The Right and Wrong Ways to Encourage Aliyah
BY RABBI ELIE MISCHEL
It is the great disappointment of our time.
In the 75 years since the establishment of the State of Israel, we have witnessed miracles upon miracles. Though surrounded by enemies, Israel has flourished and grown. Prophecy after prophecy is being fulfilled before our eyes. And yet, after 2,000 years of longing for the Holy Land, hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Jews around the world have said: “thanks but no thanks, we’ll stay right where we are.”
Many olim struggle to understand why so many of their friends and family refuse to make the leap and move to Israel. Once you are here, once you’ve experienced Yom HaAtzmaut with our people in our Land, it all becomes so clear. This is where we belong; this is home.
Unsurprisingly, the longer you live in Israel, the harder it becomes to relate to those who choose to live in exile. And so it’s not shocking that every few weeks another article written by an exasperated oleh appears on Arutz Sheva, excoriating Diaspora Jews for not returning home. The arguments are familiar: “Jews in America have no future! How can they be blind to the sky-high assimilation rates and rising antisemitism?!” “They are repeating the failure of the Babylonian Jews who refused to return to Israel and build the Beit HaMikdash!” Some frustrated olim have gone so far as to pick fights on social media, accusing people of making South Florida the “new Jerusalem” and hypocritically praying for the building of Jerusalem three times a day while expanding their synagogues in the Diaspora.
I agree with many of these points. I also believe that G-d is sending us all a clear message to come home. But it is also obvious that attacking Diaspora Jewry has achieved little more than resentment and frayed relationships, counterproductively making it harder for Jews living in exile to absorb the teachings of Religious Zionism. Telling an older woman that she should make Aliyah now, since “you don’t want to make Aliyah in a box,” as someone recently told my friend’s mother (really!), likely won’t have the desired effect. People don’t appreciate being yelled at – even if you’re making a fair point.
How, then, can Religious Zionists encourage more Jews to come home? What is the best way to convey our message? The answer can be found by looking backwards, to a time when Am Yisrael was still young in the Land and struggled with many of the same challenges we face today.
Elkana: unique in his generation
When we think of Elkana, the father of Shmuel HaNavi, it is usually as one of many “supporting actors” in Tanach. He is generally known as Chana’s husband, the man married to two warring wives who somehow did not jump out of an open window. But as the Sages emphasize, there is far more to this man than meets the eye.
“There was one man (אִישׁ אֶחָד) from Ramatayim-tzophim… and his name was Elkana” (Shmuel I 1:1). Honing in on the unusual description of Elkana as “one man,” the midrash states that “whenever a verse describes a person as the ‘one,’ it means this person was unique in his generation” (Bamidbar Rabbah 10:5). But what, precisely, made Elkana so unique?
A Mishkan abandoned
Elkana’s greatness can only be understood against the backdrop of his generation. He and Chana lived at the very end of the era of the shoftim, when the elderly Eli served as both the high priest and the last of the judges. Although the Mishkan still stood in Shiloh, the corrupt men who held sway there – Chofni and Pinchas, the sons of Eli – abused their status and took advantage of the people who came to worship and bring sacrifices to G-d.
As the experience of visiting the Mishkan grew increasingly unpleasant, a competing religious institution was established close by. With silver from his mother, Micha forged an idol and set up a “beit elohim,” a “house of god” in his home, with his very own ephod, teraphim and a Levite to serve as the priest. In sharp contrast to the bad behavior of the priests in the Mishkan, Micha’s “house of god” was warm and welcoming, offering hearty meals to travelers. Unsurprisingly, fewer and fewer people went up to the Mishkan, choosing instead to worship at Micha’s house, only a few miles away (Sanhedrin 103b).
Can you imagine? The Mishkan stood in Shiloh, at the center of Israel. Hundreds of thousands of Jews lived only a short distance from the very building that Moshe and Betzalel built with their own hands in the wilderness – and almost nobody went to see it! Imagine living only a few miles from the aron haBrit, G-d’s Ark of the Covenant, and choosing instead to enjoy a good meal at Micha’s “house of god!”
What would become of such a lowly generation?
Do not despise your people
“Do not despise your mother when she is old,” “וְאַל-תָּבוּז כִּי-זָקְנָה אִמֶּךָ” (Mishlei 23:22). Making a play on the word “אִמֶּךָ,” Rabbi Zeira taught: “If your nation (אֻמָּתְךָ) has grown old [do not despise them, but rather] stand up and support them as Elkana did, for he would guide the people of Israel [to the Mishkan] for the pilgrimage festivals” (Yerushalmi Berachot 68a).
A nation “grown old” is a nation that has lost its way and forgotten its purpose. Elkana’s generation was spiritually tired and cynical, willing to trade G-d’s house for a warm welcome and a bowl of hot soup at Micha’s house of idolatry. And so the elders and rabbis of the generation gave up on their people and came to terms with their lowliness. Only Elkana, “unique in his generation,” refused to despise his people.
“And this man went up out of his city from year to year to worship and to sacrifice to Hashem the L-rd of hosts in Shiloh” (Shmuel I 1:3). Malbim writes that Elkana was the only man from his entire city to go up to Shiloh. But as the midrash explains, Elkana refused to accept the status quo:
“Elkana used to go up to Shiloh… His wives and sons, the members of his household… came up with him. On the way he would camp out in town squares… Wherever they went, people would notice them and ask, ‘Where are you going?’ ‘To the house of G-d in Shiloh,’ [Elkana would reply]. ‘Why don’t you come with us and we shall go up together?’ Thereupon [the people] would shed tears and say, ‘We shall go up with you.’ The following year five households would go up, the next ten, and the year after, all would assemble to go up… Elkana did not go up by the same route twice. Finally, all of Israel would go up to Shiloh” (Tanna Dvei Eliyahu Rabbah 8).
Elkana didn’t rebuke his fellow Jews or look down upon them with condescension. He didn’t grab the pulpit in local synagogues or stand on a street corner to castigate the townspeople for abandoning the Mishkan. Instead, he simply traveled from town to town, and when people asked him where he was going, he shared his excitement about going up to the Mishkan. “We are going to G-d’s house; it would be great if you came with us!” Elkana’s passion for the Mishkan, combined with his overflowing love for his fellow Jews triggered powerful, deep-seated emotions among the people. Their cynicism and disillusionment melted away, and they broke down in tears.
Alone among the leaders of his time, Elkana believed in his people. “He did not scorn the nation and the generation that had grown old with sin and weakness and lost faith in itself and its abilities, a generation full of doubt and hesitation that lived in fear of its enemies. He believed in the One who is ‘נוֹתֵן לַיָּעֵף כֹּחַ,’ the One ‘Who gives strength to the weary.’ He believed in the great potential hidden in the soul of his generation. And he understood that they were unable to hear words of mussar and rebuke because they were not yet aware of the inner greatness of their souls” (Rav Zvi Yisrael Thau, L’Emunat Iteinu, 105).
Elkana was discouraged by the outer appearance of his people. He did not hate, he did not scorn and he did not elevate himself over the community. He would not rebuke his fellow Jews, even l’sheim shamayim. And ultimately, with joy and confidence, Elkana succeeded in actualizing the hidden greatness of his generation.
Awakening a nation
Somehow, somewhere along the line, our Diaspora communities “grew old.” The miracles of ’48 and ’67 and the magic of Israel’s rebirth no longer inspire us the way they once did. As a shul rabbi in Livingston, New Jersey, coaxing people to attend the community wide annual Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut event felt like pulling teeth. The blue and white cookies and falafel balls have grown stale, and the hassle of attending the Israel Day Parade (have you ever tried finding a bathroom for your 6-year-old at the parade? Hashem yerachem!) no longer seems worthwhile. We have grown sleepy.
Am Yisrael desperately needs Diaspora Jewry to awaken and come home. As Nadia Matar often points out, if another million Jews make Aliyah, the world will see that this Land is ours. But how can we help our brothers and sisters find the strength to uproot their lives and move across the ocean?
In describing the way Elkana encouraged his fellow Jews to join him at the Mishkan, the midrash repeatedly uses the words “oleh” and “Aliyah.” Reading the midrash as a new oleh, the message is clear. Elkana’s approach to inspiring others to join him at the Mishkan must be the playbook for inspiring Aliyah in our own generation.
Like Elkana, we must not, G-d forbid, speak arrogantly, with frustration or anger. We must remember that many Jews yearn to make Aliyah, but are understandably afraid – afraid of leaving a secure job or switching careers, afraid of uprooting children and abandoning elderly parents, and afraid of the unknown. Have we been in Israel so long that we’ve forgotten our own pre-Aliyah panic attacks?
Many others were never educated to appreciate the critical importance of Jewish nationhood and the profound significance of the awesome events of the last 130 years. Diaspora Jewry needs us to believe in them, to give them encouragement, and the transformative Torah of Religious Zionism – not self-righteous mussar!
This past summer, after our first year living in Israel, I returned with my wife and kids to the US to visit family. On a Sunday afternoon, while enjoying some ice cream with my son at Votee Park in Teaneck, New Jersey, I ran into an old friend I hadn’t spoken to in years. He had all sorts of questions for me about Aliyah, the kids’ adjustment, high schools in Gush Etzion and job opportunities. And all of a sudden, like the Jews that Elkana met on his way to the Mishkan, I could see his eyes start to tear up. The conversation became more open; he spoke about how badly he wanted to make Aliyah, and the many roadblocks that stood in his way. I sat there, my ice cream melting, with a newfound respect for this Jew who refused to give up on his dream of Aliyah.
We Anglo olim, like immigrants everywhere, lack the influence in Israeli society that our numbers suggest we should have. It’s hard to make an impact in the culture or the Knesset when most of us are still struggling to understand our electric bills. But if there is one mission for which we are uniquely suited, it is this: encouraging and inspiring our brothers and sisters around the world to come home. Check in with old friends and share the joys of life in Israel with them. Offer advice, practical help and emotional support if they seek it, and remain silent when they do not. And most of all, be the friend who truly believes in them and their inner love for the Land.
“We believe in our people, a great, lofty and righteous nation… All we must do is arouse the ancient sleeping giant of Israel!” (Rav Yitzchak Nissenbaum hy”d, Derushim v’Chomer l’Drush, Drush Chamishi).
Rabbi Elie Mischel is the Editor of HaMizrachi magazine.