The year was 70 CE. Jerusalem was being surrounded by the Roman forces threatening the destruction of the Holy Temple and the killing of all its inhabitants. Tensions were high. Was this the end of the Jewish commonwealth that stood in Jerusalem for over four hundred years? Would this be the end of the Jewish religion?
In those days no one was permitted to enter or leave the besieged city except for the dead to be buried.
A coffin appears carried by its pallbearers leaving Jerusalem. In it lies the great sage Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, apparently deceased. As the coffin nears the Roman camp, he arises from the coffin and greats Vespasian the Roman general as the Emperor of Rome.
Before Vespasian could react to this blasphemy, a messenger arrives from Rome announcing the death of the Roman Emperor and the choosing of Vespasian as his successor.
To reward Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai for the carrier of good tidings, Vespacian grants him one wish. Rabbi Yochanan asks for the Academy of Yavne and its Rabbis.
On his dying day, Rabbi Yochanan wasn’t sure he made the right choice.
What was bothering this great sage to be unsure of his actions? Surely he saved the eternity of the Torah and Judaism for generations to come?
Rabbi Yochanan knew full well that when one separates Torah from the land of Israel, it is as if one is extricating one’s body from its soul; separating the bride from the groom; the Torah from its very source. Rabbi Yochanan was in essence not sure the Torah could survive without its connection to the land of Israel.
In truth, Rabbi Yochanan’s action saved the Jewish people. It allowed them during their two thousand years of exile to connect to their heritage through the Torah. But his greatest fear was that this separation from the core of Judaism-the land of Israel- could be devastating. It was his apprehension that Jews would follow the precepts of the Torah without the inseparable link to the land of Israel. He knew full well that the land of Israel is vital for the following of the precepts of the Torah. Without Israel, following of the Torah is just “test tube Judaism.”
The words of the great sage Rashi and the great sage Nachmanides echo this clearly when they write that the performance of Mitzvot outside Israel are only in preparation to living in Eretz Yisrael. The power and the efficacy of our Mitzvot grow exponentially when performed in Eretz Yisrael.
The apathy towards Israel today in the United States is exactly what Rabbi Yochanan feared.
There are two types of Jews who make Aliya.
The first group is those who are escaping from persecution and Anti-Semitism. They have little choice but to make the journey to insure safety for them and their families.
The second group of Jews are those who can make Aliya of their own volition but refuse to do so for a number of reasons.
Of this second group there are three sub-groups.
There are those who believe that regardless of the hardships, one must make the move and live in Israel. These are the heroes of the Jewish people. They understand that this opportunity was a dream of their ancestors and if they were living today they would jump at this opportunity. They would have made the sacrifice, especially given the fact that Israel today is so beautiful and so easy to travel to. These are the people who understand that Israel is vital to the performance of Mitzvot and to following the Torah.
There is a second group who would love to live in Israel and who believe in the inseparability of Israel and Torah, but cannot make the commitment either because of family obligations or the fear of lack of work. These people understand what is at stake, but they just can’t make the commitment. They aspire with all their heart to live in Israel for they know that it is the right thing to do. This is what they pray for nineteen times daily.
Finally there is the third group,(probably the largest in number) whether religious or not, who have no desire to live in Israel and have no intention of ever living there-who are perfectly happy living in their comfortable homes in Monsey, or Boro-park or Square-town. These are the people who Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai on his deathbed feared would not understand the inseparability of the land of Israel and the Torah. These are the people whom he cried for on his deathbed-the ones who “just don’t get it”-the ones who trivialize the Mitzvah of the importance of living in Israel
Never in the history of the Jewish people is Torah been studied as much as in the land of Israel today! Never has the land of Israel been as beautiful as it is today! Never has it been as accessible as it is today? Never was it as easy to make Aliya as it is today!
Almighty G-d is offering us the soul of our people-the land which he chose for us to live our lives in. It’s time we thought seriously of this option.