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Rabbi Moshe Grylak

What a fraught subject Eretz Yisrael is, to this day

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

 What does the mitzvah of living in Eretz Yisrael have to do with Zionism? Let’s not confuse the issues



t was fascinating to read the stream of letters that came in response to the column I originally penned with a certain segment of Europe’s Jews in mind, which somehow morphed into a public discussion of the aliyah issues raised by letter writer “Waiting in Passaic.” To recap, in the original article I wondered why so few of the Jews who are actively seeking to leave Europe, due to the rise in anti-Semitism there, are including Eretz Yisrael among their options. My remarks were not addressed to anyone living contentedly in chutz l’Aretz; I wasn’t trying to shake anyone up. Still, a lively discussion among our readers on the pros and cons of aliyah began taking place on Mishpacha’s pages. That in itself goes to show what a fraught subject Eretz Yisrael is, to this day.

Somehow, the concept of aliyah has gotten tangled up with the secular Zionist movement and its aims (the Zionist movement itself is to blame for that false conflation). But in fact, the yearning for Eretz Yisrael is completely independent of Zionism, as is the basic concept of aliyah, a term that was not coined by the Zionists, although they seem to have hijacked it. Ever since Jews were first exiled from their homeland, they have longed to dwell on its soil once again, no matter who was ruling the land. To a Jew, Eretz Yisrael remains Eretz Yisrael — under Turkish rule, under British rule, and yes, even under Zionist rule. And any Jew who can arrange to live here, under whatever regime, is fulfilling a mitzvah by doing so. The mitzvah of yishuv haaretz still applies, even when Eretz Yisrael is under Zionist control.

Many of the greatest “anti-Zionist” gedolim of modern times, including the Chazon Ish, the Steipler, the Brisker Rav, the Imrei Emes of Gur, and Rav Aharon of Belz, among others, averred that Eretz Yisrael and the State of Israel are two separate things, that no Zionist state can break a Jew’s connection with Eretz Yisrael, and that aliyah remains a mitzvah for anyone who can do it, regardless of who holds the reins of government here.

Decades ago, when I was gathering material for the first published biography of the Chazon Ish — an avowed anti-Zionist, in case there was any doubt — I investigated more thoroughly his profound bond with Eretz Yisrael. In one of his famous letters, he revealed his opinion that the return of Jews to Eretz Yisrael was the beginning of the return of Torah from its exile in other lands. When David Ben Gurion attempted to draft chareidi girls into the army, the threat to kedushas Yisrael was palpable, and the Chazon Ish said he felt that it was shortening his life, words which proved to be prophetic, for he passed away before the storm had died down.

Yet the gadol’s crystal clear vision was not blurred, even by the events that hastened his death. At the height of the conscription crisis, Rav Meir Moshe Yashar, biographer of the Chofetz Chaim, visited Eretz Yisrael. He toured the country, and of course he didn’t omit going in to meet the Chazon Ish. When he told the Chazon Ish about the various places he’d seen, the Chazon Ish said to him, “Tell me, then: Weren’t Yehoshua and Kalev right in saying that the Land is very, very good?” Rav Yashar wrote of that exchange, “Eretz Yisrael is rumbling from harsh decrees, and yet he sees how good the Land is.”

Rav Binyamin Mendelson of Komemiyus, an Agudas Yisrael moshav in south-central Israel, had the same feeling. When I came to the moshav to interview him, we went out for a walk among the fields, and he told me about a couple from London who had asked him to bring a sh’eilah to the Chazon Ish. They were contemplating aliyah, and they wanted the gadol’s opinion on the matter. His answer was yes, they should go ahead with their plans. Several months passed while they were preparing for the move, and during that time the crisis over Ben Gurion’s plan to draft religious girls erupted. Under the changed circumstances, the couple felt they had better send their sh’eilah to the Chazon Ish again, and again they enlisted Rav Mendelson’s help.

Rav Mendelson went to Bnei Brak and presented the question once more, and in reply, the Chazon Ish looked at him and said, “Since the time I answered that question some months ago, nothing has changed.” Rav Mendelson explained to me that he was in shock over the decisiveness of that reply, but he realized that the Chazon Ish answered him like that just in case he might think that one’s attitude toward living in Eretz Yisrael should change because of Ben Gurion’s decree. He wanted to make it unequivocally clear that the threat posed by Ben Gurion made no difference.

The pro-aliyah but “anti-Zionist” position is that the more Jews there are in Eretz Yisrael learning Torah and keeping its precepts, the weaker the power of the secular Zionist ideology will be. This is the gist of the Chazon Ish’s answer to the Satmar Rebbe when the Rebbe supported his own stance by citing the Rambam’s words (Hilchos De’os 6:1) that one should flee to the desert rather than live among wicked people who pressure him to follow their ways. To this argument, the Chazon Ish replied, “The yeshivos and the shuls are our deserts.”

This, in fact, was the Chazon Ish’s declaration of war on secular Zionists. He didn’t believe in escaping to chutz l’Aretz so as not to confront them head-on. Holding demonstrations against them in other parts of the world will not weaken their power the way one more yeshivah in Eretz Yisrael does, or one more religious community where Torah life thrives in the face of the surrounding secularism.

While I agree with the reader who pointed out that the State of Israel in its present form is not consonant with Torah values, nevertheless it is our Land. Yes, dear reader, this is our Holy Land and our country, even when under a regime that is alienated from the Torah. And in discussing how far our little country has advanced in terms of technological achievements and creature comforts, that, too, is a nudge meant for European Jews searching for greener pastures. If a modern, technologically advanced country is what they’re looking for, they can find that, too, in Eretz Yisrael, alongside a Torah velt that is unmatched anywhere else. And may we soon see our Land under the final rule of Hashem and Melech HaMashiach, bimheirah beyameinu. Amen.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 748)


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