A couple of days ago, The Jewish Press reported that there are over a million Jews living in New York. Nearly half of them are “Orthodox.” What’s the celebration? Hashem gazes down from the Heavens at His children in New York City and weeps. That’s right. That’s what our Sages teach in the Talmud. During the night, the Holy One Blessed Be He sits and roars like a lion, saying, “Woe to the children who I have exiled among the nations of the world” (Berachot 3A). It’s like a King who builds a beautiful palace for his children, but they don’t want to live there. They prefer to hang out with the harlots. If we feel proud that there are a million Jews living in New York (when they could very easily be living in Israel), then something is very wrong with our Jewish Identity. On the contrary, we should all hang our heads down in disgrace.
But why listen to me? Let a real Rabbi explain it to you. Rabbi Meir Kahane was a true Jewish leader. For example, he could have gone into politics in America but he chose to go into politics in Israel instead, because he wanted to teach the Jews of America that they belong in the country of the Jews, and not in the countries of the gentiles. He wanted to teach them that Jerusalem was their capital, and not Washington D.C. Rabbi Kahane wanted to show by his personal example that what was really important for a Jew was what was happening in the Eretz Yisrael, and not when a new kosher pizza shop was opened in Boston or Beverly Hills. Yes, the pastrami and corned beef may be better in Brooklyn, but, personally, I’m happier eating a felafel on rye in Jerusalem, knowing I’m in the place where Hashem wants me to be.
Here’s part two of Rabbi Kahane’s chapter on the Mitzvah of Living in Israel, condensed from his book, The Jewish Idea:
Eretz Yisrael is acquired through suffering and devotion. The deterioration in our values, and the blunting of Israel’s emotional attachment to Eretz Yisrael, emerged because we distorted the halachah, due to the wretched exile which conquered our minds and souls. We are also tempted to flee the difficult challenge and duty of isolating ourselves from the nations, and the hardships of earning a living in rebuilding our homeland. It all goes back to our Sages’ comment in Berachot 5a: “God gave Israel three fine gifts and all come only through suffering: Torah, Eretz Yisrael and the World-to-Come.”
A person’s whole life is a test to see whether he will accept the yoke of Heaven and of mitzvot. There is nothing precious that does not exact a heavy price. Eretz Yisrael, a precious gift, requires self-sacrifice, as befits a treasure of the Chosen People.
Wherever we go, we are obligated to prove our faith and trust in G-d, and certainly so in Eretz Yisrael, the Chosen Land, symbol of Israel’s isolation and their belief that “The Lord alone guides them” (Deut. 32:12). Yet time after time we have failed in this. Our Sages learned (Tanchuma, Tazria, 6):
“A kohen who used to observe plague-spots (see Lev. 13) became poor and wished to leave the Land. He summoned his wife, saying… “Let me teach you how to observe plague spots. If you see that the well-spring of a person’s hair has dried up, know that he is smitten, for God created a well-spring for every single hair to drink from”… His wife replied, “If God created for every hair a well-spring of its own, how much more so will He provide a livelihood for you, who are a human being, with much hair, and have children whom you support!” Therefore, she did not let him leave the Land.
Lack of trust in God’s ability to support and defend us was, from time immemorial, the plague that severed us from the great mitzvah of living in the Land, causing us to distort the mitzvah and contrive all sorts of warped excuses to exempt ourselves from it.
How could we as a nation have failed regarding this mitzvah, fleeing the suffering entailed in the settlement of Eretz Yisrael, when ultimately it is the greatest gift God gave us? As it says (Jer. 3:19), “I gave you a Desirable Land.” So terribly has the cursed exile warped our nation, that many see no personal duty to leave the exile, and they do not at all consider it a punishment! What a perversion this is! This is a distortion of the Torah — through love of the Exile.
Indeed, the Jewish People do not wish to see the truth, as our Sages said regarding the spies. How can they explain to themselves the words of the Men of the Great Assembly, who ordained in the festival Musaf prayer, “Because of our sins we were banished from our Land,” while they expect to serve out their punishment in wealth and ease? Foolishness!
Woe to us from those who distort the Torah! Such persons quote Pesachim 87b, “God performed a charitable act for Israel, for He dispersed them among the nations,” and they derive from it that God’s casting us into the exile was a kind, charitable gift! Could there be a more terrible perversion than that? Every child knows that the Torah constantly presents the exile to us as a frightful punishment for our sins. In the second paragraph of the Shema, which we morning and night, it says, “You will rapidly be lost from the good land that the Lord is giving you” (Deut. 11:17). We likewise find in the terrible Tochachah (chastisement) of Leviticus (26:33,36), “I will scatter you among the nations and keep the sword drawn against you…. I will bring insecurity upon those of you who survive in the lands of your enemies.”
Also, in Deuteronomy (28:64-65): “The Lord will scatter you among the nations, from one end of the earth to the other…. Among those nations you will feel insecure, and there will be no place for your foot to rest. There the Lord will make you cowardly, destroying your outlook and making life hopeless.”
Truthfully, the Talmud’s statement above regarding charity is making a simple point: It is not that the exile is something positive — surely it is the worst punishment there can be — but, rather, that it contains “charity.” If God has already condemned us to exile, He at least dispersed us. As Rashi explains, “So that the nations could not destroy them all at once.”
This is only partial consolation, for even in this there is a drawback. As our Sages said (Torat Kohanim, Bechukotai, Ch. 6): “I will scatter you among the nations” (Lev. 26:33): This is a hard blow for Israel, for whenever all of a country’s citizens are exiled to one place, they see one another and find comfort. With you it is not so, however, for in the future I shall scatter you among all the nations.”
Thus, exile is an intrinsically calamitous and shocking punishment, yet there is partial consolation in our not having been exiled to one place, where it would be easy for the nations to annihilate almost all of Israel. Clearly, however, those who quote the above exposition to prove the positive side of exile are either ignoramuses or the exile has warped them. Following is Torat Kohanim, Behar, Parsheta 5:
“To give you the Land of Canaan, to be for you a God” (Lev. 25:38): Based on this our Sages said, “Whoever dwells in Eretz Yisrael accepts upon himself the yoke of Heaven; but if someone leaves the Land, it is as though he worships idols.” Likewise, regarding King David it says, “Cursed be they before the Lord, for they have driven me out this day that I should not cling to the inheritance of the Lord, saying, ‘Go serve other gods’” (I Sam. 26:19). Might we suppose King David would worship idols? Rather, he would expound, saying, “Whoever dwells in Eretz Yisrael accepts upon himself the yoke of Heaven; but if someone leaves the Land, it is as though he worships idols.”
Our Sages also said (Sifri, Ha’azinu, 333), “R. Meir would say, ‘Whoever lives in Eretz Yisrael, and recites the Shema morning and evening [which constitutes accepting G-d as King] and speaks the Holy Tongue [Hebrew] is assured a place in the World-to-Come.’”
The rejecters of Eretz Yisrael bring destruction. Israel’s refusal to cling, with faith and trust, to the mitzvah of living in Eretz Yisrael, a mitzvah of equal weight to all others combined, is what has brought about, and, God forbid, will bring about, national calamities. Our Sages said (Yoma 9b):
“Resh Lakish was bathing in the Jordan, and Rabbah bar Channah [who had come up from Babylonia to study Torah] came and extended him his hand. Resh Lakish said to him, “I swear that I hate you! [i.e., the Jews of Babylonia.] Rashi comments, “By their not going up to Eretz Yisrael in Ezra’s day, they prevented the Divine Presence from returning and resting on the Second Temple”. It says, ‘If she be a wall, we will build upon her a silver turret, and if she be a door, we will enclose her with cedar boards’ (Song of Songs 8:9). Had you come up to Eretz Yisrael like a wall [en masse] in Ezra’s day, you would have been compared to silver, which cannot rot. Now that you have come up to Eretz Yisrael like doors, you are like cedar, which can rot.”
This shortsighted refusal to go up out of the exile is the primal sin which blocked the path to final redemption already during the Second Temple period. And the sin of Babylonian Jewry is repeating itself today, as exile Jewry sit tranquilly in a foreign land — Heaven help us — in a blind lack of faith and vision.
It was this that the spiritual giant R. Yehudah HaLevi intended in his great philosophical work the “Kuzari” (II:24, in which the Jewish philosopher responds to the non-Jewish king of Kuzar as follows): “You have shamed me, O King. This sin [the Jews’ refusal to return to Eretz Yisrael] is what has prevented us from completing what God ordained as the mission of the Second Temple. As it says (Zechariah 2:14), “Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion; [for, lo, I come, and I will dwell in your midst, says the Lord].” The Divine plan was ready to unfold as in the First Temple, had everyone agreed to return willingly. Instead, some returned while the majority, including their great leaders, remained in Babylonia, preferring exile and servitude — just so they not be separated from their homes and business interests.”
Cyrus, king of Persia, had said (II Chron. 36:23), “All the kingdoms of the earth has the Lord, God of heaven, given me; and He has charged me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whosoever there is among you of all His people – the Lord his God be with him – let him go up.”
Had the whole nation gone up en masse when God brought things about that Cyrus gave permission, God would not have destroyed the Temple. Rather, the Divine Presence would have rested there forever, and God would have brought the Messiah, by virtue of their faith. Yet Israel, who were in Babylonia, settled down there and did not wish to return, and only a minority returned to Eretz Yisrael, as it says (Ezra 2:64): “The whole congregation together was 42,360.” This is the pitiful sum that returned to Eretz Yisrael, when the vast majority of Israel chose to settle down in the depravity of exile and to scorn the Desirable Land. Later, Cyrus decreed that whoever had not yet gone up would remain behind.
We are descended from people who turned their backs on Eretz Yisrael and prefer the defilement of the exile for the sake of tranquil lives. Our generation, as well, has exchanged the glory of the Desirable Land for the worship of gluttony and drunkenness in the exile, and there is no one to take up the insult to Eretz Yisrael. Quite the contrary, the prominent people of the generation express their approval of exile and abomination. As the brilliant Rabbi Ya’akov Emden wrote in the introduction to his Siddur Bet Ya’akov (Sulam Bet El, letter 6):
“Not one in a thousand is aroused to take hold of it and settle there; only one per country and two per generation. No one pays it any heed or seeks to love it. No one seeks to know its welfare or looks forward to seeing it. We imagine that since we live in peace outside the Land, we have already found another Eretz Yisrael and Jerusalem like the first. This is the reason that Israel, dwelling in peace and great honor in Spain, and other countries during the exile, were beset by so much misfortune… and then banished from Spain until no remnant of Israel remained there.”
These words were written by Rabbi Ya’akov Emden in cursed Germany several hundred years ago. Who listened? Who took his words to heart? Rabbi Emden continues, answering those hypocrites who raise empty claims regarding risks and hardships involved in settling in Eretz Yisrael:
“Risks posed by desert and sea crossings surely do not suffice to exempt one from such a great mitzvah… Consider your path through valley and glen. Upon every mountain and hill, rich people and poor run swift as steeds to acquire possessions… What great danger we put ourselves in each day! For a crust of bread you take long strides that dim the luster of your eyesight and shorten your life, yet when it comes to the glory of your Maker and the immortality of your soul, you say, “A lion blocks my way!” (Prov. 26:13). How long, sluggard, will you lie on the bed of laziness? Until the foundations of the earth are laid bare! Why not acquire means of fleeing for your life while you still have the power to do it?”
All of us, great and small, should feel ashamed.
About the Author: Tzvi Fishman was awarded the Israel Ministry of Education Prize for Creativity and Jewish Culture for his novel "Tevye in the Promised Land." For the past several years, he has written a popular and controversial blog at Arutz 7. A wide selection of his books are available at Amazon. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of The Jewish Press
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