When the Jews were originally promised the land of Israel by Hashem, the land was still occupied. By what justification were the Jews allowed to conquer those who inhabited the land when they arrived? The Torah explains in Acharei Mot that the nations which had been living in the land of Canaan (Israel) had become so steeped in vile deeds, including adultery, idolatry, and incest, that “the land became contaminated... and the land disgorged its inhabitants” (Vayikra 18:25). Thus, the conquering of Israel by Yehoshua and the Jewish people served two functions: to fulfill Hashem’s promise to give the Jews the land, and to punish the previous occupants for their gross violations of acceptable human behavior.
What is unusual about the above verse is that the one who is held responsible for ejecting the Canaanites from the land is not Hashem or the Jewish people, but rather the land itself. This strange formulation is repeated as a warning to the Jews, “Let not the land disgorge you for having contaminated it, as it disgorged the nation that was before you” (Vayikra 18:28). How can an inanimate object, made of soil, rocks, and trees, kick out its own inhabitants?
The Ramban, in a lengthy exposition on the above verses, explains how the land of Israel is different from all other lands on Earth. When Hashem created the nations, He assigned an administering angel or spiritual guardian to be in charge of each land. However, an angel was not assigned to Israel. Instead, the land of Israel was to be in the charge of Hashem Himself.
While I do not claim to understand anything about angels, I think that one very clear idea emerges from the Ramban’s exposition. To be in Israel means to be in the presence of Hashem. Even though Hashem exists in all other places equally, His Presence is somehow more concentrated or more easily perceived in Israel. Therefore, as the Ramban continues, people must adjust their behavior patterns if they are to survive in this land, just as one would have to adjust their behavior if they were to be in the presence of a president or king. For example, if one were visiting a royal palace, one would dress differently than on a regular day. One would also talk differently and act differently, and would probably need to learn certain ritual behaviors which are appropriate for that palace. If one refused to adhere to the standards of behavior for that palace, that person would be kicked out pretty quickly.
An interesting story from the book of Melachim (Melachim II 17:24-41) is cited by the Ramban, which illustrates the relationship of the land of Israel to its people. When Assyria conquered and exiled the Ten Tribes of Israel, they were replaced with foreigners called the Shomronim or Kuttim. The narrative says that because the Kuttim did not know the rules of Hashem and the land of Israel, many of them were devoured by lions. The king of Assyria thus assigned them a Kohen from Israel who taught them the ways of Hashem and they adopted Torah practices, after which the lion attacks stopped. The Ramban points out that when the Kuttim were guilty of the very same practices in their original homeland, they were not attacked. Only when they tried to keep their old ways in Israel did Hashem unleash His fury on them.
Thus, what emerges from this week’s Parsha is that the 613 commandments of the Torah, while certainly obligatory outside of Israel, are meant to be kept primarily in Israel because that is where the elevated conduct required by the Torah is necessary in order to survive. I believe that this is the reason that when the Jews entered Israel for the first time, they were commanded to write the entire Torah on great stones coated with plaster as a monument to be left near their entrance to the land (see Devarim 27:1-8). This monument is not merely a reminder to keep the Torah, but it is part of the land of Israel, like a posting of the laws of the land or a sign outside the palace delineating proper conduct while inside. As we continue to keep the Torah’s commandments wherever we live, it is important to remember that the complete fulfillment of Torah life is possible only in the land of Israel.