The Soul of the Land: A Teaching of the Chofetz Chaim

Dear Friends,
According to the holistic perspective of our tradition, the human being is a unity of body and soul; moreover, it is the harmonious interaction between body and soul which enables each human being to fulfill his or her mission on earth. The Chofetz Chaim teaches that the People of Israel are also a unity of body and soul; moreover, it is the harmonious interaction between their body and soul which enables the People of Israel to fulfill their mission on earth. And what is their body and soul? The Chofetz Chaim answers:
The soul of Israel is the holy Torah, and the body of Israel is the Land of Israel. (Chofetz Chaim on the Torah, Parshas Bo)
The Chofetz Chaim says that an allusion to this teaching is found in the following words from our Scriptures regarding Hashem – the Compassionate Creator: “Who firmed the land and its produce, Who gave a soul to the people upon it” (Isaiah 42:5).
Just as the soul needs the body in order to fulfill its mission in this world, so too, the Torah needs the Land of Israel in order to fulfill its mission in this world. This is why the Chofetz Chaim reminds us that many mitzvos of the Torah can only be properly fulfilled in the Land (ibid).
“But the Land of Israel without the Torah,” stresses the Chofetz Chaim, “is a body without a soul” (ibid). Just as the soul gives life and purpose to the body, so too, the Torah gives life and purpose to the Land.
As we have discussed in this series, the Prophets describe how the Land of Israel is destined to become a spiritual center for all humankind, as “from Zion will go forth Torah and the word of the Compassionate One from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:3). The Chofetz Chaim therefore understood that without Torah – the Divine Teaching - the Land of Israel lacks the “soul” which enables it to become a universal spiritual center. This spiritual view was not accepted by the majority of the leaders of the “Zionist Organization” which was founded at the end of the 19th century. This is discussed in the book, “The Zionist Idea” by Dr. Arthur Hertzberg, a noted scholar on the history of the modern Zionist movement. As Dr. Hertzberg explains, these secular Zionist leaders wanted to return to the land in order to become a nation based on nationalism, instead of the Torah, as in this way, the Jewish people would become a nation like all other nations. As one of his examples, Dr. Hertzberg cites the following quotes from Jacob Klatzkin, a Zionist leader and editor of the early 20th century:
“Let us be like all the nations... In longing for our land we do not desire to create there a base for the spiritual values of Judaism. To regain our land is for us an end in itself - the attaining of a free national life.” (pages 66, 319)
The Chofetz Chaim defined the purpose of Zion according to the teachings of the Prophets; thus, whenever he discussed the significance of the Land of Israel, he would cite their prophetic words. In response to the desire of the secular Zionist leaders to develop a nation like all the nations, the Chofetz Chaim cited the following prophetic warning to the People of Israel:
“What enters your thoughts - it shall not be! That you say: Let us be like all the nations” (Ezekiel 20:32).
These Zionist leaders claimed that we can have a successful and lasting return to the Land without fulfilling the Torah. In response to this claim, the Chofetz Chaim would remind the people that even before we entered the Land, the Giver of the Land told us that our stay in this sacred place is conditional upon our fulfillment of the Torah. (For some examples, see Leviticus 18:28, 26:3-43, and Deuteronomy 11:13-17.) In addition, the later prophets told us that the reason we lost the Land is because we did not fulfill the Torah. As the Prophet Ezekiel stated, “Then the nations will know that because of their sins the Family of Israel was exiled” (Ezekiel 39:23). A similar prophecy was stated by Jeremiah:
“For what reason did the land perish and become parched like the desert, without a passerby? Hashem said: Because of their forsaking My Torah that I put before them” (Jeremiah 9:11,12).
The secular Zionist leaders also claimed that we do not need to fulfill the precepts of the Torah in order to develop a great nation in the Land that would gain the admiration of all the other nations. In response to this claim, the Chofetz Chaim cited the following message that Moses gave to our people when we stood at the border of the Land:
“See, I have taught you statutes and social laws, as Hashem, my God, has commanded me, to do so in the midst of the Land to which you come to possess it. You shall safeguard and perform them, for it is your wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the peoples, who shall hear all these statutes and who shall say, ‘Surely a wise and discerning people is this great nation!’ ” (Deuteronomy 4:5,6)
In his memoirs, Rabbi Aryeh Leib Hakohen Kagan, the son of the Chofetz Chaim, tells the story of how someone once read to his father a newspaper article which expressed the hope that the Jews living in the Land of Israel would emulate the people of Bulgaria, whose people had risen up against the Turks and gained their independence to become a nation like any other. Rabbi Aryeh Leib writes that his elderly father began to weep, and he cried out: “Is this why Jewish blood has been spilled during the past eighteen hundred years - so that we could become another Bulgaria?”
In response to this newspaper article, writes Rabbi Aryeh Leib, his father referred to a passage in the Book of Deuteronomy where Moses prophesied that at the end of our long exile from the Land, we will experience both physical and spiritual redemption. The passage opens with the following words: “It will be that when all these things come upon you – the blessing and the curse that I have presented before you – then you will take it to your heart among all the nations where Hashem, your God has dispersed you” (Deuteronomy 30:1). The Chofetz Chaim specifically mentioned the following verses from this passage which describe our return to the Land and our return to the Torah:
 “Hashem, your God will bring you to the Land that your ancestors possessed” (Deuteronomy 30:5).
“You shall return and listen to the voice of Hashem, and perform all His mitzvos that I command you today” (Deuteronomy 30:8).
In the era of our complete redemption, there will once again be harmonious interaction between our “body” and “soul” – the Land and the Torah.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)
Related Comments:
1. In response to the attempts by the “Zionist Organization” to have nationalism replace the Torah as the guiding principle of our nation, a new international organization was formed, “Agudath Israel” – the Society of Israel. Their goal was to once again have the Torah become the unifying and guiding principle of our nation. The Chofetz Chaim was one of the leading Torah sages which supported and guided Agudath Israel.
2. A summary of the Chofetz Chaim’s teachings regarding the spiritual purpose of the Land of Israel appears in “Mi-Shel Avos” – an anthology of commentaries on “Pirkei Avos” (pages 449-452). This summary also mentions various biblical verses that the Chofetz Chaim would cite in response to the secular Zionists.
3. Excerpts from the memoirs of the Chofetz Chaim’s son appear at the end of "Chofetz Chaim - A Lesson A Day":

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