Rabbi Moshe Lichtman
There is hardly a section in this week’s parashah that does not contain an explicit reference to the Holy Land. One could even say that Eretz Yisrael is one of the main themes of the parashah. Thus, my dilemma this week was not how to find a reference to Eretz Yisrael, but how to choose between them all. I decided to keep it plain and simple and start at the beginning.
HaShem commands Avraham, Lech Lecha – Go forth from your land… to the Land that I will show you (12:1). Rav Meir Yechiel of Ostrovtza points out something so obvious and significant that one can only wonder why no one mentioned it before: These words constitute the first mitzvah ever given to a Jew! Yes, the first thing God ever said to Avraham, the first Jew, was, “Leave your birthplace and immigrate to My special Land.” One would have thought that belief in God, rejection of idolatry, or some other cardinal, religious principle would have been the first commandment (as we find in the Ten Commandments). Furthermore, one would have expected God to introduce Himself to Avraham, as He did to Moshe Rabbeinu at the Burning Bush. Instead, when it comes to Avraham Avinu, there are no introductions, no profound opening statements, just Lech Lecha.
Why is this so? Why did God choose to begin Judaism with Go forth… to the Land? R. Yehudah HaLevi, the author of Sefer HaKuzari, provides a beautiful answer:
You find that after Avraham – the most exceptional person [of his time] – climbed the ladder of perfection and became eligible to cling to Godliness, he was transferred from his land to that place [Eretz Yisrael], the only place where he could reach absolute perfection.
This is exactly what a farmer does. When he finds the root of a good, fruit-bearing tree in parched soil, he transfers it to workable soil, which will naturally help it prosper. He nurtures it there until it becomes one of the trees of the garden, instead of the wild shrub that is was until now. [He helps it] become a tree that generates many other, similar trees, instead of one that sprouts accidentally in a random place, as it did until now. The same thing happened with the descendants of Avraham regarding prophecy. As long as they were in Eretz Yisrael, many of them prophesied; and many factors aided them – [the laws of] purity, divine service, sacrifices, and most of all, the proximity of the Shechinah (Divine Presence).
In other words, although Avraham had attained high levels of perfection outside the Land, God knew that he would be able to fulfill his destiny and attain true perfection only in Eretz Yisrael. This is why He (God) did not introduce Himself to Avraham first, or begin with some lofty commandment. All of that would come later on. First, the conditions had to be right. Avraham had to leave the defiled lands of exile and enter his natural habitat, where he could thrive and grow, and produce offspring that could do the same.
Think about it. As we all know, Avraham was doing some very important things in Chutz LaAretz. He was discovering his Creator, fighting idolatry, converting people to monotheism, performing acts of kindness, etc. Nonetheless, God said to him, “This is all fine and dandy, but you’re doing it in the wrong place. You can accomplish so much more in My special Land.”
For years, people failed to make aliyah primarily for materialistic reasons. Today, however, when one can live quite comfortably here in Eretz Yisrael (baruch HaShem), the major deterrent is spiritual complacency. People feel that they have it all in Chutz LaAretz – frum communities, Torah learning (like daf yomi), chesed organizations, kiruv, kosher restaurants, etc. What Lech Lecha teaches us is that no matter how high one can climb on the ladder of spiritual perfection in Chutz LaAretz, he can always climb higher in God’s Chosen Land.
Yes, the first divine command ever given to a Jew was Lech Lecha, because Eretz Yisrael is the prerequisite for all of Judaism.