The Torah warns us that if we fail to listen to God and keep His mitzvot, we will be punished with famine, war, and ultimately, exile.
“I will scatter you among the nations, and keep the sword drawn against you. Your land will remain desolate, and your cities in ruins.” (Lev. 26:33)
Why should the Jewish people be punished with exile? To answer this question, we must first understand the true significance of residing in the Land of Israel. If the goal of the Jewish people is to bring ethical monotheism to the world, would their mission not be more effectively fulfilled when they are scattered among the nations?
There is, however, a unique reason for the Jewish people to live in the Land of Israel. They need to dwell together in the Land so that there will be a nation in the world upon whom God’s honor rests; a nation for whom Divine providence is revealed in its history and circumstances; a nation that will be a source for all peoples to absorb knowledge of God and His ways. Their goal is to demonstrate that Divine morality can fill an entire nation — a morality that enlightens not only the private lives of individuals, but also guides the public paths of nations.
For the Jewish people to fulfill their national destiny, God’s seal must be placed on the people as a whole. The nation must recognize its special mission as God’s people living in His land. When the Jewish people as a whole abandoned God, even though many individuals still kept some of the mitzvot, the nation had lost their distinctive mark. The land was no longer recognizable as God’s land, and the nation was no longer recognizable as God’s nation. They saw themselves as a people like all others.
At that point, the Jewish people required exile. They needed to wander among the nations, stripped of all national assets. During this exile, they discovered that they are different and distinct from all other peoples. They realized that the essence of their nationhood contains a special quality; and that special quality is God’s Name that is associated with them.
We find in the Talmud (Shabbat 41a) a startling opinion regarding the nature of exile. When fourth-century scholar Rabbi Zeira wished to ascend to the Land of Israel, he needed to evade his teacher, Rabbi Yehudah. For Rabbi Yehudah taught that anyone leaving Babylonia for the Land of Israel transgresses the positive command, “They will be carried to Babylon, and there they shall stay, until the day that I remember them” (Jeremiah 27:22). (Rabbi Zeira, however, disagreed with this interpretation. He held that the prophecy only referred to vessels of the holy Temple.)1
Why did Rabbi Yehudah think that moving to the Land of Israel was so improper?
Babylonia at that time was the world center of Torah study. Great academies were established in Neharde'a, Sura and Pumbeditha. Jewish life in Babylonia was centered around the holiness of Torah. This great revival of Torah learning instilled a profound recognition of the true essence of the Jewish people. As such, Babylonia was the key to the redemption of Israel and their return to their land. Only when the Jewish people fully assimilate this lesson will the exile have fulfilled its purpose, and the Jewish people will be able to return to their land.
Rabbi Yehudah felt that individuals, even if they have already prepared themselves sufficiently for the holiness of the Land of Israel, should nonetheless remain in Babylonia. Why? The object of exile is not to correct the individual, but to correct the nation. The true significance of the Jewish people living in the Land of Israel — as an entire nation bearing the banner of the Rock of Israel — must not be obscured by the return of righteous individuals to the Land.
For Rabbi Yehudah, each individual Jew is like a Temple vessel. A vessel cannot fulfill its true purpose by itself, without the overall framework of a functioning Temple. So too, an individual can only join in the renascence of Israel in their Holy Land when the entire nation has been restored in its Land, via divine redemption.
(Gold from the Land of Israel, pp. 218-220. Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. IV, p. 2)
1 Note: Maimonides ruled that “Just as one may not leave the Land of Israel, so too one may not leave Babylonia” (Laws of Kings 5:12). It is not clear, however, whether the prohibition to leave Babylonia included ascending to the Land of Israel or not (see Kessef Mishneh ad. loc; Pe'at Hashulchan; Eretz Hemdah pp. 30–34).
With the gradual decline of Babylonia as the center of Jewish scholarship during the Middle Ages, this prohibition became irrelevant, and is not mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch. See also Pitchei Teshuvah in Even Ha-Ezer 75:6, who ruled that the mitzvah of ascending to the Land of Israel applies to all times.]