Yearning for a Permanent Home

Son of Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin (the Netziv), Rabbi Meir Bar-Ilan (1880–1949) was one of the Mizrachi movement’s greatest and most passionate advocates. Living in Berlin in 1911, he founded HaIvri, the world’s first Hebrew weekly newspaper. It soon became a primary forum for leading Zionists to grapple with the great questions of the day. 

In 1915, as World War I engulfed Europe, Rabbi Bar-Ilan moved to the United States, where he lived for the next ten years. He soon became the recognized head of the Mizrachi party and established an American counterpart to his HaIvri paper, which was published weekly until 1921. The following essay was published in Hebrew on the front page of HaIvri on October 11, 1916, and is translated here for the first time.

“Every citizen of Israel shall dwell in Sukkot” (Vayikra 23:42).

From our study of mussar we know that it is not enough to help one’s friend when he is in pain and to give him support and strength. Rather, we are obligated to join our friend in his suffering, to see ourselves as if we too are suffering in the same way. We must truly feel his pain.

This obligation is not restricted to individuals, but applies to nations as well. Nations that dwell securely and peacefully in its own land are obligated to feel the suffering of those poor and unfortunate peoples who dwell in exile. Settled nations must see themselves as if they, too, are suffering in exile.

When our people were אֶזְרָחִים, citizens, settled securely in our own Land of Israel, we were commanded to leave our permanent homes for a few days to live in sukkot, in temporary tents, so that we ourselves could could experience a taste of wandering and exile. We would remember that we were not always established citizens in Israel, but that we too had dwelled in sukkot when we left Egypt. Living in sukkot helped us identify with other nations who had been exiled and could not live in their own land, people who only knew a life of sukkot.

Temporary and impermanent – this is the tragedy of every wandering nation. A nation that dwells in its own land lives a life of permanence and order. If there is value to its actions, the value is lasting and does not change from day to day. And if there is holiness in its way of life, its holiness has permanence. But this is not the fate of wandering peoples, whose lives are not in healthy order. Its people dwell in one land for a period of time and become accustomed to its ways, but are forced to move on to another land, and adopt their ways instead.

This is the history of wandering. There is no nation in world history that walked in exile, whether willingly or against its will, that was not diminished in reputation and numbers. By definition, exile weakens a people, for their children inevitably assimilate into the host nation’s population. And if there are groups of people who are permanent wanderers, such as the gypsies, they do not even qualify as proper nations possessing their own unique culture and literature.

Only Am Yisrael, despite wandering for years in the desert, merited to be covered by the clouds of glory. Only Am Yisrael, despite our wandering, raised children who retained our identity and stepped into the shoes of their fathers who died before their time. And not only that, but there, in our exile in the wilderness, our national identity was formed and we received G-d’s Torah! But even as we lived in temporary sukkot, we hoped for future days when we would cease to be wanderers and dwell in our own Land.

Just as this hope for our own Land protected the generation of the wilderness, who despite their wanderings did not lose their identity and preferred to wander in the wilderness than to return to slavery in Egypt, so have we had many generations since then of “temporary dwelling”, during which the spirit of Israel remained strong and our independent identity did not waver. Even as we wandered, the “clouds of glory” did not leave us, and our children remained with us, accepting the heritage of their father and preserving their unique qualities and achievements. From the exiles of Babylonia, Spain, France and Germany through the exiles of Poland and Lithuania in recent times, we were wanderers, but we did not dwell in a “foreign environment”. We built walls of the spirit around us, and within these walls we lived in a world of our own. We had great centers, of the Geonim in Babylonia, of the wise men of Israel in Spain, and the Gedolei Torah in other lands. And all this time we kept one hope within our hearts: that soon, in just a few more years, our nation would return to life in its own land. 

When we dwelt as citizens in our own land, we would test our strength, to see if we possessed the endurance to live a life of wandering. We practiced a life of wandering during the holiday of Sukkot, to see what impact it would have on us and whether we would be able to survive if our land was taken from us.

This “practice” served us well. For when we lived in exile, our temporary homes were spiritually healthy, with an atmosphere of permanence. We kept apart from nations among whom we lived, creating spiritual kingdoms within the physical kingdoms of others. We fulfilled the dictum of תֵּשְׁבוּ כְּעֵין תָּדוּרוּ, “dwell in [sukkot] as you dwell [in your homes]” (Sukkot 28b), not only during Sukkot, but all year long. Torrential rains of decrees and suffering poured down upon us, and if the sun occasionally shone with promises of kindness, we still refused to leave our temporary sukkot for permanent buildings that were not our own!… We recognized that we can never live in permanent dwellings in lands not our own. And if our host nations came and destroyed our sukkot and sought to erase the memories of our past and our hopes for the future from our hearts, we would leave that place and build our sukkot anew in a different land. 

Only in recent generations have we sought to truly dwell among foreign nations. The wandering has become too much for us; we yearn for a permanent home, and seek it in the homes of others… We have ventured outside of our walls, destroying the mechitza that separated us from our neighbors. If we still have temporary sukkot in our time, they are no longer kosher sukkot, for they are not built from the materials of our own Land and they are also tainted with materials that are מְקַבֵּל טוּמְאָה, susceptible to impurity.

How beautiful were our sukkot when they stood in our own Land, and we dwelled in them with pleasure and joy! How beloved were our sukkot when they stood within our borders and aroused thoughts of building David’s fallen sukkah [the Beit HaMikdash]! But how different are the sukkot that possess no joy in the present nor hope for the future but serve only as a place of refuge from the stones thrown at us…

But today, [as the world is convulsed in war,] we see sukkot that give us some hope. It is possible that through the many “sukkot in which millions of soldiers now find themselves, in the trenches and battlefields [of World War I] – perhaps through this experience the citizens of the world will begin to understand the suffering of the stranger and wanderer. Perhaps now, when so many millions are forced to leave their comfortable homes for the temporary dwellings of war to fight for the freedom of their nations – perhaps now they will have some sympathy for our people, for our yearning for freedom and for our homeland…

 

Only one year after this essay was published, on November 2, 1917, Rabbi Meir Bar-Ilan’s hope for compassion from the nations materialized with the issuance of Great Britain’s Balfour Declaration, expressing the British government’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

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