of Israel from their land. (Hagiga 5b)
The connection between the Nation of Israel and their land is spiritual, and is unlike that of all other nations and their lands. History teaches that a nation becomes attached to its land through a three-stage process. First, a large group of people gathers in a certain place to settle in a permanent manner. Then, over the course of time, they jointly experience many events. This creates within them a historical love for the area, and thereby an emotional bond is formed to their country. This is not the case, however, regarding the Nation of Israel, who forged a bond with their land even before becoming a nation. Our forefathers went to Egypt as only seventy people. They settled there for merely three generations, and even there they were only foreigners. Still, they left Egypt with their eyes and hearts set on the Land of Israel.
Israel's uniqueness is not limited to spiritual matters, but even applies to physical activities, in that everything that is done in it is holy. For this reason the Gra (the Vilna Gaon) used to pray, "May G-d grant me the merit to plant with my own hands fruit trees around Jerusalem, to fulfill the mitzvah of, 'When you enter the land and plant fruit trees'" (Vayikra 19:23). Similarly, the Chatam Sofer writes that manual labor in Israel is included in the Mitzvah of settling the land and bringing forth its holy fruit. The Torah therefore commands, "Gather your grain" (Devarim 11:14). Even Boaz winnows his grain at night as a Mitzvah (Ruth 3:2). Just as one would not say, "I will not lay Tefillin because I am learning Torah," so too one should not say, "I will not gather my grain because of involvement in Torah." It is even possible that other professions that have a societal value are included in this mitzvah. (see Hiddushim of Chatam Sofer to Sukkah, s.v. Etrog hakushi)
This importance of the Land of Israel in the worship of G-d is highlighted in the conclusion of our parsha, "I am the Lord, your G-d, who took you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your G-d" (25:38). Rashi comments, "Anyone who lives in the land of Israel - I will be his G-d. Anyone who leaves it - is like one who worships idols!"