The terrifying Tochacha, a list of punishments that will befall Bnei Yisrael if they stray from God’s path, warns the Jews that if they fail to listen to God and deviate from the Mitzvot, they will be punished with famine and war which will ultimately lead to exile.
Rav Kook inquires why the exile the designated to be the “ultimate punishment” In fact, being spread out throughout the world seemingly has advantages. If the goal of the Jewish people is to bring ethicality to the world, to be an “Or laGoyim,” a “light unto the nations,” would Bnai Yisrael's mission not be more effectively fulfilled when they are scattered among the nations? To answer this question, Rav Kook first expounds upon the true significance of the Jew's residing in the Land of Israel.
There is a unique necessity concerning Bnei Yisrael’s occupation of Eretz Yisrael: Bnei Yisrael needs to reside in the land so the Divine presence has a “home” in which to rest. From there, the Divine presence would emanate its omnipresence throughout the world, allowing Eretz Yisrael to serve as Hashem’s embassy to the world. The Jewish people must occupy Eretz Yisrael as a unified, moral nation to be an intermediary between the Omnipotent one and the rest of the world to enable others to be guided by that same light.
For the Jewish people to fulfill this mission, God's presence must be ever apparent in the lives of all of Am Yisrael. By embracing the land which God commanded the Jews to occupy, they are showing how they integrate God into the most physical, quotidian parts of our existence, the very land on which they live. Therefore, when Bnei Yisrael sin, they deny this uniqueness inherently present in their command to occupy Eretz Yisrael; by rejecting the Mitzvot, the Jews show HaShem that they do not understand His attempted conveyance of His message. As a result, Bnai Yisrael are not ready to serve as divine intermediaries to be an “Or LaGoyim.”
Consequently, Am Yisrael is exiled. They must wander the world, living without a life that is intrinsically connected to God. Only through firsthand experience of the radical difference of living outside of God’s land can enable Bnai Yisrael to realize their mistakes to repent. They must recognize that, as a nation, they are different than the other nations.
The Gemara (Shabbat 41a) presents a startling opinion regarding the nature of exile. When Rabi Zeira wished to leave Bavel to return to Eretz Yisrael, he avoided his Rebbe, Rav Yehuda, because Rav Yehuda felt that entering Eretz Yisrael during a time of exile was violating a commandment. But how could Rav Yehuda posit such a shocking claim? To answer this difficulty, one must look towards Rav Kook’s explanation of exile.
Then, Bavel the Jewish world’s center. Its many Yeshivot allowed more Torah learning to take place in Bavel than anywhere else in the world. During the same time, Bnei Yisrael was beginning to congregate to repair itself after the second Temple's destruction. Only by rebuilding itself as a unified nation outside of God’s land could the Jewish people realize the radical difference between divine nationality and that of a mundane land. The object of the exile was not to correct the Jews individually, but to correct the Jews on a national scale. Furthermore, the purpose of the occupation of Eretz Yisrael is a nationwide message. Eretz Yisrael's significance is it's being the land that Am Yisrael claims. Its significance can be realized only through national occupation.
This message is also apparent at the very beginning of Sefer BeReishit. Many commentators ask why Hashem was so vague in his language to Avraham. “...Lech Lecha, MeiArtzcha, UMeiladitcha, UMei Beit Avicha El HaAretz Asheir Areka” “...Leave your land, the land of your birth, of your father’s house, to the land I designate for you” (BeReishit 12:1) Why didn’t Hashem specifically tell Avraham to travel to Eretz Canaan? An answer lies within Rav Kook’s words: Eretz Yisrael existed to be occupied by a divine nation. Actually, the specific location of the land did not matter. The significant detail is HaShem's designation of the land. This idea is further supported by the immediately following Pasukim. After commanding Avraham to leave, HaShem assures him that He will make Avraham into a large nation. This is Hashem's first promise because Eretz Yisrael must always be occupied by Hashem's nation.
My Rebbe, Rabbi Weiner, articulated incredibly relevant criticizing words. In modern society, one hears only “me, me, me.” Even during contemporary personal Tefilot, when people ask for blessings or help in a difficult situation, the case is always singular. However, when the Chachamim established Tefilah, they pluralized requests, illustrating the fact that God sees the Jews important as a nation, not as self-serving individuals. The present is an incredibly difficult time, with constant existential threats to the State of Israel. However, promising to give Tzedakah, to pray more, or to recite additional Tehilim is insufficient. Now we must unite. The threats of contemporary society make incredibly apparent the difficulty of living as a people without a divine nationality. Moreover, with practical problems, God is often forgotten. It is in the face of these great challenges that we have to join together as a nation, and instead of ignoring the lack of spirituality in our home land for “more important issues,” we must face the ongoing problems. It is only through recognizing dispersion as a problem that Hashem will allow us to live a life of divine closure again. May we all merit to experience this national epiphany, to overcome the materialistic challenges of this world, to spiritually unite as a nation, to constitute a true “Or LaGoyim.”