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?”