As a condition for inheriting the Land of Israel, the Torah demands that all forms of idolatry be destroyed:
“You shall utterly destroy all the places where the nations whom you are driving out worship their gods.... You must tear down their altars, break up their sacred pillars, burn their Asheirah trees, and chop down the statues of their gods. You must obliterate their names from that place.” (Deut. 12:2-3)
The Torah stresses that this obligation to destroy idolatrous artifacts is primarily binding in the Land of Israel. As the Sages commented on the words, “You will obliterate their names from that place”:
“In the Land of Israel you are commanded to pursue idolatry [until it is totally eradicated], but not outside the Land.” (Sifri; see Maimonides, Laws of Idolatry 7:2)
Idolatry is clearly the antithesis of Judaism’s message of monotheism. The imperative to fight idolatry should not be limited to a particular location. So why does the Torah confine the eradication of idolatry to the Land of Israel?
The conflict between monotheism and idolatry is a contest between two fundamentally opposing worldviews. Idolatry sees the world as divided and fragmented, a place where competing gods/forces of nature clash and struggle with one another. In this bleak worldview, the material outweighs the spiritual, and life is reduced to the pursuit of physical wants.
Monotheism, on the other hand, teaches that the world has an underlying unity. As one’s sense of the universe’s inner harmony deepens, one’s longing for the spiritual grows stronger. Higher aspirations take on greater significance; the world advances and is progressively enlightened.
The Sages wrote that “The air of the Land of Israel makes one wise” (Baba Batra 158b). Eretz Yisrael is bound to the spiritual life of Israel, the Torah; and the essence of the Torah’s wisdom is the inner truth of a united reality. The special atmosphere of the Land of Israel instills greater awareness of the world’s unified foundation. For this reason, obliteration of idolatry is especially important in the Land of Israel.
Outside the Land of Israel, the harmonious vision of a unified world cannot be fully revealed. There, a fragmented worldview reigns, emphasizing division and isolation. A grim sense of existential estrangement pervades all aspects of life. Any attempt to reveal the hidden unity of the world is hindered by the “impurity of the lands of the nations.” The lands outside of Israel suffer from the foul odor of idolatry. The Sages wrote that Jews living outside the Land are “idol-worshippers in purity” (Avodah Zarah 8a). In other words, they are unintentionally influenced by the cultural environment of the foreign countries in which they live.
This distinction is also manifest in the difference between the Torah of Eretz Yisrael and the Torah of the exile. The Torah outside the Land excels in detailed arguments and the fine dialectics of pilpul. Its qualities reflect the general sense of divisiveness felt there.1 The Torah of the Land of Israel, on the other hand, is illuminated by a lofty wisdom that connects the details to their governing moral principles. “There is no Torah like the Torah of the Land of Israel” (Breishit Rabbah 16:7).
Only by residing in the Land of Israel can one be truly free from the influence of idolatry. The Torah explicitly links living in the Land and monotheistic faith:
“I took you out from the Land of Egypt in order to give you the Land of Canaan, to be your God” (Lev. 25:38).
(Sapphire from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Orot HaKodesh vol. II, pp. 423-424)
1 “Rabbi Oshaia taught: No'am refers to the scholars of Eretz Yisrael, who treat each other graciously (מנעימים) when engaged in halachic debates. Chovlim refers to the scholars of Babylon, who attack (מחבלים) each other when debating halachic issues” (Sanhedrin 24a).