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Balancing the Settlement Ideal with the Creation of a Just Society


Dedicated by Michal and Yeruchum Rosenberg, in honor of the birth of their son Yonatan Mordechai.


Based on a shiur of Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Adapted by Aviad Hacohen with Reuven Ziegler

Translated by Kaeren Fish


The relationship between the Religious Zionist community's vision in the social sphere and its vision concerning settlement is a subject that presents a dual challenge. Firstly, this community is wholeheartedly committed to both ideals. Although a certain tension exists between the two, we dare not relinquish either one of them.

Secondly, from a practical point of view, the two spheres are connected. On the one hand, it is clear that matters of national security and foreign policy have an enormous impact on our ability to create a just society, a society that can flourish both socially and economically. The absence of a sense of security, and the absence of a reality that is secure, creates a most significant disruption. Thus, while security is certainly important in its own right, it is also a factor facilitating proper economic and social activity.

We may also say the opposite: the welfare of society is a significant value in its own right, but it is also a critical element in security and foreign policy. Society's determination and inner strength is crucial if we are to maintain our hold on Eretz Yisrael – any and all parts of it.

We dare not forego either of these two values. At the same time, while in theory we may feel very attached to certain values which do not contradict one another and even complement one another, in practice, when it comes to finding the balance between them – the order of priorities, in Halakha and in life – we must be able to order our preferences.

I do not mean by this that one task should be undertaken and the other neglected. Rather, the question is one of allotting energy, resources, budgets, attention, awareness, etc.

Let us recall a Gemara that is widely known, but whose significance is not always recognized. My intention is not to apply this to the present political situation, but rather to view it through Chazal's perspective.

This passage appears in several places in the Talmud, and is also quoted by the Rishonim in various contexts. In the midst of a discussion as to the status of Beit She'an and the sanctity of Eretz Yisrael as applying to it, the Gemara teaches (Chullin 7a):

Rabbi Shimon ben Eliakim said in the name of Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat, who said in the name of Rabbi Elazar ben Shamu'a: Many cities were conquered by those who came up [to Eretz Yisrael] from Egypt, which were not conquered by those who returned from Babylonian exile. They believed that the original sanctity [created by those who came up from Egypt] was temporary, not a sanctity for all time.

In other words, the returnees from Babylonia refrained from conquering some areas that had first been conquered by Bnei Yisrael when they entered the land. By refraining from conquering these areas, they thereby annulled their sanctity.

Why did they refrain from conquering these areas? The Gemara continues, "In order that the poor would live off these areas of land during Shemitta years."

Let us pay close attention: we are not speaking here of some empty outposts, but rather "cities;" and not a few of them, but rather "many cities!"

All this for what? So that the poor could live off that land during the Sabbatical year. What good fortune awaits the destitute in these cities during the seventh year? For one year out of seven, they receive a little produce (here there are different opinions among the Rishonim): the produce that fell during the gathering (leket), whatever produce was forgotten in the fields (shikhecha) and the produce of the corners of the field (pe'ah), some fruit, and some tithes for the poor. Is this sufficient reason for Chazal to decide to leave "many cities" in gentile hands, just so that this miserly amount of food will reach the poor every seven years?

This ruling was certainly meant for its time, but Chazal regarded it as setting a direction and ordering priorities for future generations, too. Backed into a corner, when they had to choose between competing ideals, this was their preferred solution.

I do not mean here to address political issues. We certainly cannot draw conclusions from one situation to another, from one reality to another. But what we see here is a matter of principle, where the question under discussion involved a need to choose.

The question involves not only the advancing of certain aims as opposed to others. Here we confront two aims: concern for the poor during the Shemitta year, and preserving the status of the "many cities." To formulate in today's terms: the socio-economic situation vs. holding onto all areas of Eretz Yisrael, i.e., settlement of the land. Beyond the attainment of these aims, we must also pay attention to the question of values. What type of society do we wish to develop? What feelings and which set of values do we wish to inculcate? What is the order of priorities that we wish to instill – on the spiritual, ethical and existential levels – in the heart of each individual?

I heard a speaker define the relationship between social welfare and settlement as "how to live" vs. "what to live for." In other words, he believes that settlement is the purpose for which we should live, while welfare and concern for the destitute are just means for achieving our ultimate aspiration – settlement of the land.

There is something attractive about presenting the picture in this way. When discussing welfare, it can sound egocentric: you're talking about allowing a person to achieve his desires, his dreams, to realize his personal vision. In contrast, the ideal of settlement reflects the realization of national, historical, meta-historical, and eschatological values. There is simply no comparison between the two.

Some would add that settlement is a mitzva whose time-frame is critical; not so the sphere of charity. The latter boils down to specific, personal, private matters, all of which pale in comparison with the majestic vision of settlement. Social welfare is a permanent mitzva that can be fulfilled at all times. If we don't get to deal with the social questions this year, we can do it in five years' time, or ten or twenty years' time – by which time a new generation has arisen and joined the ranks of the poor. We can deal with it then.

I agree that we do not wish to encourage egocentricity; rather, we want to encourage idealism, a life of giving, action and productivity. We promote a way of life that transcends personal, private concerns, and focuses one's gaze on greater and more elevated ideals. We want to educate people towards an awareness of "tikkun olam" – repairing or perfecting the world, and making it a better place.

Nevertheless, I question the basic assumption of this approach, namely, that charity and concern for welfare are just a means, and settlement is the ultimate end and ideal. Is this the conclusion that arises from the Books of the Prophets? Was this the view of Chazal? Was this the view of the Rishonim? Can this possibly be?

We are told (Tehillim 89:3), "The world is built upon chesed (kindness)." This applies to the world at large, to our national world, and to the world of each individual. Chesed cannot be seen only as a means to satisfying the needs of settlement.

This issue depends, inter alia, on the question of how one views the place of the individual in relation to society. Much has been written on this subject: does the state exist only for the sake of the individual, or does the individual exist for the sake of the state? I adopt the position of Rav Soloveitchik, who maintains that the supposed contrast is itself a distortion. On a certain level, the state is indeed meant to serve the individual, but the individual has an obligation to rise above his own narrow interests and to serve society and the state, in a constant quest to "repair the world."

Nevertheless, there are differences between the spheres of the individual and the collective. Rav Kook followed Hegel's philosophy, which was couched in meta-historical terms. At the same time, though, he identified to some extent with the harsh criticism that Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky and others leveled at the view that placed meta-historical entities on a pedestal while ignoring the existence, the suffering, the needs and desires of individuals.

When we speak of social and economic problems, we are not talking about fulfilling someone's desires for a second DVD, or a fur coat, or a world cruise. The Gemara in Chullin cited above does not say that they refrained from conquering the cities in order that the wealthy – or even the middle class – could fulfill their wants and desires. For them, we would not forego even a single town. But today we are speaking about tending to the welfare of people who are poverty-stricken. Can we lecture people who have no food, who have no money to send their children to school? Woe to us, that we have reached a situation where the destitute number not thousands or tens of thousands, but hundreds of thousands.

Chapter 19 of Mesillat Yesharim presents a strange demand:

Piety (chasidut) means that if a person knows that doing something will bring pleasure to his fellow, he is commanded by piety to perform it.

Is this possible? I have puzzled over this teaching for a long time. Am I then truly commanded to do whatever another person wants, whatever will bring him pleasure? Even something which, in terms of my world-view, is neither good nor desirable? Does this "command" apply even where the person's priorities are distorted and crooked?

Obviously not. Before fulfilling my fellow's desires, I must take into consideration not only what he wants, but also the values involved. For the aim of allowing capital-holders to enjoy a thriving economy, we should forego neither settlements nor land. I did not come here to express support for the disengagement plan – that is a separate discussion. Rather, I wish to emphasize the paramount importance of this principle: in our hearts, in our blood, in our souls, we must know that allowing the poverty-stricken to rely on us is no less important than holding on at all costs to every corner of Eretz Yisrael. We must remember at all times the message of the Gemara in Chullin.

I believe that love of Eretz Yisrael burned in the hearts of Chazal no less than it does in the hearts of those who speak so loftily today. They, too, understood the meaning of the "sanctity of the land." They, too, understood the importance of settlement. Yet they decided to forego settlement of parts of the land in order to benefit the poor.

We want produce a society that emphasizes not consumption but rather productivity, creativity, activity. A well-known midrash (Bereishit Rabba, parasha 39) tells us what it was that drew Avraham to Eretz Yisrael:

Rabbi Levi said: While Avraham went about in Aram Naharayim and Aram Nachor, he would see the locals eating and drinking and behaving in a wanton manner. He said: "I wish to have no portion in this land."

When he reached the cliffs of Tyre (the border of Eretz Yisrael), he saw the inhabitants engaged in weeding at the time of weeding, and hoeing at the time of hoeing. He said: "I hope that my portion will be in this land!" [Upon which] God said to him, "To your seed I shall give this land."

Avraham didn't want an immoral society of revelers and drinkers. He sought a society that was engaged in building, in creating - a working society, a charitable society.

"The world is built on kindness" is a principle not for metaphysical midrashim, but for reality. These are the values that connected Avraham to Eretz Yisrael. Can we then, heaven forefend, come and claim that that world of kindness is no more than a tool for the fulfillment of the mitzva of settling the land?

"A world of kindness" is not a luxury. It is a fundamental component of our identity as servants of God. It is a central pillar of our existence: "The world rests upon three things: Torah, service, and acts of kindness" (Avot 1:2).

"Acts of kindness" refers not only to visiting the sick and burying the dead, but also to building a society based upon the call, "Anyone who is hungry – let him come and eat." Anyone who is needy should know that there is an address where he can find employment, to support himself and his family with dignity, to feed his children satisfactorily. This is what is needed.

Being involved in social welfare, in "repairing the world," requires that we address the question of how to define a properly functioning society. What is the meaning of the phrase, "fulfilling the needs of others"? It must certainly include physical, material needs: breakfast and a school-bag for a child. Yet this cannot be enough. We are imbued from earliest childhood with the idea encapsulated in the Mishna (Bava Metzia 2:11):

If one finds the lost object of his father and of his Torah teacher – the loss of his Torah teacher takes precedence, for his father gives him life in This World, while his Torah teacher gives him life in the World to Come.

Clearly, "tikkun olam," perfecting the world, must include fulfilling people's spiritual needs. We must help both those who are poor financially and those who are poor spiritually. The latter must be brought to understand that poverty of knowledge is also poverty.

Here again, we must figure out the order of preferences and priorities. Not because there is, heaven forefend, any fundamental contradiction between Eretz Yisrael and Torat Yisrael, between a thriving society and a thriving economy. Rather, we must consider where are the greatest portion of our energies, the bulk of our strength and efforts, should be invested. If we ponder this, then the serious questions that we should be asking will arise on their own.

We must take care of "temporal life" – the needs of society as well as the needs of its individuals. But we must also take care of "eternal life" – theirs and ours. We are "emissaries of God" as well as "emissaries of men." We must find every opportunity to advance, with full responsibility, that lofty vision.

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 98a) speaks of the agricultural flourishing of Eretz Yisrael as a mark of the redemption, as does the verse in Yechezkel (36:8), "But you, mountains of Israel, shall shoot forth your branches and yield your fruit for My people, Israel." Some regard this not as a sign of the redemption, but rather as its very essence. This is not so. The essence of redemption is a moral life, a life of service to God, a life of Torah. This is the essence - nothing else.

Yishayahu ben Amotz cries out (1:16): "Wash yourselves, purify yourselves; remove the evil of your deeds from before My eyes." In the preceding diatribe, the prophet is not denigrating, heaven forefend, the great values of Torah and fear of God. Rather, he demands that we give everything its proper weight – not out of scorn for their importance and value, but out of a vision of the broader picture. I have spoken here about a question of priorities. We must see things in the proper perspective, with awareness of and commitment to meeting the needs of both temporal life and eternal life. We must strive to build a just society, which is devoted, with all its heart and might, to the service of God, and aspires to life in the World to Come.


[This sicha was delivered at the Tzohar rabbinic conference in Av 5764 (Summer 2004).]

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