Lech Lecha: Why will YOU make aliya?

Noah versus Abraham. And as Angela Epstein wrote in the Daily Mail: If history has taught us Jews anything, it’s knowing when it’s time to pack.

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Daniel Pinner,

D. Pinner
D. Pinner
INN: D.P.

Last Shabbat, Parashat Noach recorded the Flood. And as the flood-waters began to subside Noah sent forth the dove from the Ark, “and the dove did not find any resting-place for the sole of her foot, so she returned to him, to the Ark” (Genesis 8:9).

The Midrash sees the Flood as an allusion to Israel’s exile, and the restoration of the world as an allusion to the redemption: “Had she [the dove] found a resting-place she would not have returned. Similarly, ‘she [Israel] dwells among the nations, she did not find any resting-place’ (Lamentations 1:3). Had they [Israel] found any resting-place, they would not have returned [to the Land of Israel]” (Bereishit Rabbah 33:7).

Jewish history of the last three generations has borne this out all too painfully.

When the Allies defeated the Caliphate during the First World War, Britain and France consequently inherited the remains of the Turkish Ottoman Empire – which included Israel.

Almost exactly a hundred years ago, on Friday the 17th of Marcheshvan 5678 (2nd November 1917), the British Government published the famous Balfour Declaration:

“His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

For the first time since the Roman Senate had recognised Jewish sovereignty over Judea in 139 B.C.E., a global super-power officially recognised the historical Jewish claim to and connexion with the Land of Israel.

Four and a half years later the international community ratified this. On 24th July 1922, the Council of the League of Nations granted Great Britain the Mandate for Palestine, specifying (in the preamble) that “recognition has thereby been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country”.

The Mandate decreed that “The Mandatory shall be responsible for placing the country under such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home” (Article 2), and that “The Administration of Palestine shall be responsible for enacting a nationality law. There shall be included in this law provisions framed so as to facilitate the acquisition of Palestinian citizenship by Jews who take up their permanent residence in Palestine” (Article 7).

For the first time since we had been exiled by the Romans some 1,800 years earlier, the gates of the Land of Israel were open to Jews the world over.

There should have been a massive surge – a veritable flood-wave – of Jews into Israel.

The yearning for the Return to Zion is, after all, the single most pervasive theme in our prayers. In the Blessings before the Shema and the Blessings after the Shema (morning and night), a dozen times in the thrice-daily Amidah (silent prayer said morning, afternoon, and night), in the Grace after Meals, in every celebration (wedding, circumcision, and so on) – maybe forty times a day the Jew prays in different words for the Return to Zion.

The Jew cannot eat a sandwich or a slice of cake without saying the Blessing which includes the prayer for the Return to Zion. It would be difficult to find two pages in succession in the Siddur (the Prayer Book) which do not include somewhere a prayer for the Return to Zion. The two most emotionally and spiritually charged nights of the year, the Seder Night and the conclusion of Yom Kippur, end with the crescendo: Le-shana ha-ba’ah biYerushlayim ha-b’nuyah! – Next year in rebuilt Jerusalem!

And aliyah has always been a central fact of Jewish life ever since the Romans cast us into exile. From the Jews who were trickling from Rome, Egypt, Babylon, and Persia back to Israel even under Roman occupation, to the Rambam who made aliyah in 1168, to the 300 Tosafists from England and France who made aliyah in 1211, to Rabbi Yechiel of Paris who made aliyah in 1260, to the Ramban who made aliyah in 1267, to Don Yosef Nasi who settled two entire cities – Tiberias and Safed – in 1561 with a huge influx of Jews, to the more-than 2,000 Jews who followed Rabbi Yehudah he-Chassid, the Maggid of Shdetlitz, to Jerusalem over a few years beginning in 1700, to the Ohr ha-Chayim (Rabbi Chayim ben Atar) who made aliyah from Morocco in 1741, to the 300 Hassidim who made aliyah led by Rebbe Menachem-Mendel of Vitebsk and Rebbe Avraham Kalisker in 1777, to the hundreds of disciples of the Vilna Gaon who made aliyah from 1808 to 1812, to the 35,000 Jews who came with the “First Aliyah” [1] from 1882-1903, to the 40,000 Jews who came with the “Second Aliyah” from 1904-1014  –

Jews from all over the world were constantly making aliyah, often facing murderous hostility of the many foreign occupiers who had conquered our Land, nearly always facing natural the hardships of a Land gone to ruin, barren and desolate as long as foreign occupiers controlled it.

But when the gates of the Land of Israel were – at last! – flung wide open for Jews to make aliyah under the protection of an enlightened and internationally-recognised ruler, the results were heart-rendingly disappointing:

In the twelve years following the Balfour Declaration, 120,000 Jews made aliyah – out of a world-wide Jewish population of some 16 million.

And then, with the sudden and dramatic rise in anti-Semitism in Europe, with the rise of Nazism on Germany and Austria and of Fascism in Spain and Italy, with increasing persecution of Jews in the Arab countries, aliyah increased.

Indeed, as long as Israel found tranquillity in exile, Jews remained in exile. Following the paradigm of Noach and the dove, ‘she [Israel] dwells among the nations, she did not find any resting-place’ (Lamentations 1:3). Had they [Israel] found any resting-place, they would not have returned [to the Land of Israel]”.

This is the negative paradigm for making aliyah: the Jew who comes to Israel to flee persecution.

And this Shabbat, Parashat Lech Lecha presents us with the other paradigm for aliyah.

Parashat Lech Lecha opens with G-d’s call to Abram, before he was yet Abraham: “Hashem said to Abram: Get yourself away from your land and from your family and from your father’s house, to the Land which I will show you; and I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great; thus – be a blessing!” (Genesis 12:1-2).

This is the positive paradigm for making aliyah: the Jew who comes to Israel in order to become a great nation, to receive G-d’s blessing.

Now Abram could justifiably have pointed out that he and Sarai were faithfully doing G-d’s work in Haran, weaning the pagans there away from idolatry to worship of G-d, spreading the message that there is only one G-d, Who alone created all that exists [2].

Important – indeed crucial – work, and Abram and Sarai were outstandingly successful at it.

And Abram could also have noted the physical and spiritual dangers of moving to the Land of Israel: the rigours of travel into an unknown destination; the recurring famines there; the aggressive and violent Canaanites and the equally aggressive and violent Philistines, both of whom claimed the Land as their own and were prepared to fight Abraham to the death for control over the Land.

All legitimate concerns.

But G-d’s command to Abram over-rode all other considerations, and when He told him לֶךְ לְךָ, lech lecha, “Get yourself away from your land...to the Land which I will show you”, Abram immediately upped and left.

In Ur Kasdim, and later in Haran, Abram and Sarai could be great individuals. But only in the Land of Israel could Abram become a great nation, only in the Land of Israel could he receive G-d’s complete blessing.

Rashi expounds on the phrasing לֶךְ לְךָ, which we have translated “get yourself away...” literally “go to you” or “go for you”: “לֶךְ לְךָ, go for you, for your own gratification and your own benefit. And there I will make you into a great nation, whereas here you will not having any children. And additionally, so that I can make your personality known in the world”.

This comment of Rashi’s is deeply incisive.

First – in Ur Kasdim, and later in Haran, Abram and Sarai could be great individuals. But only in the Land of Israel could Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah. Only in the Land of Israel could Abraham become a great nation, only in the Land of Israel could he receive G-d’s complete blessing.

Second – “go...for your own gratification and your own benefit”. Yes, you can do tremendous good here in Haran, but you will never be fully satisfied here. You will always be lacking something, until you make Aliyah and dwell in the Land of Israel.

Third – there, and only there. I will make you into a great nation. Here in Haran you can be Abram, but only in Israel can you be the founder of the Nation of Israel.

Fourth – there is no intermediate level. Here in Haran you will not even have children. There in Israel you will not only have children and a family, you will found an entire great nation.

Fifth – “so that I can make your personality known in the world”. That is to say, not only for your gratification and benefit, but also for My gratification and benefit. In Haran, G-d Himself could not publicise Abram’s personality; for after all, how great could he be, and how great could his God be, if he remained a stranger in someone else’s country subject to the idolaters’ laws?

And so, two paradigms for a Jew to make aliyah: Noah and Abraham. The negative and the positive.

The dove-on-the-ark-Jew runs away from persecution in whichever country the vicissitudes of exile have flung him; he finds no rest in Spain, Yemen, Germany, Iraq, France, Algeria, the USA, Russia, Britain, wherever else in exile, so eventually he returns to Israel due to lack of choice.

The Abraham-Jew, by contrast, comes to Israel because he knows that Israel is where Jewish future and Jewish destiny lie.

We noted above that the Return to Zion is the single most pervasive theme in our prayers – and now we can add that it is specifically the Abrahamic paradigm for which we pray. To take one example of dozens –

וַהֲבִיאֵנוּ לְשָׁלוֹם מֵאַרְבָּע כַּנְפוֹת הָאָרֶץ, וְתוֹלִיכֵנוּ קוֹמְמִיּוּת לְאַרְצֵנוּ, “bring us to peace from the four corners of the world, and lead us upright [not as refugees, not as “illegal” immigrants who have to slink in as thieves in the night evading the British blockade] to our Land” (from the Blessing before the Shema every morning).


Abram could justifiably have pointed out that he and Sarai were faithfully doing G-d’s work in Haran, weaning the pagans there away from idolatry to worship of G-d...
The words have deep meaning. “Bring us to peace”, meaning not just to peace in the destination, the Land of Israel, but also “bring us in peace” [3], leaving the exile peacefully and not harried and harassed, not as fugitives a bare step ahead of a pogrom in Europe;

“...and lead us upright to our Land” – upright, not as refugees, not as “illegal” immigrants who have to slink in as thieves in the night evading the British blockade, not as starving survivors of famine in Ethiopia.

When G-d decrees that the exile draws to its end, then no human power can annul that decree. To be sure, the individual Jew can attempt to defy Jewish destiny by remaining in exile...for a while, at least. But ultimately, when G-d decrees that the exile finishes, the only choices the Jew has are to leave exile and return to Israel upright and in peace, or to leave exile and return to Israel as a pitiful refugee, or to perish in exile.

Recently, the British Daily Mail columnist Angela Epstein described how insecure so many Jews in Britain feel these days, and conceded that “We wonder if this is what it felt like in the Thirties, when even the most assimilated of German Jews debated the increasingly venomous status quo… Many of my friends have already left for Israel, or are investing spare savings in property there… Every time one leaves or makes the investment…I feel a terrible pang of…envy… Not for their apartments overlooking a glittering Mediterranean. But for the fact they have a base in a country offering a refuge from anti-Semitism”.

Such is the Jewish experience today not only in Britain but all over Europe. And the USA is really not far behind.

History is moving swiftly and inexorably towards the destiny which G-d has decreed for His nation.

And every Jew has the choice: to follow the paradigm of Noah, or to follow the paradigm of Abraham.

Endnotes
[1] The “First Aliyah” is actually a misnomer: as we have seen, aliyah goes back to the very beginning of exile. It was the first mass organised aliyah for which the modern secular political Zionist enterprise can take credit, hence the (admittedly biased) term “First Aliyah”. Most of the olim came from eastern Europe and Yemen. It is anybody’s guess how many came for purely ideological reasons and how many came because of anti-Jewish persecution in their countries of origin.

[2] “The souls they made in Haran” (Genesis 12:5) were the denizens of that city whom Abram and Sarai had converted to belief in G-d and worship of Him. See Targum Onkelos, Targum Yerushalmi, Targum Yonatan, Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Radak ad loc.; also Sanhedrin 99b, Avot de-Rabbi Natan 12:7, Bereishit Rabbah 84:4, Bamidbar Rabbah 14:11 et al.

[3] Compare the standard Hebrew blessing לֵךְ לְשָׁלוֹם, literally “go to peace”, but connoting “go in peace”.






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