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Couch Potatoes - Part II

By Tzvi Fishman
1/28/2008, 12:00 AM
While it is true that I wrote that I could not be a psychiatrist to couch potatoes, couch potatoes are people too, and there is an obligation to save them. You could say that if you don’t know about a couch potato in danger, you don’t have to save him. There isn’t any mitzvah per say to search out couch potatoes. But if you know that a couch potato is in danger, then, of course, it is a Torah obligation to save him, since every Jew is responsible for every other Jew, and one cannot stand idly by when someone else is drowning.
You don't have to be a couch potato forever.

I bring this as an example, in response to a lover of the exile who wrote that living in Israel is a not mitzvah that one is obligated to perform, comparing it to the mitzvah of giving a “get” in divorce. First of all, his example is mistaken. Any man who divorces his wife must give his wife a get. Everyone knows this. Perhaps he was meaning to say that although there is a mitzvah to give a “get,” one does not have to divorce one’s wife in order to fulfill it.  A less complicated example is tzitzit. If you don’t have a shirt with four corners, you don’t have to wear tzitzit – but what serious Orthodox Jew doesn’t wear tzitzit? In his desire to serve Hashem in the most complete fashion possible, he makes sure that he always has a laundered stack of tzitzit in his closet, even if when he wears them he sticks the fringes inside of his trousers to hide them from the goyim.

Let’s take another example. There is a Torah mitzvah requiring a person to build a guard rail if he has a terrace on the roof of his house, lest a person fall off the building. Now if you don’t own a house or live in a penthouse apartment, you don’t have to do this mitzvah. You don’t have to go out and buy a house just to perform this commandment. But if you do have a house with a roof-top terrace, then the mitzvah must be performed.

This argument of whether a mitzvah is an obligation (hiyuv) or not is sometimes set forth by people who don’t want to fulfill the mitzvah of living in Israel. Rabbi Avraham Shapira of blessed memory, former Chief Rabbi of Israel, wrote that he never heard of the notion of a mitzvah not being an obligation (See the book, “Mafar Kumi” by Rabbi Tzvi Glatt, appendix). When a mitzvah comes your way, you are obligated to do it.

Eretz Yisrael is a reality, an easy hop away on an airplane. The State of Israel is a reality that has facilitated the ingathering of millions of Jews. The Land of Israel belongs to every Jew as an inheritance from our Forefathers. It belongs to the Jews in Jerusalem and to the Jews in New York. Just because a person is not living in Israel at the moment, because he was born in a different place – so what? He cannot pretend that it doesn’t exist. This is the very first thing that Hashem taught to Avraham. If you want to serve Me, then, “Lech lecha,” go to Eretz Yisrael. Make all of Eretz Yisrael into one big Chabad house, and you won’t need hundreds of little Chabad houses all over the world.

When it came time for the Jews to leave Egypt, four-fifths of them said,  “There is no obligation to live in Israel since we weren’t born there.” In answer, Hashem wiped them out during the plague of darkness, in order to hide the great embarrassment of His children rejecting His Promised Land.

To what is this situation analogous? To a man who doesn’t have an etrog in his house when the holiday of Sukkah arrives. He is not exempt from the mitzvah. He has to go out and get one. The same with matzah. A person can’t say, “I don’t have any matzah in my pockets, so I don’t have to do the mitzvah.” He has to go out and bake or buy the matzah he needs for the holiday. Similarly, a single man cannot say, “I wasn’t born with a wife, so I don’t have to get married.” He has to go out and look for a wife till he finds one. That’s the way it is with all of the mitzvot. We are commanded to take the action needed to fulfill our obligation in doing them.

Certainly, if a Jew can move from the United States to live in Japan, he can just as easily move to Israel. Hashem has given us airlines and money to buy tickets. There are varieties of available apartments and houses in Israel, and mortgages for people who need them. There are jobs for people who want to work, and more yeshivot and synagogues than anywhere else in the world.

Dear brothers and sisters, we are not talking about the obligation to say a blessing over eating a piece of bubble gum, or about making sure there is a trustworthy kosher symbol on a box of chocolate chip cookies. We are talking about the mitzvah that is the foundation of all of the Torah. Two-thirds of the Mishna can only be performed in the Land of Israel. The Ramban states three times that living in Israel is a Torah obligation (hiyuv) that applies in all generations (Supplement to the Sefer HaMitzvot of the Rambam, Positive Mitzvah #4). All of the Rishonim and Achronim who decide halachah agree (See the Shulchan Aruch, Pitchei T’shuva, Even HaEzer, Section 75, sub-section 6). For those who like sources, here is a partial list of the Halachic authorites who state that the obligation to live in the Land of Israel is a Torah obligation binding in all times:

Rambam, Laws of Marriage, 3:20; Rambam, Laws of Slaves, 8:39; Sefer Haredim, Ch. 7; Maharit, Responsa, 2:28; Rashbash 1; Knesset Gedolah, Even HaEzer, 75, notes to the Beit Yosef, 25; Gaon of Vilna, Yoreh Deah, 267:161; Avne Nezer, Yoreh Deah, 454; Even HEzer, 75, notes to the Beit Yosef, 25; Gaon of Vilna, Yoreh Deah, M’il Tzedakah, Responsa 26; Rav Yaacov Emden, Mor Uktziah, Section 1, Pg 16; Chida, Responsa, Yosif Ometz, 52 and Ya’ir Ozen, 10:5. Chachmat Adam, Shar Mishpatei HaAretz, 11:3; Paat HaShulchan, Ch 1, Beit Yisrael 14; Chatam Sofer, Responsa, Yoreh Deah, 223 and 224; Rav Haim Palagi, Responsa, Nishmat Kol Chai, Yoreh Deah 48; Rav Shlomo from Lublin, introduction to the book, “Mitzvah Yishuv HaAretz; Mahram Shik, Yoreh Deah, 225; Ohr Someach, Letter for the book, “Shivat Zion; Rav Elchanan Specter, Letters, “Shivat Zion”; Chazan Eish, Letters, 175; Rav Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook, Hazone HaGeula, Ch 2.

The assertion that the Sages of the Babylonian Talmud did not come back to live in Israel after the first exile is certainly not an viable argument for clinging to the Diaspora, for this behavior has already been condemned by the Sages of the Babylonian Talmud who did return to Israel (Yoma 9b; Berachot 63a and 63b).  This point is emphasized in one of Judaism’s most classic books, the “Kuzari,” written by Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi. When the King of the Kuzars criticizes the Rabbi for not acting in line with the teachings of the Written and Oral Torah by living in the Diaspora, the Rabbi confesses:

“You have uncovered my great disgrace, O king of the Kuzars. It is this sin which prevented the Divine promise from being fulfilled in the time of the Second Temple, for Divine Providence was ready to restore everything as it had been at first, if all of them had answered the call and returned to Eretz Yisrael in joy. But only a small portion responded, whilst the majority, and Sages of the Torah amongst them, remained in Babylon, preferring exile and slavery under the gentiles, rather than giving up their houses and their affairs.” (Kuzari, 2:24).

As to the feeble excuse that the Gaon of Vilna did not come on aliyah, he, in fact, did set out on the journey to move to Israel, as he relates in a letter to his wife and children, whom he left behind. In those days, securing sea passage to Israel was a difficult matter, and he was unable to overcome the difficulties he encountered. Nevertheless, he urged his students to make aliyah in the strongest of terms, and their settlement of the Land is vividly described in several books, including, “Shivat Zion,” “Kol HaTor,” “HaTekufah HaGedolah,” and “Likutei HaGra,” end of Safra D’Tziniuta. To quote just one passage:

“Our teacher, the Gaon of Vilna, Kadosh Yisrael, with words carved in flames, advised his students to go on aliyah to the Land of Israel, and to work to further the ingathering of the exiles. Furthermore, he encouraged his students to hasten the Revealed End of Galut and the Redemption through the settlement of Eretz Yisrael. Almost every day he spoke to us with trembling and emotion, saying that in Zion and Jerusalem there would be a refuge, and that we shouldn’t delay the opportunity to go. Who can articulate, or who can describe the magnitude of our teacher’s worry when he spoke these words to us with his Divine Inspiration and with tears in his eyes?” (Kol HaTor, end of Ch. 5).

To those who say I am too harsh on the lovers of the exile, the Haggadah teaches us the proper way of responding to the wicked son who rejects the mitzvah of Pesach, saying, “What is this service to you?” implying to you, but not to him. “Since he removes himself from the community of Clal Yisrael, he denies everything, and you are to smash him in the teeth” by answering him bluntly.

How much more this applies to the mitzvah of living in Israel which is equal in weight to all of the commandments in the Torah!

We are not writing about Jews who would like to live in Israel but can’t for a variety of real reasons, but rather about those Jews who could come, but refuse to, and lead others astray with their trunk load of excuses, like the Spies in the wilderness who discouraged the Children of Israel from journeying on to the Promised Land because of their own personal considerations and fears.

In the beginning of this week’s Torah portion of Mishpatim, we are told that if a Hebrew slave does not want to go free come the Sabbatical year, saying, “I loved my master – I won’t go out to freedom,” his master must stand the slave by the doorpost, take an awl and drive it through his ear. Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook compared this to the situation of Jews in the exile who refuse to come on aliyah: “When we fall in love with the exile, saying, ‘I love my master, the foreign nation,’ this is indeed a tragic error” (Torat Eretz Yisrael, Pg. 121).

“It must be clear before anything else,” Rav Tzvi Yehuda said, “no matter where a Jew is, he belongs only to Eretz Yisrael. This is his permanent home. Outside of the Land we have the status of guests. For a year or two it is possible to be there in order to fulfill a mitzvah, but the aim of our life is to be here.”