Recently, I received an email from a reader who admitted being troubled by a lot of the new understandings of Judaism he was encountering for the first time in my Jewish Press blogs. He asked me a question that I have heard from other people as well. It may very well be that hundreds of thousands of Diaspora Jews have thought about the very same question at one time or another, so I’m sharing my answer with everyone.
Question: We live in a thriving Orthodox community in Monsey, New York. It offers the best in Jewish education for our children, a wide gamut of synagogue activities for the whole family, Torah classes throughout the day, and real joy during the Jewish holidays, all of which foster a sense of Jewish identity and pride. Why should we move to Israel where the influence of the secular Israelis is so pervasive, and where our spiritual (and physical) well being will be jeopardized?
Answer: There aren’t any spiritual dangers living in America? Is Monsey so hermetic that you don’t feel the influence of the Christian culture that surrounds you? For instance, if you have to leave your shtetl at this time of year, aren’t you immediately confronted by Santa Clauses and mangers? And if my memory serves me right, wasn’t some synagogue in Monsey torched not long ago, and a giant Chabad menorah vandalized? And aren’t there also secular Jews in Monsey, and in the surrounding towns, and on the campuses where your children go off to college? Not to mention their non-Jewish friends and the skyrocketing rate of intermarriage, which hardly exists in Israel.
Furthermore, if you enjoy your life in the ghetto, we have dozens of Monsey-like communities in Israel that dwarf Monsey in size and in religious observance, places like Mea Shaarim, Geula, Ramot Dalet, Bucharim, Sanhedrin Muchevet, Romema, Har Nof, Bnei Brak, Betar Illit, Modiin Elite, and the dozens of Orthodox settlements in Yesha, Haredi and Dati Leumi alike. In almost every city in Israel, there are Orthodox neighborhoods which offer everything you describe, with the added bonus of being in the Holy Land.
Don’t make the mistake of underplaying the holiness of the Land of Israel. Nothing in the world compares to it. Just look at the Torah portions that we have been reading. When our forefather, Yaacov, awakes from his famous dream, he realizes that he is in the “House of God” and at the “Gateway to Heaven.” Can Monsey boast that? And notice how the angels of the Land of Israel refuse to accompany Yaacov in his exile from the Land because of the spiritual impurity of the Diaspora. And our Sages teach us that on his return home to Israel, Yaacov feared Esav, even though Esav was a wicked man, and even though Hashem had promised to guard Yaacov, because all the time that Yaacov was away, Esav had the merit of observing the commandment of living in the Land of Israel, which is equal in weight to all of the commandments of the Torah. And see how Yaacov made Yosef swear to bury him in Eretz Yisrael, and not in Mitzrayim, so his offspring would always remember that the Land of Israel was their home, not impure foreign lands.
But beyond these reasons for living in the Land of Israel, I am afraid that your understanding of Judaism is incomplete. Judaism isn’t a private religion such as Christianity, Protestantism, and the like. Judaism is the NATIONAL CONSTITUTION of the Nation of Israel that is to be played out in Jerusalem and over the mountains and valleys of Eretz Yisrael. In addition to private individual commandments like tzitzit, tefillin, and keeping kosher, Judaism includes commandments for the Jewish Nation as a whole, like conquering and settling the Land of Israel, enlisting in the Jewish army, rebuilding the Temple, establishing the Sanhedrin and Jewish Monarchy, and keeping the agricultural mitzvot that are dependent on the Land.
The proper understanding of Judaism is that each individual Jew put his life in line with the goal of the Nation of Israel as a whole (the Clal), and not just live a private, ritual Judaism, practicing personal precepts, stripped of our national essence. The Jewish People are to establish the Kingdom of God on earth, and this can only be accomplished in our national format in the Land of Israel, as it says, “For the Torah shall go forth from Zion, and the word of Hashem from Jerusalem.” When we choose to dwell in foreign lands, instead of in the Land that God promised us, it makes Hashem seem weak in the eyes of the gentiles, as if He lacks the power to keep us in our own Land, and this is a Chillul Hashem.
To play our part in Hashem’s plan for Creation, and establish His Kingdom on Earth, the Jewish People must return in its entirety to Zion. This is the teaching of the Torah and our Prophets, and one of the main focuses of our daily prayers. The return to Zion and the rebuilding of Israel has been the driving force of Jewish history. Now that Hashem has granted us the State of Israel after 2000 years of yearning, how can we turn our backs on 2000 years of fervent prayers and prefer to remain in Monsey? Think about this. Doesn’t it seem out of whack with the daily prayers you recite, and the Haftorah portions you read every Shabbat, most of which speak about the return of the Jewish People to Israel?
Just take a look at our preliminary morning prayers to see that the goal of Judaism is to live a life of Torah in the Land of Israel, and not in Monsey, New York. After reciting the “Akeida” we ask G-d to remember the Brit with our forefathers and return us to the Land of Israel. We repeat this request over and over in the following dozen verses, which all have the same plea: “Bring us back to our Land, bring us back to our Land, bring us back to our Land” (these verses are omitted in many prayer books published in the Diaspora).
A little further on, after the preliminary recital of the Shema, we ask Hashem to sanctify His Name in the world by granting us salvation. What is this salvation? Salvation from the exile. “Gather our outcasts from the four corners of the earth so that all the inhabitants of the world will recognize and know that that You are the exalted and unique one God over all the kingdoms of the globe.” How is this great sanctification of God to come about? Through our return to live in the Land of Israel.
To our great shame, we recite these verses, but fail to act on them. A Jew can hop on the airplane of Jewish destiny and join the ingathering to Israel, or he can make his last stop in Monsey and miss out on what Judaism is really all about.
The exile is a curse, even if it be as pleasant as you describe. The exile is not meant to last. Now that God has given us the State of Israel, there is no longer any need for galut. Every Jew in the world should rush home! Like with every mitzvah, Hashem gives us free choice. That’s our test. There is no mitzvah to live in Monsey, but living in the Land of Israel is such a gigantic, all-encompassing mitzvah upon which the entire Torah is based that our Sages have stated that it is equal in weight to all of the commandments of the Torah put together!
The eyes of the whole world are focused on Israel because everyone knows that this is where history began, and this is where the unfolding saga of world history is destined to reach its climax. Let’s face it. Who, outside of you and your neighbors, cares what’s happening in Monsey? It’s totally inconsequential to the Redemption of the Jewish People, which is taking place in Israel now!
And finally, you and your children may be living comfortable lives as Jews. But what will be with your grandchildren? Will they marry Jews? And if the gentiles turn against the Yidden in Monsey, as has happened so repeatedly in our past, who will protect you? The Monsey police? They’re gentiles too.
I hope this answers your question.Tzvi Fishman
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." A wide selection of his books are available at Amazon. His recent movie "Stories of Rebbe Nachman" will be available soon as a DVD.The author's opinion does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Jewish Press.
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