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Bagels and Worms

By Tzvi Fishman
10/7/2009, 12:00 AM

We are not in the habit of rating rabbis. However, if one were to compose a list of the ten greatest rabbis of the last 500 years, certainly the Gaon of Vilna would appear on the list.

The Gaon of Vilna, Rabbi Eliahu ben Shlomo Zalman, also known as the “Gra,” was a master in all branches of Torah study. Today marks his yahrtzeit. He was also a genius in secular studies with a keen understanding of history and the developmental process of Redemption of the Jewish People, which he saw reaching a new crossroad in his time, with the imperative to abandon the exile and return to Eretz Yisrael.

According to the Gaon of Vilna, the Redemption of the Jewish People was contingent upon three basic matters:

One – the active endeavors of the Jewish People to return to the Land of Israel. 

Two - the study of Torah, principally the study of Kaballah (“Even HaShlema, 11:3).

Three – “Shmirat HaBrit,” the guarding of the laws of sexual holiness (Commentary of the “Gra” on the “Tikunei Zohar,” Tikun 21, Folio 51A; also Tikun 42, end).

To the Gaon of Vilna, aliyah was a commandment of the Torah  (Yoreh Deah, 267:161). He stressed the historical imperative and immediate necessity of the Jewish People to take active steps in immigrating to Israel. He taught that only by devoting ourselves to furthering the Geula (Redemption) by actual endeavor, exemplified in the return to and rebuilding of Eretz Yisrael, could the Jewish People escape the harsh decrees of the rulers of foreign lands. It was actually the Gaon of Vilna who started the Zionist movement by urging his students to make aliyah, warning that if we didn’t return to Israel on our own accord, then Hashem would bring about our return through the persecutions and severe decrees of the gentiles.

“Our teacher, the holy Gaon of Vilna, with words carved in flames, advised his students to go on aliyah, and to further the ingathering of the exiles. Furthermore, he encouraged his students to hasten the Revealed End of the exile, and to actualize 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 and 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).

The Gaon of Vilna himself set off for Israel, as he records in his famous letter to his mother and wife, but was ultimately prevented by governmental red tape and the lack of transportation:

“I am writing the both of you to urge you not be feel sorrowful in any way, as you promised me, and also not to worry. For, behold, there are people who must travel for several years to secure their livelihood, leaving their wives behind, and wandering to and fro without little means, while I, thank G-d, am journeying to the Holy Land, which everyone longs to see, the delight of all the Jewish People, the delight of Hashem, and all of the angels. You know I have left behind my children, the love of my heart, and all of my cherished books, and made myself like a wandering stranger on earth, abandoning everything….”

In answer to the question why other rabbis did not call for the Jews to make aliyah, the Gaon of Vilna teaches:

“The sin of the Spies hovers over the Jewish Nation in every generation… How strong is the power of the force of darkness (Sitra Achra) that it succeeds in hiding from the eyes of our holy fathers the dangers of the impure shells (kelipot), and in the time of Mashiach, the force of darkness attacks the guardians of the Torah with blinders…. Many of the sinners in this great sin of ‘They despised the cherished Land’ including many great guardians of the Torah, will not know or understand that they are caught in the sin of the Spies, that they have been sucked into the sin of the Spies in many false ideas and empty claims, and they cover their ideas with the already proven fallacy that the mitzvah of the settlement of Israel no longer applies in our day, and opinion which has already been disproven by the giants of the world, the Rishonim and Achronim – the Early and Later Torah Authorities (“Kol HaTor, Ch.5).

The Gaon of Vilna was a man of truth. He didn’t have any illusions about life in galut amongst the gentiles. He writes:

“Since the Temple was destroyed, our spirit and our crown departed, and only we remained, a body without a soul. Exile to outside the Land of Israel is a grave. Worms surround us there, and we do not have the power to save ourselves. They, the idol worshippers, they devour our flesh. In every place, there were great yeshivot, until the body decayed, and the bones scattered, again and again. Yet always, some bones still existed, the Torah scholars of the nation, the pillars of the body – until even these bones rotted, and there only remained a rancid waste which disintegrated into dust – our life turned into dust” (Likutei HaGra, end of “Safra D’Tzniuta”).

Today, the situation is far worse than in the time of the Gaon of Vilna. The great rabbis of the exile are no more. The pillars of the galut no longer exist to sustain the nation in exile, which is devoured more and more by the worms of assimilation.

In contrast, Israel has become the Torah center of the world. Today, all of the great rabbis are in Israel. The pillars of the nation have returned to their place. The physical and spiritual rebuilding of the Nation is advancing every day. It is clear to every honest person that the Gaon of Vilna was right. May his merit light up eyes still blinded by the darkness of galut, and ignite a flame of longing for Israel in the hearts of our scattered remnants before the worms consume the Diaspora diehards completely.