The Passion of Our Time
by Tzvi Fishman
Rabbi Shalom Gold, of blessed memory, was one in a thousand. In all of his being, in all of his doings, he was Torah in action. He gave up a prestigious position as head of a prosperous synagogue in New York to make Aliyah and thus set an example to Jews throughout America. In Israel he fought like a lion for the wholeness of Eretz Yisrael.
I will always remember a small Dvar Torah he told me. The Torah portion of Va’ethanan begins with Moshe begging Hashem to allow him to enter the Land of Israel:
“I beseech Thee, let me go over and see the good Land that is beyond the Jordan, that good mountain and the Lebanon.”
Rabbi Sholom Gold asked an interesting question. Why does Moshe repeat the word “good” in the verse? With happy, shining eyes he answered that Moshe was actually asking two things from Hashem. First, he was asking for permission to enter the good Land. Second, he was asking for Hashem’s blessing that once he was in the Land, he would continue to see the Land in a good light. “Being critical of the Land of Israel and speaking about it in a negative light is a very regrettable sin,” he said.
When I asked him why he sacrificed his career as a successful Rabbi on Long Island to come on Aliyah, he answered:
“I suppose I was crazy. Sometimes a little craziness can be a positive thing. Thank G-d, I inherited from my father a fervent Zionism and deep love for Eretz Yisrael. I felt that if I didn’t make Aliyah, my life would be an absolute failure.”
Not very long ago when Machon Meir created the Torat Eretz Yisrael Digital Library, I asked Rabbi Gold if I could post some of his writings on the site. “Take whatever you like,” he responded. “Whatever can help a fellow Jew I’m all for.”
In response to an magazine article entitled “Why are Serious Jews Like Us Living in America?” Rabbi Sholom Gold wrote the following essay. I have condensed it to make it an easier Internet read:
The Passion of Our Time
This question has indeed been asked before. It’s right there in “The Kuzari,” Rabbi Yehuda Halevy’s classic masterpiece of Jewish Faith. The King of the Kuzars says to the Rabbi, “Tell me some of the words that the Sages of the Talmud said regarding Eretz Yisroel.” The Rabbi responds with a long list of Talmudic statements about Eretz Yisroel such as, “It is always better for a person to live in Israel, even in a city that is mostly non-Jewish than to live outside Israel – even in a city that is mostly Jewish. For anyone who dwells in Israel is like someone who has a G-d and anyone who dwells outside of Israel is like someone who has no G-d.” The Sages praised “one who comes to live in Eretz Yisroel during his lifetime rather than one who is transported there after his death. The air of Israel makes one wise. Anyone who walks four cubits in Eretz Yisroel is guaranteed a place in the world to come.” The Kuzari said: “If so, then you must have limited affection for your Torah. You have not made Israel your goal, nor your place of living and dying. Yet you say in your prayers: Have mercy on Zion for it is our life’s home . I see that all your knee bending and bowing toward Israel is mere lip service or insincere custom….”
One could add the twice yearly “L’shana Habaah BiYerushalayim” at the end of Yom Kippur and the Seder Night. And then there is Birkat HaMazon, especially the second blessing where we thank G-d for having “granted as a heritage to our ancestors a desirable, good, and wide land.” How does one who has decided not to go on Aliyah say all that and so much more? Major portions of our prayers focus on Eretz Yisroel and they are known to all.
So the King of the Kuzars has challenged the Rabbi and asked the same question the magazine asks – how can it be that serious Jews don’t move to Israel? I have always been deeply moved by the honesty and palpable pain of Rabbi Yehuda Halevy’s answer: “You have shamed me King of Khazar. It is this very sin that prevented us from achieving that which G-d promised us for the Second Temple, as it says, ‘Rejoice and be happy daughter of Zion, for I am coming and will dwell in your midst says G-d.’ This means that the Divinity was prepared to settle [in the Second Temple] as it had previously [in the First Temple], provided that the Jewish people would all agree to return to Israel eagerly. Instead, only some returned, while the majority – including the important leaders – remained in Babylon. They preferred subservience in the Diaspora so that they would not have to part from their comfortable homes and business affairs.” In the magazine version of the answer, there is a total absence of hope, yearning, longing, anticipation, resolve and prayer. All the elements that make up the spiritual, emotional and religious holy baggage of our 2,000 year exile are nowhere to be found in the present day response. No contrition, no regret, no disappointment, only a modicum of embarrassment – just enough to cure a very mild case of guilt and that’s all. The answer seems to be no more than a statement of fact that “each of us needs to consider multiple variables – familial, social and economic etc.” Well what about Halachah? Has Jewish law nothing to say about this most vital question? Indeed, every religious Jew in the Diaspora must come to grips with this crucial aspect of the question! The Chazon Ish summed it all up in one terse sentence, “… the Halachah has already been decided like the Rambam, Ramban and the other poskim that there is a mitzvah to live in Eretz Yisroel, and it is well known how much the Chofetz Chaim longed to go on Aliyah.”
The story is told of a Diaspora Jew who studied in depth the whole range of opinions about Yishuv HaAretz and then called and made an appointment with the gaon HaRav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. The appointed day came; he arrived at the airport, took a cab to the Shaare Chesed neighborhood in Jerusalem, made his way up the steps and soon found himself in the Rosh Yeshiva’s presence. He proceeded to begin to pour out all the knowledge he had committed to memory, when HaRav Auerbach said softly in Yiddish, “Es iz nisht vichtig” – “It is not important.” Our Diaspora hero was devastated – but he nevertheless pressed on until he heard again, “It’s not important.” In his desperation he asked, “What does the Rosh Yeshiva mean, it’s not important?” To which HaRav Shlomo Zalman replied, “Just open up a Chumash and read and you will see that ratzon Hashem (G-d’s will) is that Jews should live in Eretz Yisroel.” In this seemingly simple exchange HaRav Shlomo Zalman expressed a significant and crucial dimension of Halachah. The express will of Hashem has all the force and power of Divine imperative.
Likewise, while I was in the throes of the painful process that led to our decision to go on Aliyah, I felt that I needed to consult a Godol HaTorah about an issue of a related nature. I was then in West Hempstead and I decided to consult HaRav Yaakov Kaminetsky who was in Toronto at the time. I made an appointment with him and flew up for the day. The one and a half hour conversation with him was a spiritual experience never to be forgotten. I wish to quote only one statement he made that is indelibly inscribed on my mind. “Reb Sholom, I hold that it is a mitzvah today, as it always has been, to live in Eretz Yisroel and if I could I would go to the airport now, get on a plane and go to Eretz Yisroel, I would, but I can’t….” Trust me his “I can’t” was truly justified. The honesty, conviction, forcefulness and clarity of what HaRav Yaakov said mixed with his obvious pain in not be able to make Aliyah was deeply moving.
Well, you’re thinking, what about the famous, oft-quoted psak of HaRav Moshe Feinstein that living in Eretz Yisroel is not an obligatory mitzvah but rather “only” optional. A similar opinion is attributed to HaRav Yosef Dov Halevi Solovetchik in “Penini HaRav” by Rabbi Hershel Schachter (page 9). I for one have embraced Rav Moshe’s psak with all my heart because I believe that there is a deeper significance to it. If we accept the opinion that Yishuv Eretz Yisroel is an optional mitzvah then there opens up the magnificent opportunity for a religious Jew to truly perform a great mitzvah with absolutely no coercion at all. Not even the yoke of mitzvah hovers over him. One is afforded the choice to act in accordance with Hashem’s will while under no obligation. The Jew is a free agent, unfettered, unchained, unbound – and he can choose to live in Eretz Yisroel. It is an act of absolute free will. The optional dimension of the mitzvah of dwelling in Israel endows it with great spiritual force.
I believe we have to reassess our personal approach to Eretz Yisroel. Many American Jews may still be frozen in a long outdated conception that Israel is a third world country with a bunch of nebechs who speak English with a bad accent (you should hear my grandchildren). It is no longer a poor, poverty stricken backward country begging for handouts. It is a formidable economic power; yes, one can make a living; housing can be as comfortable as anything you have in the U.S. Homes have value and retain it. Medical care is of very high quality, nowhere near as expensive as in the U.S. Families don’t necessarily have to be separated by Aliyah – the traffic in both directions is enormous. Note also that when one member of a family comes on Aliyah the focus of the whole family changes. One oleh brings another. The vacation spot of choice becomes Israel. Some families see more of each other when one is here. Furthermore, a recent study showed that there is hardly a major advance in science and technology in the world that is achieved without Israeli input. That’s quite amazing when you come to think of it. In addition, what will happen if political action in the U.S. turns out to be ineffective (in dealing with the social and culturing upheavals which America is confronting)? Do you have your bags packed? And just think how the Aliyah of 100,000 American religious Jews would strengthen Israel more than all the political action in the Knesset?
Conclusion: There are many unexpected rewards that come with embracing Eretz Yisroel. First and foremost is the age-old powerful Ahavat Eretz Yisroel that sustained the Jewish people through 2,000 years of exile. You become one with the Patriarchs, the Prophets, and Jews of all generations. One also learns that there is yet another and in some sense more powerful and profound dimension about Eretz Yisrael that may overwhelm you one day, and that is the love of the land itself. A love of the hills, the valleys, the springs and the brooks, the trees and the flowers, the birds, the goats of Ein Gedi, the awesome panoramic views that dazzle and excite the soul as they open up in all their majesty, the fields and the orchards, the olive trees and the statuesque palms, the hiking trails and the rushing winter rains pouring into the Kinneret. My grandchildren have sensitized me to this, what I call the Rav Gamda syndrome. The Talmud on the last page of Masechet Ketubot relates that Rav Gamda would roll in the earth of Eretz Yisroel. It can become intoxicating, a true fever in the blood. Once that love permeates the soul of a person , all the imagined pleasure and joy of chutz l’Aretz pales into insignificance. Rabbi Kook was caught in Switzerland and England for a few years during the First World War. Upon his return he marveled at the sight of the mountains of Yehuda as he ascended to Yerushalayim. One of his aides said to him, “But Rebbi – you have just seen the majestic Alps.” To which he responded, “The Alps don’t speak to me. The mountains of Yehuda do – they are mine.”
I have often wondered about the well-known statement of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai that Hashem gave three good gifts to His people and they are only acquired through toil and pain: Torah, Eretz Yisroel, and Olam Haba. Can you imagine a Jew turning to G-d and saying, “Listen, Your Torah is a wonderful and magnificent gift – but no thank you.” Or, “Olam Haba is a gutteh zach, a great thing – but we can do without it.” Yet Jews can conduct themselves in a way which is in fact tantamount to saying, “Hashem – Eretz Yisroel – no thank you – I’ll pass on that.”
According to the prophet Yechezkel the presence of Jews in Chutz L’Aretz is an awesome Chillul Hashem. Eretz Yisroel must become a serious item on the active agenda of the American Torah-observant community. I want to share a painful thought with you that I hesitate to commit to paper. But since the issue of Eretz Yisroel is of utmost importance, I feel compelled to do so. I do not presume to know G-d’s mind but I was distressed when the thought occurred to me. I am concerned that following the miracles of the Six Day War when Israel more than doubled in size, Hashem expected that His people would flock to His country. Some did, many didn’t, so He may have decided to take away parts of Eretz Yisroel. If you don’t want it, well there is a people that may want it more – let them have it for now. I hope fervently that I am wrong but maybe G-d decided “half the land for half the people.” Consider also that with another 100,000 American Jews living in Yehuda and Shomron there would be no issue of “occupied territories.”
We must not fool ourselves. The realignment and reapportionment of Jews in the world to the Land of Israel points to a clearly defined Divine plan. Jewish history is being written in Eretz Yisroel and nowhere else. The shul I was privileged to build in Har Nof, Kehilat Zichron Yoseph – Young Israel of Har Nof will remain such into eternity. That can’t be said with any degree of certainty about Jewish institutions anywhere else on the globe. Israel is the Torah center of the world. America can strive to be at least a significant footnote to history but I am afraid nothing more than that. In summary, Jewish history is being written right here. So you have a choice. Either remain in America as a spectator who witnesses great events overseas or become an active participant in the drama of Jewish rebirth. In Brisker terminology you can be a cheftza – object, or a gavra – subject. You can watch history or make history. And then there is the need to ask yourselves – “Will your brothers go out to war and you will remain behind?” Keep in mind the great words of Theodore Roosevelt. “He who does not participate in the passion of his time will be judged as having not lived.” Eretz Yisroel is the Passion of Our Time!