By Rabbi Moshe Bloom
Torah VeHa’aretz Institute
“Whoever prophesied did so either in Eretz Yisrael or concerning Eretz Yisrael … Jeremiah’s prophecy was [not outside Eretz Yisrael]. He prophesied in the portion of Egypt that is part of Eretz Yisrael, and he prophesied for the sake of Eretz Yisrael. The same was the case with Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam who prophesied in Paran, which is also part of Eretz Yisrael. The Sinai desert and Paran belong to Eretz Yisrael, because they are east of the Red Sea. The Torah defines the borders of Eretz Yisrael, saying, ‘I will set your borders from the Red Sea to the Philistine Sea, and from the desert to the river’ [Sh’mot 23:31]. The ‘desert’ in this verse refers to Paran Desert, which the Torah describes as ‘the great and awesome desert’ [Devarim 1:19]. This is the southern border of Eretz Yisrael. The ‘river’ in this verse refers to the Euphrates River, which is the northern border of Eretz Yisrael” (Kuzari, part II:14, Avraham Yaakov Finkel trans., based on Ibn Tibbon’s translation).
The Revelation At Sinai In The Land Of Israel
These words of Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, written more than 1,000 years ago, are surprising to those reading it for the first time. Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi makes a point to prove that every prophecy was given only in the Land of Israel, and if not there, then for its sake. While Moshe Rabbeinu never merited to enter the Land, it seems, at first glance, that his prophecy was not in the Land of Israel. Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi could have sufficed with the simple explanation that the goal of Moshe’s prophecy was on behalf of the Land of Israel, since Torah and mitzvot are given to be observed there, as stated in the famous passage by the Sifri. However, HaLevi stresses that the prophecies of Moshe, Aaron, and Miriam — and even the Revelation at Mt. Sinai — all took place in the Land of Israel itself!
Nevertheless, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi does not try to place Mt. Sinai (about whose location there is no clear tradition) in a more central location in the Land of Israel. Doubtless, it is at the country’s outskirts — not like another mountain that has an ancient sacred tradition, Mt. Moriah. The stark contrast between Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi’s clear statement that Mt. Sinai is in the Land of Israel and the simple understanding, stressed by our Sages in several places, that the Torah was purposefully given in the desert, far from the promised Land — is extremely perplexing.
The Land Of Israel: A Natural But Problematic Choice
As the Kuzari states (ibid.), the Land of Israel is the most suitable place for the resting of the Divine Presence. Thus, it is only natural that the Torah be given in the Land of Israel. This poses a problem, however: the Land of Israel is G-d’s “residence” in this world—the place where He reveals Himself most fully in this lower world. Here, G-d reveals Himself in the world of physicality. Physicality is not lacking abroad, but in the Land of Israel, G-dliness can be revealed from within nature and material, and this is its primary novelty. In light of this, things work according to physical rules.
In the physical world, as opposed to the spiritual world, there is absolute ownership. One person’s possession belongs to him alone and not to another, unless they are partners. This ownership creates a sense of responsibility on the owner’s part to protect and develop this possession. In the case where there is only one owner, he will feel that much more responsibility vis-à-vis the possession, whereas where there are partners involved, our Sages taught us that “the pot of partners is neither hot nor cold,” since each one shirks responsibility and counts on the partner to take care of it. In contrast, the world of spirituality is different: there is no ownership of possessions. Truth does not belong to any one person, and spiritual ideas can be shared by many: “A candle to one is a candle to one hundred.”
This is certainly one of the reasons that G-d decided that the Land of Israel would be divided up into tribal and individual portions. Unlike JNF’s policy, where national lands are not sold but only leased (this is not the forum to delve into the differences between the outlook of the JNF vs. that of the Torah), G-d specifically did not want to create a big communal kibbutz here. Rather, He gave every Jew an individual portion to be responsible for, so the entire country would be properly developed. To ensure that everyone remembers Who the land belongs to, many mitzvot and restrictions are attached to land possession—first and foremost Shemittah and Yovel, the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. However, let us not forget that these mitzvot take place only once in a while, while most of the time the laws of individual land possession apply.
It is clear that in light of the above, had the Torah been given in one tribe’s portion, that tribe would feel closer and more obligated to the Torah while others might feel farther from it. This flies in the face of the fundamentals of the Torah, which is the portion of all.
Since this is the case, the Torah could not be given in a place that was not considered the Land of Israel; however, at the same time, it could not be given in the land apportioned to the 12 tribes. It seems, then, that the most appropriate place is the part of the country not apportioned to the tribes (while at certain times members of the tribe of Shimon possibly lived in Sinai, it was not clear exactly where — if this included the Mt. Sinai area, and if this was considered their portion). Thus, the Sinai Desert was the perfect choice.
Rabbi Moshe Bloom is head of the English department of Torah VeHa’aretz Institute. Torah VeHa’aretz Institute (the Institute for Torah and the Land of Israel) engages in research, public education, and the application of contemporary halachic issues that come to the fore in the bond between Torah and the Land of Israel today. The Institute has opened an English department to cater to the English-speaking public living in Israel and abroad. For additional information and inquiries, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 972-8-684-7325.