Israel in Jewish Thought 101
Through centuries of exile, Jewish hopes and prayers were focused on a small swath of land bordering the Mediterranean Sea, but for the most part, discussions about the Land of Israel were practically irrelevant. In modern times, Jewish thinking regarding the Land evolved, as mass Jewish settlement of the Land became a reality.
Rabbinic sources debate whether the Land is inherently holy or whether it is made holy by the commandments practiced there. Regardless, the Land remained central in rabbinic thinking. Living in the Land atones for all sins, one source says; another claims that Jews buried there will be the first to be resurrected in the End of Days.
Rashi, the influential biblical commentator, picked up the Torah's theme of divine ownership of the Land by declaring that the Torah begins with Creation--and not the first commandment--to stress this point. God, as Creator, can give the Land of Israel to whomever God pleases.
Many medieval philosophers offered theories explaining the Land's holiness. Judah Halevi wrote that the Land's spiritual centrality is tied to its geographical centrality at the center of the inhabited earth. Similarly, Abraham Ibn Ezra believed the Land was astrologically superior to other lands.
According to Maimonides the Land is inherently like all other lands; the Land is a means toward fulfilling certain commandments, rather than an end in itself. However, Nahmanides--one of the kabbalists (mystics)--believed all of the commandments were meant exclusively for residents of the Land and are observed in exile only in preparation for the return there.