Almost all Jews are aware that there are 613 mitzvoth in the Torah. What is less well known is the fact that there is no agreed upon list of these mitzvoth. The first actual list of the 613 mitzvoth did not appear until the 8th century and that list was severely criticized by the Rambam four centuries later. In the next generation the Ramban took issue with the Rambam on no less than 34 mitzvoth, and the debate of what to include in the list of mitzvoth has never been resolved. The Ramban (Sefer HaMitzvot , Shoresh 1) actually questions whether the notion of 613 mitzvoth represents mainstream rabbinic thinking, or rather represents a minority viewpoint.
Perhaps the most famous and glaring omission of the Rambam-something the Ramban is quick to point out and dispute-is the mitzvah to dwell in the land of Israel. There has been no end to the discussion as to why the Rambam omitted something which is, in the words of our Sages, "equal to all other mitzvoth in the Torah" ( Sifri, Devarim 12:29). What has often been overlooked in this fascinating discussion is that for something that may not even be a technical fulfillment of a mitzvah, the Rambam considered living in Israel to be of great importance. In his legal code, the Mishne Torah , the Rambam quotes such statements as, "whoever lives in Israel, his sins are forgiven"; "our great Sages would kiss the stones of the land and roll in its earth" and "one should always live in Israel, even in a city where the majority are idol worshippers and do not live outside the land even in a city full with Jews" (Laws of Kings, Chapter 5).
Unfortunately, this was no theoretical position. Throughout much of our history, Jewish communities were few and far between in Israel . When the Ramban arrived in Jerusalem in 1267, the situation was so pathetic there was not even a minyan to be found. How different it is today! That alone gives us much to be thankful for, and reason enough to rejoice.
While the Rambam's stress on the importance of living in Israel is based on a Talmudic passage ( Ketubot 110b), this seemingly contradicts another one of his rulings found in Hilchot Deot , the Laws of Knowledge (6:1). Recognizing the powerful effect our surroundings have on us, the Rambam rules that one must always live in an environment that is conducive to developing a Torah personality and lifestyle. If one's neighbours are corrupt, one must pick up and move to a better neighbourhood. If there are no better neighbourhoods, one should actually withdraw from society, and if the local community does not let one live alone in peace, the Rambam rules that one must move to a cave or the desert in order to escape the debilitating influences of society. Yet the same Rambam rules that it is preferable to live with idolaters in Israel than within a Torah community in exile . Surely living amongst idolaters in Israel is not a conducive environment in which to practice Judaism!
While one may argue that living in Israel is so important that it supersedes the imperative of living in a Torah atmosphere, it appears that in reality, there is no contradiction to resolve. One must always live in an environment that is most conducive to a fully observant lifestyle, both in Israel and the Diaspora. Apparently, the Rambam feels that being in the land that G-d specifically chose for His beloved nation is the key factor that enables one to come closer to Torah. There is something inherent in the land itself that brings one closer to G-d. For some, this closeness to G-d is a living reality affecting their day to day lives. For many others, the connection is only on a subconscious level but it is there, nonetheless.
The unbelievable growth of Torah resulting from the establishment of the State of Israel is just one of many indicators that Israel and Torah go together. G-d is in the air; in the words of the Talmud the "air of Israel makes one wise"(Bava Batra 158b). In Israel , one breathes the presence of G-d, whether one wants to or not. Perhaps this is one reason that very few in Israel are apathetic about religion-views are expressed with extreme passion, as all know they are in a special land.
The Rambam's first and primary mitzvah on his list of 613 is to know that there is a G-d. The Mishne Torah begins with the ruling that the knowledge of G-d is the "foundation of foundations and pillar of wisdom". What better place to get to know G-d and learn His wisdom than the land of Israel , the land that "the eyes of G-d your Lord are on it at all times" (Devarim 11:12). May we merit dwelling there in peace.