Legal Advisor to Torah MiTzion
What’s So Special About Living In Israel
When we think of redemption, Geulah, we normally have in mind the rebuilding of the Temple, the resurrection of the dead, the restoration of the kingdom of David, the coming of Mashiach and/or or the perfection of the world in God’s kingdom (Tikun Olam).
Yet Tehillim 107, which Chief Rabbis Herzog and Uziel prescribed should be read at the entrée of Yom HaAtzmaut, gives a very different and far more down-to-earth answer: “Hashem gathered them out of the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south” (v. 3). The coveted geulah is first and foremost a mass in-gathering of the exiles!
The four life-threatening situations described in this psalm were all experienced by the returning exiles to Zion in our own time. They are the same four categories of people who are halachically obligated to give thanks to Hashem (including by blessing “Birkat HaGomel”), as codified by Rav Yosef Karo (Siman 219): those who travel through the desert – when they reach an inhabited place (cf. “they wandered in the wilderness… found no city of habitation; hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted in them” – Ps. 107:4); someone released from prison (cf. “those that sat in darkness and in the shadow of death” – Ps. 107:10); someone who was ill and recovered (cf. “they drew near unto the gates of death” – Ps. 107:18); and those who travel by sea – upon the completion of their journey (cf. Ps. 107:23).
In each of these cases, the downtrodden “cried to Hashem in their trouble and He saved them out of their distresses” (Ps. 107:6,13,19,28). Therefore, “let them give thanks to Hashem for His mercy and for His wonderful works to the children of men!” (Ps. 107:1,8,15,21,31).
Tehillim 107 ends with a powerful and graphic description of the nature of Hashem’s redemption as witnessed in our own times: “He turns a wilderness into a pool of water and a dry land into water springs, and there He makes the hungry to dwell and they establish a city of habitation; and sow fields and plant vineyards, which yield fruits of increase… He sets the needy on high from affliction and makes his families increase like a flock…” (vs. 33-41).
Am Yisrael left Egypt and Bavel as just one group and in just one direction. But only in the return to Zion in our own times was the geulah forming the subject of this powerful psalm realized in its full intensity: literally from the four corners of the earth, through the desert, via planes and ships. To quote the words of Rav Yoel Bin Nun, in his thought-provoking article on Tehillim 107, against the backdrop of the Psalmist’s mention of seafarers: “On 5 Iyar 5708 (1948) the vision of the psalmist-poet was fulfilled: in the first time ever in history a ship could enter, in a legal and official manner, the Haifa Port, with the Holocaust refugees and persecuted Jews from all over the world.”
There is certainly religious uniqueness to Eretz Yisrael, including a special mitzvah to settle the land per se and have a sense of nestling in the Divine Presence. The Ramban (Vayikra 18:25) even goes so far as to consider that the observance of any mitzva in Eretz Yisrael is qualitatively different than that outside of Israel. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein z”l relates that his Rebbe, Rav Hutner, would go so far as to put on his tefillin again after arriving in Israel, even if he had already davened on the airplane on his way to Eretz Yisrael, saying: “Before, I put on Chutz La-Aretz tefillin, and I am now putting on Eretz Yisrael tefillin!” Rav Hutner likewise told Rav Lichtenstein with amazement how “Chazal (Ketubot 112a) speak of Eretz Yisrael as a country that Moshe and Aharon did not merit to enter, and yet we are there!”
However, as Rav Lichtenstein also notes, there are other, more down-to-earth factors, which, though they relate less to the strictly religious aspect of our lives, are also of critical importance. Thus he discerned in Israel the possibility of leading a more holistic and integrated existence, as opposed to the fragmented nature of life in the Diaspora. Even the mundane aspects of one’s life in Israel attain social and religious value by contributing to the stability and flourishing of the Jewish state, thereby lending one’s life a greater sense of wholeness. Furthermore, without denying the validity or value of Diaspora Jewish life, Rav Lichtenstein viewed Israel as the epicenter of Jewish life (“if a person wants to be part of the action, here is where it is”).
David, the Psalmist, is telling us that without achieving political independence and physical freedom, the lofty goal of spiritual liberation would be impossible! “I will lead you very high (komemiyut)” is expounded by the Gemara (Sanhedrin 100a) to mean two floors: one physical, one spiritual. Both are needed; without the physical infrastructure the ultimate, second floor would fall through.
Baruch atta Hashem…
She’hechiyanu ve’kiyemanu ve’higianu
(gam) la’zeman ha’zeh!
 Shir Mizmor Le’Yom Atzmauteinu, Mishlav 40, 5766.
 “On Aliya: The Uniqueness of Living in Eretz Yisrael,” Alei Etzion, vol. 12.