Aliyah to Eretz Yisrael: Ancient Mitzvah, Modern Calling
BY RABBI YAKOV HABER
In explaining why the Torah devotes so much space to describing Avraham Avinu’s purchase of the Ma’arat HaMachpelah to bury his beloved wife, Sarah Imeinu, Ibn Ezra comments: “To inform us of the benefit of the Land of Israel above all other lands for the living and the dead” (Bereishit 23:19). These brief but insightful words from one of the great commentaries will serve as our introduction to the well-trodden topic of Aliyah – a mitzvah that requires constant, additional strengthening and a fresh perspective.
Throughout the generations, Jews have made Aliyah with four different motivations: the pragmatic, the mitzvah based, idealistic or messianic. Pragmatically, many have immigrated to Eretz Yisrael as refugees – among them Holocaust refugees, Jews banished from Arab lands after the establishment of the State of Israel, and many fleeing persecution in the former Soviet Union. For all of these refugees, Israel has served as a place of refuge. To be sure, the hearts of many among this group were filled with love of the land and viewed their immigration as a fulfillment of Biblical prophecies; nevertheless, their primary motivation was escape. Nowadays, many Jews find better employment opportunities and cheaper housing and education in Israel. These motivations are primarily practical, not spiritual.
But many have made Aliyah because they believe that living in the Land is a mitzvah, whether obligatory or optional but still constituting the fulfillment of a Divine commandment (mitzvah kiyumit). Some maintain that even if living in the Land does not fulfill a specific Divine command, it is, nevertheless, the will of Hashem. Rabbi Sholom Gold poignantly writes: “The story is told of a Diaspora Jew who studied in depth the whole range of opinions about yishuv haAretz and then called and made an appointment with Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. The appointed day came; he arrived at the airport, took a cab to Shaarei Chessed, made his way up the steps and soon found himself in the Rosh Yeshiva’s presence. He began to pour out all the knowledge he had committed to memory when Rabbi Auerbach said softly in Yiddish, ‘Es iz nisht vichtig’ – ‘It is not important.’ Our Diaspora hero was devastated – but pressed on until he heard again, ‘It’s not important.’ In his desperation, he asked, ‘What does the Rosh Yeshiva mean, it’s not important?’ To which Rabbi Shlomo Zalman replied, ‘Just open up a Chumash and read and you will see that ratzon Hashem (G-d’s will) is that Jews should live in Eretz Yisrael’” (Rabbi Sholom Gold, The Passion of our Time).
Many have been inspired to make Aliyah hoping to help build up the Land agriculturally, economically, and spiritually. Rabbi Moshe Ze’ev Katz, a prominent and energetic Rabbinic personality, moved to Beit Shemesh in the 1970s when it was still a spiritual wasteland. Single-handedly, he built up a network of Torah centers and inspired hundreds to return to Torah observance. Today’s flourishing Ramat Beit Shemesh community, with thousands of religious families, very well might be due to this initial investment of mesirut nefesh. Furthermore, every religious family’s Aliyah increases the spiritual nature of the entire country.
Over 50 years ago, Rabbi Yechiel Michel Tucazinsky powerfully wrote: “How easy travel is to Eretz Yisrael! From America to [Israel] is only 36 hours (!)… All the roads are paved, water and other food staples are not lacking, we have electricity [and] fuel. The government of Israel controls the Land; the gates of the Land are open wide…
“What is lacking today? That strong yearning which burned in the hearts of the faithful of Israel of previous generations in exile. Had travel and entry to Eretz Yisrael been so easy 100 years ago or if all of the faithful of Israel in our era been drawn by the same soul-strings to our Holy City and Land, Eretz Yisrael would have been settled by a solid majority of religiously observant Jews. Sitting on the seats of the Knesset would be Jews who know what Eretz Yisrael means, who feel the intensity of the bonds which connect [the Land] and [the people]. Eretz Yisrael would then have an entirely different character. Knesset laws would be based on the Torah of Israel; there would be no question in Israel about keeping Shabbat… and certainly, there would be no freedom for missionaries to proselytize Jews. No desecration of Jewish values, no war of the mundane over the sanctified…
“All this would occur if the faithful of Israel in exile were drawn to the Land. They could save Judaism and the sanctity of the Land from its enemies. True, even today, most of them feel a great connection to our holy Land; they pray toward it… and raise it above all of their joy. Even today, they support the Jewish yishuv no less than in the past, but they still embrace dwelling in exile, planning to remain there in the future.
“It is incumbent upon all religious Jews, especially all of our rabbanim, to learn a lesson from the earlier generations of Jews who entered Eretz Yisrael with great self-sacrifice and desired to take refuge in Hashem’s courtyards… We would then draw near, day by day, to our complete redemption and our hoped-for destiny” (Sefer Eretz Yisrael, end of Chapter 27).
Many Jews are drawn to the Land by messianic yearnings. In past centuries, hundreds of families moved toIsrael inspired by messianic hopes. Many Chassidim and students of the Vilna Gaon made Aliyah in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to jumpstart the spiritual awakening of the Land, hoping that G-d would move the redemptive process forward. Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer believed that we must bring sacrifices even before the Beit HaMikdash is built to awaken Divine mercy to hasten the redemption. Many view the Balfour Declaration, the San Remo conference, the 1947 United Nations vote and the extraordinary population growth in Israel as at least a pekida, a first step in the redemptive process. Recently, frightened by the COVID-19 pandemic, the restriction of travel to Eretz Yisrael and rising antisemitism, many are talking of Mashiach’s imminent arrival, thinking, “We better go now before the gates close!”
Understandably, many rabbinic personalities have forcefully objected to these messianic motivations, expressing concerns that messianic speculation will lead to disillusionment or worse, as we have seen all too often in Jewish history in the aftermath of false or misguided messianic movements.
What is the proper motivation for making Aliyah? In my humble opinion, although some of the inspirations for Aliyah are loftier than others, each type of Aliyah has its proper place. An analogy can be drawn to the different motivations for teshuvah. In Sha’arei Teshuvah (Sha’ar 2), Rabbeinu Yona outlines several motivations to repent, some ideal and some less so. But the Rabbis teach us “a person should always engage in Torah [study] and [the performance of] the commandments even for ulterior motives, for from these ulterior motives will sprout pure ones” (Pesachim 50b). Even an ulterior motive can ultimately inspire a person to act in a proper, holy way.
Although necessary caution in messianic speculation is certainly in order, I believe this does not exempt us from attempting, with proper humility and uncertainty, from trying to “read the map” of individual and national events in our lives. In the last blessing of the morning Shema, we read: “praiseworthy is the nation who hearkens unto Your commandments and places Your Torah and Your Word on its heart.” Although “Your Torah” and “Your Word” seem to be redundant, Rabbi Shimon Schwab explains that while “Your Torah” refers to Hashem’s explicit teachings in the Torah, “Your Word” refers to the messages Hashem sends to us indirectly by intervening in our lives.
In the same vein, Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld zt”l expressed his frustration with Torah Jewry’s passive reaction to the Balfour Declaration: “Where are the Torah Jews from the lands of exile? Don’t they see G-d’s finger in all of this? Now I understand what it says in the Musaf prayer for Yom Tov, ‘And because of our sins we were exiled from our country and were distanced from our Land.’ ‘We were exiled from our country’ by G-d, and then ‘we were distanced from our Land’ by ourselves! Have we ceased our anticipation? Imagine if it hadn’t rained for 2,000 years, and then suddenly, one day, a tiny cloud appeared. Wouldn’t everyone become excited and say, trembling, ‘Perhaps this is it? Maybe, after all…?’ Isn’t the (British) Mandate at least comparable to this little cloud?”
We can only guess what Rabbi Sonnenfeld would have said in an era where over six million Jews live in Eretz Yisrael, the economy is flourishing, and Yeshivot and kollelim, attended by thousands of students, abound.
New olim face many challenges in moving to Israel, and they should not be ignored. But I firmly believe that we must not dismiss the option of Aliyah because of these challenges but rather seek out solutions. Much has been done in the past twenty years to address these issues. Many new schools across the hashkafic spectrum cater to Anglo Torah-observant Jews, and professional support groups are in place to provide crucial assistance to teens and tweens. Job networks abound and the COVID-19 era has made distance working a real option for many more people.
Three times each day, we pray to Hashem: “Blow the great shofar for our freedom; lift up the banner to gather our exiles!” It is clear to many that the Great Actor of History, Hashem Himself, has lifted this banner for all to see over the past century and even more so with recent events! How fortunate are we to live in a generation when living in Eretz Yisrael is far easier than it has been for thousands of years! How fortunate are we to live in an era when job opportunities and schooling options in Eretz Yisrael abound! How blessed are we to live at a time when very soon the majority of our people will be living in our Land as Eretz Yisrael is blossoming before our very eyes!
My father z”l once shared a vignette about a Chassidic Rebbe who wished to embark on a massive spiritual project to benefit the Jewish people. His detractors admonished him, “Rebbe, du bizt a chalomer!” (“Rebbe, you are a dreamer!”), to which he responded, “Ken zein az ich bin a chalomer, ubber ich shluft nisht!” (“It could be that I’m a dreamer, but I am not sleeping!”) If we believe in Aliyah, we must keep the dream alive by constantly learning its importance and yearning for its fulfillment. If we view Aliyah as a desirable goal or even if we do not yet but we are convinced that it should be a goal of ours, we must keep the dream alive by constantly learning, experiencing and inquiring so that the dream can become a reality for thousands, and hopefully even hundreds of thousands, of more Jews, faithful to Torah values, who have the ability to elevate themselves along with their families, greatly affect the yishuv in the Holy Land, and b’ezrat Hashem bring the day of our final redemption closer!
● A version of this essay was originally published on TorahWeb.org.
Rabbi Yakov Haber is a Rebbe at Shapell’s/ Yeshiva Darche Noam and Sha’alvim for Women, both in Jerusalem. He received his Rabbinic ordination from RIETS and, before making Aliyah to Ramat Beit Shemesh with his family in 2007, taught at Yeshiva College and Stern College as well as at RIETS.