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On Aliya: The Uniqueness of Living in Eretz Yisrael

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
Text file

Adapted by Rav Reuven Ziegler
Transcribed by Rav Shlomo Brody

Why Yaakov Settled in Eretz Yisrael

Parashat Vayeshev begins: “Yaakov settled in the land of his father’s dwelling, in the land of Canaan” (Bereishit 37:1).  What need is there for the seeming repetition about where he dwelt? 

The commentators offer several explanations; I believe the simplest is a combination of those suggested by Rashbam and Ibn Ezra.  The verse sets forth two separate reasons for Yaakov’s choice of where to settle.  One is the fact that it was “the land of his father’s dwelling,” his family home.  The other is that it was “the land of Canaan,” as the Ibn Ezra explains, “the chosen land.”

What is significant about the fact that it was “the land of his father’s dwelling?”  First, as the Rashbam says, he wanted to be near his father after a twenty-year exile.  He wanted to make restitution for all those years of separation, to support his elderly and sickly father, and also to draw spiritual sustenance from him.  Second, he wanted to live where his father lived, to have a sense of rootedness, of tradition, of continuity, and, consequently, a sense of permanence.  This was especially important to him after his years of impermanent residence in Aram, where a visit intended to last until his brother’s wrath would subside stretched out to seven years, and then another seven, and then another six.

These considerations would have applied equally had his parents resided in Paris or Los Angeles.  Not so with regard to the second factor, “the land of Canaan.”  He was drawn there not because it was the family homestead, but because of its inherent qualities, it uniqueness and sanctity.  Though, unlike his father, Yaakov had been forced by the exigencies of life to dwell elsewhere for a period of time, nevertheless, his desire and aspiration were to dwell in Eretz Yisrael.  When the question of permanence came up – not just living a couple of years here or there – it was clear to him that it could be only in one place, namely, Eretz Yisrael.  This aspect of his relationship to the land stemmed from its holiness, and was independent of the fact that it happened to be where his father dwelled. 

Yaakov, then, had two different reasons to dwell in the land, both of which reinforced each other.  He did not have to choose between “the land of his father’s dwelling” and “the land of Canaan” – they were the same place, and it was there that he pitched his tent.  The land where his family dwells, the land to whose culture he is accustomed, is also the land of his destiny.  The verse, however, distinguishes between these two considerations because they are, indeed, independent values.  Yaakov had two independently valid reasons why he wanted to be there. 

Conflict between Family and Aliya

Recognizing these as two valid and independent reasons sets up the possibility that they may diverge.  “The land of his father’s dwelling” can be one place, and “the land of Canaan” a different place. 

For many, this presents a problem on a practical level.  A person is attracted, on the one hand, to “the land of his father’s dwelling,” the locale, the people, the culture in which he has grown up.  This is where one’s family is, either the nuclear family or the extended family, and one wants to be near them.  Certainly, one’s parents want to be able to play with their grandchildren, and not to have to visit thousands of miles away.  On the other hand, there is Eretz Yisrael, with its uniqueness on so many different levels. 

Thus, many people have to weigh these considerations when deciding where to live.  Sometimes native-born Israelis tend to think that the primary reason there is so little aliya from countries where people are reasonably well off, and not persecuted, is because of considerations of economic security.  For some, of course, that is a factor.  But the factor of “the land of his father’s dwelling,” of breaking with your family, of coming as an immigrant and learning a new culture and a new language, can also deter many people.  They find themselves weighing “eretz megurei aviv” against “eretz Canaan.” 

The Pull of the Land

However, even recognizing the problem of leaving behind a family and being uprooted culturally, one would expect at the very least that a person coming to learn in Eretz Yisrael should understand and feel the draw, the power, the magic of Eretz Yisrael, even if at his point in life he cannot respond to it.  From a spiritual standpoint, it is absolutely unacceptable that a student should come to learn in Eretz Yisrael, but the matter leaves him cold. 

There are those who feel that they may be learning in Eretz Yisrael, but if the same circumstances could be obtained in southern France, or in northern Scotland, they would go there just as well.  This is absolutely inconceivable.  The role and significance of Eretz Yisrael in one’s personal life, in its historical context, and with its many historical associations – that is certainly something which a Jew, and certainly a ben Torah, needs to feel.  Even if later on he finds, for one reason or another (and I don’t say that there aren’t valid reasons), that he has to forgo the dream, at least he should have this dream and aspiration.  Unfortunately, many bnei Torah don’t feel this. 

I myself underwent this experience upon my first visit to Eretz Yisrael in the summer of 1962, and it left an indelible imprint on me.  I made it my business to get to know as much of the country as I could.  One day, I went to see mori ve-rabbi Rav Hutner ztl, who used to spend summers in Eretz Yisrael.  He had an attachment to Eretz Yisrael – he had studied in Yeshivat Chevron when it was still in Chevron.  He began to ask me what are my impressions, what do I see here, what do I feel.  I discussed with him the vitality of Jewish life and the sense of total community, as opposed to the Diaspora, where one’s life is more fragmented.  He felt that you could have felt that wholeness and vitality in Eastern Europe as well.  Then I said that I think there is a broader range of application of Halakha in Israel.  In America, rabbinical courts handled only ritual law, and here they dealt with dinei mamonot (commercial and financial cases) as well, so here you feel the resonance of Halakha in more areas of life.  He said that you could have seen that in Eastern Europe or in North Africa also. 

I tried to get him to elaborate, and finally he exclaimed, “Why don’t you mention the uniqueness of being in Eretz Yisrael?  Chazal (Ketubot 112a) speak of Eretz Yisrael as a country that Moshe and Aharon didn’t merit to enter, and we are there!”  It was stunning to him to meet a ben Torah on an airplane flying to Israel, whose attitude was the same as if he were going to California.  I walked out of there like a beaten dog.  This thought, this feeling, is what I want to share with you as well.

The Religious Uniqueness of Eretz Yisrael

There are many levels of our connection to Eretz Yisrael.  First, let us look at some of the halakhic issues. 

The Gemara (Sota 14a) asks why Moshe prayed so long and why he wanted so badly to enter Eretz Yisrael.  It answers that Moshe Rabbeinu stated that there are many mitzvot that can be fulfilled only in Eretz Yisrael, and he wanted to fulfill them.  From a certain point of view, those mitzvot are a burden.  In New York, you can go into any fruit or vegetable store and buy whatever you want – you don’t have to worry about terumot and ma’asrot, etc. – but in Israel, you have to be concerned about all these things.  However, if a person is a yerei Shamayim, this is an opportunity. 

Furthermore, there is a mitzva of yishuv Eretz Yisrael (settling the land of Israel) per se, but I won’t expand upon this now. 

The most striking example of the halakhic significance of Eretz Yisrael is the position of the Ramban (Vayikra 18:25) that the observance of any mitzva in Eretz Yisrael is qualitatively different that that outside of Israel.  He holds the radical opinion that mitzva observance in the Diaspora is only a preparation for coming to Eretz Yisrael, where mitzvot acquire their full significance. I find this position astounding and alarming, but one can adopt it in a moderate vein.  If Rav Hutner zt”l would daven on the airplane on his way to Eretz Yisrael, he would put on his tefillin again upon arrival.  He said, “Before, I put on chutz la-aretz tefillin, and I am putting on Eretz Yisrael tefillin.”  Ramban says that this applies to the whole range of one’s religious experience.

Nestled Within the Shekhina

Now, all this is true if one is dealing with a relatively narrow view of mitzva observance.  Beyond that, however, there is so much more.  In Eretz Yisrael one should have a sense of standing in the presence of the Shekhina, of being nestled, as it were, in the cheik ha-Shekhina, the bosom of the Divine Presence!

In Hilkhot Ta’aniyot, the Rambam lists a series of distressing occurrences, including lack of rainfall, for which we declare a public fast.  Later, he has a separate chapter about fasting for lack of rain in Eretz Yisrael.  Rav Soloveitchik zt”l asks why (see Shiurim Le-zekher Abba Mari z”l, vol. 1, “Lizok U-lehari'a al Kol Tzara She-tavo”).  He quotes a Gemara (Ta’anit 10a) stating that the rest of the world has rain provided by an angel, but in Eretz Yisrael God cares for the land directly.  That being the case, the Rav’s thesis is that when there is a lack of rainfall in Eretz Yisrael, this represents hester panim, the hiding of God’s face. 

In chutz la-aretz (outside Israel), drought is a tzara (distressful occurrence) like any other, but in Israel it is different, for the Guardian of Israel is directly involved.  Truly, Eretz Yisrael is “a land which the Lord your God cares for; the eyes of the Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year until the end of the year” (Devarim 11:12)!

The Epicenter of Jewish Life

There are other factors which, though they relate less to the strictly religious aspect of our lives, are also of critical importance.  The epicenter of Jewish life today, that which ultimately is going to determine the nature of our communal existence, is in Eretz Yisrael.  It’s not in London or New York.  There are important communities there, and God forbid that we should adopt the attitude of “shelilat ha-Gola,” the denial of the validity and value of Jewish life in the Diaspora.  Nevertheless, the vital center is here.  If a person wants to be part of the action, here is where it is. 

Also, on a practical level, one is able to lead here, much more than abroad, a more organic and integrated life, as opposed to a choppier kind of existence that one leads in the Diaspora.  One’s life here attains a greater sense of wholeness, since there is societal and religious value even to the mundane aspects of one’s daily existence.  And, of course, there is the challenge of contributing to the building of the Jewish state.

Historical Continuity

Placing Eretz Yisrael in a historical continuum, there is critical importance to the aspect of “vayeshev,” of dwelling in the land.  Although our continuous dwelling in the land stretches back millennia, there was close to a millennium when Eretz Yisrael was very sparsely populated by Jews.  Nevertheless, some important halakhot are predicated upon the presence of Jews in Eretz Yisrael

The Rambam says (Hilkhot Kiddush Ha-chodesh 5:13) that although today we determine the new month according to calculation and not according to the testimony of witnesses, it is specifically the calculations of the inhabitants of Eretz Yisrael that matter.  In his Sefer Ha-mitzvot (aseh 153), he makes the radical statement that if, heaven forefend, there were to be no Jews in Eretz Yisrael, there would be no holidays at all!  However, in the same breath he reassures us that this eventuality will never arise, for God has promised that there will always be a Jewish presence in Eretz Yisrael.  So there is, at least on some minimal level, a continuous thread of Jewish settlement in the land. 

But even if our community here was sometimes sparse, we nevertheless possess a sense of permanence in the land, a deep connection to it, a feeling of the present being rooted in the past and anticipating a future.  Historically, Klal Yisrael has always been bound up with Eretz Yisrael.  These are our roots, and ultimately, this is our future.  I mean that it is our future not just in a sociological sense, but also in a meta-historical sense – “ba-yom ha-hu,” on the messianic day when all of Kenesset Yisrael is going to be here.

Aspiration and Realization

All of this – and I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg – is something which a ben Torah needs to feel.  At some point in his future, he may find that for personal or professional reasons he must pitch his tent in “the land of his father’s dwelling,” and some value other than “the land of Canaan” is going to define where is going to live, build a home, and raise a family.  Yet, at the very least, a ben Torah (and certainly one who has studied in Eretz Yisrael) should feel the emotional, axiological and halakhic pull of Eretz Yisrael.

I am sad to say that many students who come to study in Eretz Yisrael lack this sense.  They do not grasp what a tremendous privilege it is to be in Eretz Yisrael, to walk in the paths of Avraham and Yitzchak, to stand just a couple of miles away from where the Akeida took place.  Anyone sensitive to kedusha (sanctity) should feel this. 

Now, this appreciation of Eretz Yisrael might make things more difficult, because if you don’t settle here eventually, you may have a sense of an unfulfilled dream, an unrealized aspiration, perhaps a tinge of guilt.  However, for a Jew, the significance of having aspirations and dreams is critical.  We do not subscribe to the conception that it is better to have minimal aspirations so as to have maximal contentment.  The moral life, the spiritual life, the religious life, is one of yearning and aspiration.  Therefore, this relationship to Eretz Yisrael is part of what a person studying here should take back with him.   

I hope that as many of you as possible, except for those who have critical roles to fulfill elsewhere, will eventually make aliya, and that the choice between “the land of Canaan” over “the land of your father’s dwelling” will not be too difficult.  Aliya is certainly not as difficult as it used to be.  When my sister and her family moved to Eretz Yisrael twelve years before we did, in 1959, I remember going down with my parents to see them off, and my father was convinced that he would never see them again.  However, my parents later came for a summer, and then they themselves came as olim, and lived here for last decade and a half of their lives.  Vacationing today is easier, people have relative mobility, and prices of airline tickets in real terms are well below what they were thirty years ago.  Thus, the technical obstacles have diminished somewhat, and the rewards remain great.

To conclude, aliya is critically important on both an individual and a communal level.  Yet, at the very least, even if one feels that at the moment he must remain in “the land of his father’s dwelling,” he should feel deeply the draw of “the land of Canaan.”

[This sicha was delivered to overseas students at Yeshivat Har Etzion in winter 5758 (1998).]

For more sichot by Harav Lichtenstein zt”l on Yom Ha-Atzmaut >>


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