In his introduction to Sefer Shemot, Ramban introduces two criteria which must be fulfilled in order for Bnei Yisrael to be considered a free nation. He writes that Bnei Yisrael will be considered free only if they return to Eretz Yisrael and to the heightened spiritual status of their Avot – Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov. Therefore, concludes Ramban, after the Jews experienced their revelation at Har Sinai and built the Mishkan, they were considered to be a free nation.
Certainly, the spiritual experience at Har Sinai and the holiness of the Mishkan were enough to restore the Jews to the spiritual status of the Avot; however, how can Ramban write that the revelation at Har Sinai and the building of the Mishkan justified the Jews’ being considered a free nation if those events preceded the Jews’ settling of Eretz Yisrael, one of the necessary prerequisites for the Jews to be considered free?
We can strengthen this question by noting Ramban’s well known opinion that the settling of Eretz Yisrael is of the utmost importance for the Jewish people. In his commentary on Parashat Acharei Mot (VaYikra 18:25 s.v. VaTitma HaAretz VaEfkod Avonah Alehah VaTaki HaAretz), Ramban presents multiple arguments which demonstrate the importance of the Jews’ settling Eretz Yisrael. Ramban writes that the reason why Jews perform Mitzvot outside of Eretz Yisrael is so that the Mitzvot will not be irregular and foreign to the Jews when they eventually return to Eretz Yisrael. Ramban’s comment, which implies that Mitzvot can be fulfilled perfectly only in Eretz Yisrael, highlights the importance which Ramban places on Eretz Yisrael. Additionally, Ramban quotes the Gemara in Ketubot (110b) – which states that “Kol HaDar BeChutzah LaAretz Domeh KeMi SheEin Lo Eloha,” “Anyone who dwells outside of Eretz Yisrael is like someone who does not have a God” – as proof to his belief that the relationship with Hashem is qualitatively diminished outside the geographic boundaries of Eretz Yisrael.
Therefore, we are left even more puzzled as to why Ramban considers Bnei Yisrael to be free after their revelation at Har Sinai and their building the Mishkan. How can Ramban consider the Jews to be free even before th ey entered Eretz Yisrael?
As Rav Daniel Fridman explained in one of his Chumash Shiurim at the Torah Academy of Bergen County, the importance of Eretz Yisrael is not a result of its geography but rather of its heightened spirituality. According to this argument, if Bnei Yisrael reached the heightened spiritual state which is normally contained only within Eretz Yisrael even before their settling of Eretz Yisrael, then Ramban would be justified in considering the Jews to be free even before they entered Eretz Yisrael. Therefore, if we can prove that the Jews reached a level of spirituality that is normally attainable only in Eretz Yisrael after their revelation at Har Sinai and their construction of the Mishkan, then we can resolve the seeming discrepancy within Ramban’s commentary on the Torah.
Hashem’s original commandment to build the Mishkan, given in this week’s Parashah, refers to the Mishkan as a “Mikdash” (Shemot 25:8), apparently equating the Mishkan with the Batei HaMikdash. Since the Torah seems to compare the Mishkan with the Batei HaMikdash in its first mention of the Mishkan, we can justifiably argue that the Mishkan – whose original dwelling place was in the Midbar, outside of Eretz Yisrael – contained within it the same level of spirituality that was contained within the Batei HaMikdash, which dwelled in the heart of Eretz Yisrael, Yerushalayim. Therefore, even before entering Eretz Yisrael, the Jews reached the heightened spiritual level of Eretz Yisrael through their building of the Mishkan. As such, Ramban can justifiably claim that the Jews were free even before they settled in Eretz Yisrael.
Although the argument that the holiness of Eretz Yisrael can be felt even outside Eretz Yisrael appears to be a radical one, two passages in the Gemara seem to support it. The Gemara in Ketubot (62b) quotes the aforementioned Pasuk (Shemot 25:8), which refers to the Mishkan as a “Mikdash,” and explains that the Mishkan was a resting place for Hashem’s Shechinah. This Gemara supports the notion that in some respects, the Mishkan was like an Israeli embassy, providing Jews with the heightened presence of Hashem’s Shechinah, which can normally be felt only inside Eretz Yisrael, despite their not being inside the borders of Eretz Yisrael.
The Gemara in Berachot (8a) similarly supports the notion that in rare circumstances, Hashem’s Shechinah can have the same influence outside of Eretz Yisrael as it has inside Eretz Yisrael. The Gemara quotes the Pasuk from the second paragraph of Keri’at Shema – “Lema’an Yirbu Yemeichem ViMei Beneichem Al HaAdamah,” “so that your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children, upon the land” (Devarim 11:21) – and notes that the implication of this Pasuk is that for Jews living in Bavel, it should be physically impossible to live long lives. The Gemara responds by noting that Jews in Bavel were known to be found in their Shuls from morning to night, so they were able to live long lives despite their not living inside Eretz Yisrael. The implicit assumption within this Gemara is that since a Shul is commonly referred to as a “Mikdash Me’at,” “a small Mikdash,” it too carries the embassy-like status of the Mishkan. Therefore, concludes the Gemara, the Jews living in Bavel were able to live long lives, because the heightened spiritually which is normally found only within the geographical borders of Eretz Yisrael can be found in Shuls as well.
From this solution to the seeming contradiction within Ramban’s words, it is apparent that the Kedushah of Eretz Yisrael can be felt, in rare circumstances, even outside of the geographic borders of Eretz Yisrael. This fact does not in any way detract from the inherent Kedushah of Eretz Yisrael, as the heightened level of Kedushah within Eretz Yisrael is permanent, whereas the heighted level of Kedushah can be sensed outside of Eretz Yisrael only in rare situations. We must appreciate this balance, recognizing that only Eretz Yisrael contains an inherent holiness, while simultaneously maintaining that through hard work, Jews living outside of Eretz Yisrael can feel that connection as well.