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Kedoshim: Keeping Holy in the Land

Jewish sovereignty is a new phenomenon in the Jewish world; it reflects circumstances that we have not experienced in two-thousand years. These circumstances might shed light or reflect darkness, might clarify some things and call others into question. Regardless, they are significant. The Jewish conversation must consider the ways in which these circumstances matter, how the fact of a &quotpost-inheritance and post-sovereignty&quot reality color the lives of Jews wherever they live.
Photo: Alex Harris/Courtesy of SHI
Photo: Alex Harris/Courtesy of SHI
Rabbi Avital Hochstein is a faculty member at the Shalom Hartman Institute and has learned, taught, and done research at the institute for more than 15 years. In 2016, she was among the first recipients of rabbinical ordination from the Shalom Hartman Institute / HaMidrasha at Oranim Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis. Avital is currently working on her Ph.D., focusing on Talmud, in the Gender Studies Program at Bar Ilan University. Avital is President of

Kedoshim: Keeping Holy in the Land

One of the mitzvot discussed among the many that are presented in the parashiyot of Aharei Mot and Kedoshim is the mitzvah of orlah:

Vayikra 19:23-25

When you enter the land and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden (orlah). Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not to be eaten. In the fourth year all its fruit shall be set aside for jubilation before the Lord; and only in the fifth year may you use its fruit – that its yield to you may be increased: I the Lord am your God.

We see that the mitzvah of orlah is presented as contingent upon, and connected to, the arrival to the Land. This explicit connection is made repeatedly throughout the Torah in its exposition of other mitzvot as well, such as:

Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord.

Pesach: Shemot 12:21, 24-25

Moses then summoned all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go, pick out lambs for your families, and slaughter the passover offering… You shall observe this as an institution for all time, for you and for your descendants. And when you enter the land that the Lord will give you, as He has promised, you shall observe this rite.”

And also at the beginning of the next chapter:

Shemot 13:5-6

So, when the Lord has brought you into the land of the Canaanites… a land flowing with milk and honey, you shall observe in this month the following practice: Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a festival of the Lord.

And this pattern continues with the laws of bikkurim (first fruits), the omer offering (first sheaf of barley), the prohibition on idolatry, and on and on. What becomes clear from this list is that placing mitzvot in the context of the arrival to the Land, is not restricted to mitzvot which actually relate to the work of the land. It is used for all types of mitzvot, interpersonal, ritual, and agricultural alike.

But what is the meaning of this contextualization? What is the meaning of the phrase “when you enter the land”? In order to understand this, we have to understand the construction of “when you enter” (ki tavo’u). In the Hebrew, the preposition “ki” can mean a number of things, and we will see how these different interpretations employ different translations of “ki.”

I would like to focus on three different possible explanations. The first understands this introduction of “when you enter” as serving the legal function of demarcating the physical and temporal boundaries of when the mitzvah in question applies – once you arrive in the Land. The second understands that entering the Land and remaining there is a reward for performing the mitzvot, while the third possibility understands ki tavo’u to relate to specific circumstances, circumstances of sovereignty.

1) Ki tavo’u – Only when you enter the land

In the first possibility, the Land functions in its most literal sense – as a place. Thus, we understand the construction of “when you enter” as saying: When you enter the land then you will be expected to fulfill the mitzvot. As in: When you get to the Land and you plant a fruit tree, then you will be expected to fulfill the laws of orlah.

This is how the Mekhilta of R. Yishmael understands this phenomenon as it applies to Pesach:

Mekhilta deR. Yishmael, Massekhta dePisha, 12

And it will be when you enter the land – the verse made this ritual dependent on and effective after they entered the Land.

This reading attempts to understand the preposition “ki” as “when,” as in “when you enter the land, you will be obligated in these mitzvot.” According to this reading, these mitzvot are applicable only in the Land once it is entered.

2) Ki tavo’u – Entering the land is reward

The midrash in the Mekhilta of R. Shimon bar Yohai, R. Akiva’s student, offers us an additional, and in some sense, opposite way of reading the relevance of the Land to these mitzvot:

Mekhilta deR. Shimon bar Yohai, 13:5

When He brings you, do the mitzvah that is mentioned here, in the merit of which you will enter into the Land.

We have before us an exegetical suggestion that is fascinating and bold. According to this explanation, the expression “When He brings you” is not actually a time-marker in the usual sense of “when,” but rather it is being understood as a result, specifically the reward that comes from performing the mitzvah. Here, R. Akiva’s Mekhilta reads the Hebrew “ki” as “in order that,” such that the verse now reads, “in order that He will bring you.” This type of interpretation is found throughout the teachings of R. Akiva’s school whenever we encounter this type of construction as the preface to a commandment: “When He brings you,” “When He will have brought you,” and so on.

Thus we see, that after the destruction of the Temple, an interpretive tradition develops that bestows value in the fulfillment of mitzvot in the diaspora, including those mitzvot that seem to be dependent on entering the Land. As such, this interpretation effectively offers an entirely new model for understanding the connection between these mitzvot and the Land. The Land is no longer the grounds or the conditions for these laws, rather the Land is their reward and the result.

This interpretation flips the syntax of the verse. Instead of reading the verse as “when you enter the Land, then you will keep the mitzvot,” it reads it as “when you keep the mitzvot, then you will enter the Land.” The reading that R. Akiva’s school offers says that the mitzvot must be kept now, regardless of whether you are in the Land, in the desert, or anywhere else. This interpretation makes being in the Land functionally meaningless in terms of fulfilling the mitzvot themselves. The Land becomes less real and more ideal, no different from other types of rewards. It becomes a distant idea, an aspiration perhaps, conceptual, with less concrete import for daily living.

3) Ki Tavo’u – Sovereignty

Up to this point, we have seen two possibilities for understanding the different constructions of “entering the Land.” One understands the Land as a precondition or necessary condition for keeping the mitzvot, the other sees it as a result of that fulfillment. In the midrash, we find a disagreement which raises two distinct interpretations to this latter school of thought, regarding not only how to translate the word “ki” but also how to properly understand “the Land”: When the Torah speaks of “entering the Land” is it actually speaking about a physical land, a place, a locus of history, or is its meaning embedded in a specific political reality – when Israel is sitting in its land as a sovereign entity?

To this end, there is a third midrash that we should explore, the Sifrei to Bemidbar, Parashat Shelah:

Sifrei Bemidbar #107

“Speak to Benei Yisrael – When you enter the Land of your dwelling.” R. Yishmael says: The verse comes to teach you that Israel is not obligated… until their entering into the Land and afterward. The verse is speaking only about the time after inheriting and settling the Land. You say that it is only after inheriting and settling, but is it not speaking about immediately after the time of their entering? The verse comes to teach -“When you enter into the Land that the Lord your God gives to you and you will inherit it and dwell in it.” Since the Torah often mentions entering without any other details, here the text specifies for you that it always means only after inheriting and dwelling.

This midrash does not only make a connection between the physical territory of Land and the mitzvot, but adds the component of a specific political reality that is necessary for their fulfillment: sovereignty. In this, it creates a new relationship between the Land and the mitzvot. This is a new voice, according to which entering the land is not a condition for the obligation in the mitzvot, and the claim that the land is a result or a reward for the mitzvoti is not accepted as well. Rather a declaration that political conditions have an impact on keeping the mitzvot and on their status as binding, as the midrash explains “that Israel was not obligated” until the point of sovereignty.

Indeed, when one turns to reexamine the list of mitzvot which has the prefix “when you enter,” the list includes not only obligations that are contingent on land, but also such mitzvot as Pesah and the prohibition on idolatry. This raises a challenging possibility, according to which Jewish sovereignty changes the relationship to mitzvot for Jews everywhere, not only those who live in the Land. In other words, when the political conditions in the Land include Jewish sovereignty, Jewish existence as a whole undergoes a transformation.

This third interpretation is an invitation to think of mitzvot, those that are between people and God, between people and their land, and those that focus on interpersonal relationships and responsibilities, in a way that is influenced by broad Jewish circumstances, also those that are beyond those specific to my local community. This interpretation is an invitation to consider a new scope of questions that regard the relationship between mitzvot and sovereignty, even if I don’t live within this Jewish sovereignty, circumstances in which sovereignty is not only messianic and aspirational, but also an imperfect human reality, with the opportunities and failures that this entails.

This third explanation requests, and maybe demands, that Jewish sovereignty not be a divisive element within the Jewish community. It claims that the circumstances of one community must be significant for other communities as well.

Moreover Jewish sovereignty is a new phenomenon in the Jewish world; it reflects circumstances that we have not experienced in two-thousand years. These circumstances might shed light or reflect darkness, might clarify some things and call others into question. Regardless, they are significant. The Jewish conversation must consider the ways in which these circumstances matter, how the fact of a “post-inheritance and post-sovereignty” reality color the lives of Jews wherever they live. We need to figure out what dimensions of the mitzvot are affected by Jewish sovereignty in Zion, both regarding our responsibility towards our environments and the ways we conduct ourselves in general, wherever we are, whether as a majority or a minority.

Moreover, this conversation must accept that things one sees about others are not always clearly visible to or about oneself, and so, each community will gain from the other communities’ perspective.

And if I may end with a note regarding the day: Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, like every birthday, is an invitation both to mark birth and to engage in soul searching. Its content is the way in which we conduct ourselves as sovereign and political entities. Jews everywhere are expected to take part in this conversation, one that also examines the meaning of keeping mitzvot and Jewish identity when Jewish sovereignty exists.

This conversation must also engage with the way we want Jewish sovereignty to be significant and to have meaning. Now that we are living in such a reality, Jews – wherever we are – are invited and expected to consider the implications of sovereignty anew. But we must not let the ideal be overwhelmed by the reality. We must continue to work on minimizing the gap between what we want to have and what we actually have. Jews are familiar with the delicate dance between what exists and the vision of what could exist, where we are now, and where we would like to be. May we find the energy, wisdom, and partners to engage meaningfully in these questions, and to turn these thoughts into deeds that form the foundation for an even just slightly more ideal reality.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

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