The Commandment to Settle the Land of Israel
Settling the Land: Planting Trees and Economic Development
We have already learned that the mitzvah of settling the Land of Israel does not involve only conquering it, but also requires the settling and developing of every part of it. The Ramban stresses this point that “We should not leave the Land under foreign rule or desolate, as it says: You should inherit the land and settle it.”
Planting fruit trees in Israel fulfills one aspect of this mitzvah, which obligates the Jewish nation to cultivate every part of the Land and not to leave it desolate. There is no commandment to plant fruit trees outside of Israel and usually one only does so for the purpose of providing a livelihood. Those living in the Land of Israel, however, have the mitzvah (commandment) of planting fruit trees regardless of their profession.
The wise Sages expanded on this concept in the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 25,3), “It is said that one should follow after God. Is it possible for flesh and blood to follow after God? It is also said that one should cleave to God. Is it possible for flesh and blood to cleave to God? Rather one should go in His ways, and cleave to His character traits. And just as God, at the beginning of creation, first planted and tended to the Garden of Eden, so too should the Jewish nation upon entering the Land, as it is written: ‘You should come to the Land and plant.'” We learn from this that one who plants a tree in the Land of Israel is cleaving to God’s character trait.
There are two advantages to planting trees; one – as a future investment. Sometimes people invest their efforts in transient matters, but the Torah guides us to invest our efforts in planting trees in order to root ourselves in the Land through permanent means. The second advantage is that with the abundance of trees, the Land bears fruit that has intrinsic holiness and when the Jewish nation eats these fruits, many other commandments are performed, such as the Priestly tithes and the prohibition of eating the fruit for the first three years (orlah).
The Chatam Sofer writes (in his commentary on the Talmud, Tractate Sukkah 36) that working the Land of Israel in order to harvest its holy fruit fulfills the commandment of settling the Land and the mitzvah commanding the Jewish nation to harvest the grains of the Land. Boaz, who was considered a great man of his generation, did not deem it a waste of time that could have been spent studying Torah to spend the night working and harvesting the Land. Just as one who is busy learning Torah still needs to stop in order to perform the commandment of laying tefillin, one should stop his Torah learning for the sake of harvesting the crops. The Chatam Sofer adds another important comment on this subject: It is possible that all the work and skills that enable us to settle the Land are in themselves mitzvot. According to this idea, one that assists in the economic development of Israel may be considered a partner in the mitzvah of settling the Land. The Land of Israel is holy in both its physical and spiritual attributes and those who assist in its development are partners in its holy building.