Rabbi Eliezer MelamedThe writer is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law, whose works include the series on Jewish law "Pininei Halacha" and a popular weekly column "Revivim" in the Besheva newspaper. His books "The Laws of Prayer" "The Laws of Passover" and "Nation, Land, Army" are presently being translated into English. Other articles by Rabbi Melamed can be viewed at: www.yhb.org.il/1
Throughout all the years of exile, the Jewish Nation continued to yearn for its homeland. Notable figures among the giants of past generations, such as Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, the Rambam, and the Ramban even fulfilled the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz (settling the Land of Israel) and made aliyah to Eretz Yisrael. However, the time of the final Redemption had not arrived, and the Jewish People also did not repent completely. Consequently, the Jewish community in the Land was not able to strengthen itself and become self-sufficient. In the face of economic hardship and physical danger, it was nearly impossible to sustain any kind of normal continuous settlement.
Approximately two-hundred years ago, a new awakening of aliyah to Eretz Yisrael began. Rabbi Chaim ben Atar, the leading rabbi of Morocco, author of the commentary “Ohr HaChaim” on the Torah, immigrated to Israel. In his writings, he expressly states that his aliyah represented a “bringing closer” of the Redemption (see also his commentary on Vayikra, 25:25). After this, in the year 5637 (1877), the foremost student of the Maggid from Mezrich, the Admor, Rebbe Menachem Mendel from Vitebsk, came on aliyah, accompanied by three hundred followers. This represented the foundation of the Hassidic community in Eretz Yisrael.
However, the Torah giant who spoke most explicitly about immigrating to the Land of Israel, and its rebuilding, was the Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu from Vilna, also known as the Vilna Gaon, or the Gra. On numerous occasions, he spoke to his students emotionally, saying that the Redemption would be quickened only through the ingathering of the exiles and the building of the Land. He furthermore stressed that only through the resettlement of Eretz Yirael would we be saved from the terrible trials and tribulations inherent in the birth pangs of Mashiach. The Gaon foresaw what was likely to happen to the Jews of Europe. He himself began the journey to Israel, parting from his family after writing a stirring will and testament. However, from the Heavens, he was instructed to return. Nevertheless, he continued to encourage his students to immigrate in order to rebuild the Land.
In the year 5569 (1809), approximately ten years after the Vilna Gaon passed away, the first group of his students arrived in Safed, led by Rabbi Menachem Mendel from Shklov. About two years later, Rabbi Israel from Shklov, author of the “Pe’at HaShulchan,” also found his way there. Joining them were Rabbi Hillel from Shklov, and other Torah scholars, craftsmen, and farmers. Many of the pioneers settled in Jerusalem; others in Safed, and in budding agricultural communities. Although they faced dreadful difficulties, they nevertheless drew inspiration from the words of their great Rabbi, the Gaon of Vilna, concerning the supreme importance of the mitzvah to settle the Land.
Thus, from one generation to the next, their settlements continued to grow, forming the core of the Ashkenazi “Old Yishuv.” From their ranks stemmed the builders of the first neighborhoods outside the walls of Jerusalem, and the moshavim of the “New Yishuv,” such as Petach Tikva. From a few hundred righteous Jews who immigrated to Israel with an unmatched spirit of miserut nefesh (self-sacrifice), the re-born settlement grew to tens of thousands.
Unfortunately, the myriads of religious Jews living in the Diaspora failed to follow in their footsteps, and the difficulties and persecutions of the exile continued to increase.
Approximately fifty years after the aliyah of the students of the Gra, two outstanding Torah scholars of the generation, students of Rabbi Akiva Eiger – Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh Kalisher and Rabbi Eliyahu Gutmacher – began to encourage mass immigration to Israel, in order to build the prophesied Jewish Kingdom in Eretz Yisrael. In the wake of their incentive, aliyah increased. However, the Nation was still far from reaching the over-all goal of its prayers for a massive ingathering from the distant corners of the galut, exile,and consequently, the trials and tribulations of exile reached ever-alarming proportions. In addition to a frightening rise in anti-Semitism, Jews began to abandon the Torah, and many chose to assimilate in the Diaspora.
Tens of years later, a number of Gedolei Yisrael, Torah giants, from Eastern Europe, including Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever, Rabbi Mordechei Elishberg, and the Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (HaNatziv), arose and began to encourage aliyah to Israel within the framework of the “Chibat Tzion” (Lovers of Zion) movement. At that time, many Jews had already left the way of Torah and mitzvot.
These Torah giants agreed to work together with the leaders of Jews who were not “especially meticulous” in guarding the commandments – for the sake of settling the Land. Their endeavors brought about what is called the “first aliyah” (circa 5642 ). The majority of new immigrants were religious, if not top caliber Torah scholars like the students of the Gra. Nevertheless, there were important Torah personalities among the new pioneers, such as Rabbi Mordechai Gimpel Yaffe, who became the Rabbi of the new community of Yehud. Even though the nascent settlements continued to grow, the great majority of Diaspora Jews still did not heed the call to return to Zion.
In Europe, anti-Semitism grew steadily, as did the number of Jews who strayed from the faith. Many of those who left the Torah hoped that by leaving Judaism, and assimilating amongst the non-Jews, their troubles would cease. Anti-Semitism, however, continued to spread. Some of the Jews who tried to assimilate, like Binyamin Ze’ev Herzl, realized that Jewish nature was unique and inescapable. Only through the establishment of an independent Jewish State in the Land of Israel would it be possible to save the Jews from the menace of anti-Semitism.
Spearheaded by Herzl, the Zionist movement rapidly spread throughout Europe. Originally, some Gedolei Yisrael supported them. This led to the formation of the “Mizrachi” movement. But there were other respected Gedolim who opposed the Zionist movement, mainly because they feared that many Jews would be swayed to follow the non-religious lifestyle of its secular leaders.
The widely discussed concept of Zionism, combined with growing anti-Semitism, aroused larger numbers of Jews to support the growing drive to settle the Land, and to establish a Jewish State. Nonetheless, the majority of Jews, whether religious or not, did not participate in the Zionist movement.
Only after the Holocaust did the necessity of establishing an independent Jewish State in the Land of Israel become clear to almost everyone. Myriads of refugees from Europe and Arabic lands immigrated to Israel, and thus the State of Israel arose and began to develop, accompanied by Divine favor and blessing, and the great self-sacrifice of the Jews who returned to the Land.
The Essential Return to Holiness
On numerous occasions, Hashem has knocked on the door of Knesset Yisrael to arouse us to return to our Land. If only we had heeded the call of the Gaon from Vilna and his students, who knows how many pogroms and disasters could have been averted? If the masses of Jews who stood facing an abyss of unspeakable persecution and murder had followed the urgings of visionaries like the holy Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook, and the political leader, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who knows how many lives could have been saved? Additionally, the Nation’s connection to the Torah and mitzvot would have remained stronger, for multitudes of Jews would have witnessed how, through the merit of the Torah and its call for a national return to the Jewish homeland, multitudes would have been saved from the horrific persecutions which followed.
The abandonment of the Torah largely stems from the feeling that its adherents are remnants of the past. The entire world is busy building new technologies and innovations, while Judaism seems concerned with mere survival under increasingly harsh conditions.
If only we had dedicated ourselves to redeveloping the Nation in Eretz Yisrael, in line with the grand vision of the ingathering of the exiles, then the resettlement of the Land, in accordance with the words of the Prophets, would have filled the hearts of our people with awe, and brought wanderers back to the fold. All of the talented Jews, who went astray and gave their strengths to foreign nations in the fields of science, culture, politics, economics, and art, not to mention marrying out of the fold, would have invested their energies here in the Land of Israel, for the sake of their own Jewish Nation and homeland. The Jewish State would have been established earlier – not as a result of trials and tribulations, but through allegiance to the Divine instructions of the Torah and the vision of the Prophets.
Even the conflict with the Arab population would have been negligible, for had we arrived to the Land in overwhelming numbers, the whole situation of Arab immigration to “Palestine,” which has transpired over the last few generations, would have been forestalled.
After the aliyah of the students of the Gra, the Jews of the Diaspora had a number of opportunities to seize the occasion. While there were those who came, the vast majority tragically remained in galut. Only after the Holocaust did greater numbers awaken to the call of settling the Land. In reply, as if magically, the long-barren wastelands of Eretz Yisrael awakened to those who came back, and abundantly yielded its fruits to her children returning from afar.
History has proven that those who were active in the settlement and rebuilding of the Land of Israel over the last few generations, whether religious or not, participated in a miraculous renaissance of the Nation and the Land. From the Heavens, it became increasingly clear that the time had come to return to the Land. The State of Israel flourished in unprecedented ways, while assimilation in the galut swelled to staggering proportions. Many of those who pioneered in the building of Eretz Yisrael merited distinction, despite the fact that they did not always act for the sake of Heaven, and occasionally even placed their undertakings in conflict with the Torah’s goals for the Nation.
As time passed, the words of the prophet, which the Vilna Gaon and his students would constantly mention, became ever more real: “For in the mountain of Zion and Jerusalem there will be a refuge” (Joel 3:5).
Nevertheless, the merit of this precious mitzvah is not eternal. Without faith in God, and adherence to the Torah and mitzvot, we cannot continue to settle the Land with proper holiness and devotion, and calamities are liable to occur. Our teacher, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah HaKohen Kook, related that on numerous occasions he heard his father, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, weep and say, “I fear the words of our Sages are coming to pass concerning the three generations before the coming of the Redeemer, about which it is written, ‘You have grown fat; you have become heavy; you are covered with flesh.‘ This implies that due to a lack of devotion to holiness, the spirit of defilement and corruption increasingly grows, and consequently, the calamities of ‘the birth pangs of Mashiach‘ come to pass.”
Our prayer is that we be able to return to the holy, Divine Torah injunction of settling the Land, as was the goal of the Gaon from Vilna, his students, and their disciples, and dedicate ourselves to building the State of Israel in the light of the Torah and its teachings, thereby meriting the final and complete Redemption, speedily in our days, Amen.
Excerpts from Rabbi Melamed’s book “Peninei Halakha: Ha’am v’Ha’aretz”.