“And the Lord spoke to Moses in Mount Sinai, saying, Speak to the people of Israel, and say to them, When you come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath to the Lord.” Leviticus 25:1-2
The land keeping a sabbath refers to the shmittah year. Once every seven years, all the fields in the land of Israel that are owned by Jews are supposed to lie fallow. We are supposed to live off of the excess we harvest in the 6th year, and from things that just grow on their own.
Rashi’s comment on these two verses asks “what does shmittah have to do with Mt. Sinai? After all, all of the commandments were given at Mt. Sinai. The Slonimer rebbe points out another curious aspect of these two verses: why does it say “when you come into the land it shall keep a Sabbath?” Shouldn’t it start out by saying you’ll plant your crops and tend the fields for six years, and in the seventh year it will rest? Why start out with the rest?
The Slonimer explains that the connecting denominator of all of these issues is kedusha, holiness. The Slonimer says that the world was created for the sake of the Jewish people (and they say humility is an important Jewish virtue!). That’s because we are called an am kadosh, a holy people with a special mission to help bring God’s light to all the people of the world, to be mamlechet Kohenim, a nation of priests.
But holiness does not only exist in a people – there is also holiness in place and holiness in time. Mt. Sinai represented the conjunction of these three things – the place was made temporarily holy, as the Torah commands people to stay away from the mountain, and the time of the giving of the Torah was holy, and the Torah was given to the holy Jewish people.
We have a similar conjunction of these three types of holiness with the shmittah year—it is observed by the Jewish people and their holiness of spirit, in the land of Israel, a holy place, and a particular time, the shmittah year, representing holiness in time – so, like the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, it’s a holiness in time that is connected to both people and the place.
The Slonimer says it is only when all three of these factors are together – people, place, and time – that complete holiness can be attained. It’s only through the combination of these three things together that we merited the great reward of receiving the Torah.
Mt. Sinai’s holiness was only temporary – it was only holy at the time of the giving of the Torah. We do not understand Mt. Sinai as having inherent holiness because of the place itself. The only place in the world that the Jewish tradition understands as having any inherent holiness is the land of Israel.
If Israel is the only place in the world where we can reach this level of connection with God, of bringing together our personal holiness with the holiness of time and place, it raises a question: are we all required to make aliyah? If we are supposed to be an am kadosh, a holy nation, do we have to live in the holy land?
Is it a mitzvah – is it a positive commandment – for all Jews to move to Israel?
Now as everyone knows, mitzvah or not, God willing, my family and I are making aliyah next year. So you might have thought, “he’s got that one figured out already!”
But the truth is, prior to this week, I had not really decided where I came down on the “is making aliyah a mitzvah” debate. Our decision to make aliyah was not because it’s commanded of us – we had all sorts of other reasons, which I will talk about over the High Holidays. But it is a debate – two of our greatest rabbis, Maimonides (Rambam) and Nachmanides (Ramban) seem to be on different sides of the argument. Ramban includes making aliyah in his list of the 613 commandments; Rambam does not. In fact, there is an opinion in the Talmud which says that whoever goes up from Babylonia to Israel – whoever makes aliyah – TRANSGRESSES a commandment!
No surprise, three Jews, three opinions: one says we are required to move to Israel, one says it is optional to move to Israel, one says it is forbidden to move to Israel. So when I make aliyah does that make me a saint, a sinner, or just a guy doing his thing?
There are so many different rabbinic sources debating this matter, I could probably teach a semester long course just on this topic. But I won’t. We’ll just look at a few of the key issues this morning.
The launching point for much of the discussion is the Talmud, at the end of tractate Ketubot. The Mishnah there says “A man may compel his entire household to go up with him to the land of Israel, but none may be compelled to leave it. All one’s household may be compelled to go up to Jerusalem, but none may be compelled to leave it. This applies to both men and women.” In other words, not only can a man force his wife to make aliyah, a wife can force her husband!
The discussion on this passage in the mishnah goes on to emphasize the importance of living in Israel—they say “One should always live in the Land of Israel, even in a town most of whose inhabitants are idolaters, but let no one live outside the Land, even in a town most of whose inhabitants are Israelites; for whoever lives in the Land of Israel may be considered to have a God, but whoever lives outside the Land may be regarded as one who has no God.”
Wow! That’s pretty strong stuff – if you live outside of Israel, it’s as if you have no God! The Sifri goes so far as to say that the mitzvah of living in Eretz Yisrael is as important as all the other mitzvot put together! One explanation given is that there are many mitzvot which can only be performed in the land of Israel, so if you are outside of Israel you are “lacking.” And there is also a statement in the Torah which some, like Ramban, interpret as commanding us to live in Israel. Numbers 33:53 says “And you shall dispossess the inhabitants of the land, and live in it; for I have given you the land to possess it.” “And live in it”—it’s a commandment to live in it. “I have given you the land to possess it”—therefore, we are required to go and possess it, otherwise we look like we are not grateful to God for this wonderful gift he gave us.
Given all of this evidence, why are there some who say it is forbidden to make aliyah?
They base their argument on the continuation of the discussion in tractate Ketubot.
R. Zera was evading Rab Judah because he desired to go up to the Land of Israel (from Babylon) while Rab Judah had expressed [the following view:] Whoever goes up from Babylon to the Land of Israel transgresses a positive commandment, for it is said in Scripture, “They shall be carried to Babylon, and there shall they be, until the day that I remember them, saith the Lord (Jer. 27:22).”
In other words, once we were carried away from Israel to Babylon, we are supposed to sit there waiting for the Messiah to come bring us back—to make aliyah on our own would be “forcing God’s hand” so to speak.
It seems to me that it would be very short-sighted to hold on to that point of view even after the Babylonians were defeated by the Persians and the Jews were allowed to move back to Israel and rebuild the Temple. It’s like the well-known story about the very pious guy who was caught in a flood. The floodwaters were rising and rising, and had to climb up on the roof of his house, praying all the time. A helicopter comes by and they call out, “come on, get in the helicopter!” Our hero demurs, saying “no, that’s OK, God will save me.” The waters keep rising, some people in a small boat come by and say “get in!” And again our pious fellow says “no, that’s OK, God will take care of me!” He gets washed away by the flood and drowns. When he gets brought into the presence of his maker, he complains to God, “God, why didn’t you save me? I gave so much to charity, I dedicated my life to serving you, has there ever been anyone who prayed with greater intensity than me?” And God says, “nu, you didn’t like my helicopter? What was wrong with the boat?”
When God does a miracle for us, we need to open our eyes and recognize the miracle. I picture God asking the Jews who stayed in Babylon, “nu, what was wrong with Cyrus? Didn’t I remember you?”
Fortunately, almost none of the later rabbis sided with Rab Judah. No one anymore thinks it is forbidden for an individual to make aliyah (the Satmar Chasidim, however, continue to believe we are forbidden to make aliyah en masse). The disagreement today is between those who say it is a requirement to make aliyah and those who say it is an option.
We’ve seen why Ramban says it’s a requirement. Why doesn’t Rambam agree with him? Why doesn’t Rambam include it in his count of the 613 mitzvot, while Ramban does?
One possible explanation is that Rambam’s understanding of the verse in Bamidbar is along the lines of Rashi’s explanation. The verse in Bamidbar says “And you shall dispossess the inhabitants of the land, and live in it.” Rashi says “and you shall drive them out, and then you will dwell in the land.”
Or Hachayim says the difference between Rashi and Ramban is that Rashi says the commandment is to drive the people out – settling the land is a promise, not a commandment. Ramban disagrees and says there are two mitzvot in the pasuk, one to drive them out and another to dwell in the land.
There is another option between seeing making aliyah as a Biblical requirement and seeing no commandment there at all – and that is to view it as a “voluntary mitzvah.”
There are positive commandments that are understood as strict requirements: for example, wearing tefillin. In the Torah it says “you shall bind these words as a sign on your hand,” which is understood as meaning every Jewish man is obligated to put on tefillin every day. And then there are voluntary mitzvot, like wearing a tallis. You are not required to put on a tallis, but if you put on a garment that has four corners, it needs to have tzitzit, fringes on it (take note if you like ponchos!). If you never happen to put on a garment with four corners, you haven’t done anything wrong. But if you fail to put on tefillin, you have done something wrong, because it is an obligation to do so.
Rav Moshe Feinstein, one of the leading Orthodox rabbis of the last century, said that making aliyah is like wearing a tallis. It’s an “optional” mitzvah, one that it’s good to do, but you haven’t done anything wrong if you don’t.
Rabbi Zev Leff (no relation), a rabbi who made aliyah from Florida to go live in the West Bank, points out that even if living in Israel is only a voluntary mitzvah, isn’t it a bit odd that you have people who are very punctilious about other mitzvot – they always wear a tallit katan even though it’s not strictly required, they spend lots of money on having beautiful mezuzot and other ritual objects. He points out “there are people who build their sukkot using only wooden pegs, just to fulfill the opinion of the Chazon Ish, which nobody else holds like. The same Chazon Ish says it’s a mitzvah to live in Eretz Yisrael.” So how can someone who takes even other optional mitzvot so seriously ignore the commandment to live in Israel?
People often think that if you compare Conservative rabbis to Orthodox rabbis, Conservative rabbis are always more lenient.
That is not necessarily the case. So I admit to taking a sort of pleasure to make the point when I find a mitzvah where I am more stringent than some of the Orthodox authorities. And in this case, I’m stricter than Rabbi Moshe Feinstein z”l, who on most other issues is much stricter than me. I believe it IS a mitzvah to make aliyah, not just a voluntary mitzvah, but a solid required mitzvah. I believe Nachmanides was right to include making aliyah in the list of 613 commandments.
Rabbi David Golinkin, the leading halachic authority for the Conservative movement in Israel agrees. In a teshuva he wrote on the subject, he points out that the reason Ramban was in the minority in declaring aliyah a mitzvah is because in those days it was virtually impossible for most Jews to make aliyah. Rabbi Golinkin says “It seems that most rabbis saw no point in requiring something so dangerous and expensive that it was virtually unobtainable. By requiring aliyah, the rabbis would have turned almost the entire Jewish people into sinners. But the thrust of Numbers 33:53 as well as of the entire Bible and Talmud is that all Jews are supposed to live in Eretz Yisrael. That is what God repeatedly promised our ancestors, that is why God redeemed us from Egypt, and that is where a large percentage of the mitzvot need to be observed.”
I mentioned earlier Rashi’s interpretation of the verse in Bamidbar, “you shall dispossess the inhabitants of the land and live in it.” I disagree with Or Hachayim’s interpretation that Rashi sees “live in it” as a promise not a commandment, because the rest of his commentary says “living in it depends on being established in the land; and if not, we are not able to keep this mitzvah.”
In Rashi’s day, in the 11th century, Israel was under Muslim rule, except for a brief period when the Christians took over in a crusade. Not a place Jews could readily choose to go to. Today, however, is a different story. We have “dispossessed the inhabitants of the land.” Whether the way we dispossessed the inhabitants was nice or not, for better or worse, Israel is now a country where the substantial majority of the population is Jewish. We have self-rule. Given that we are once more firmly established in the land, it is incumbent upon each of us to live there. That’s why God gave it to us.
The Chatam Sofer says that even though Maimonides did not list living in Israel as a mitzvah, he believed that nonetheless we are obligated to live there. And it’s for a reason which brings us back to the original connection I made between this week’s parsha and the mitzvah of living in Israel: the holiness of Israel. He bases this on teachings elsewhere from Rambam that when Jews don’t live in Israel it is as if they are contributing to the destruction of the land. He says contributing to the holiness of Israel is a requirement in and of itself, above and beyond a requirement to settle there. As the Slonimer rebbe said in his commentary to this weeks’ parsha, it is only in Israel where we can experience the completion of holiness in soul, place, and time all at the same time.
Perhaps another reason Rambam did not include living in Israel as one of the mitzvot is because it is “p’shita,” so obvious. Rambam does, after all, say that one who lives in Israel cannot leave except under special circumstances, he says that anyone who lives in Israel his sins are forgiven, and he brings the mishnah which “says it is better to live in a city in Israel where the majority of inhabitants are idol worshippers than to live in a city outside Israel where the majority of inhabitants are Jews” as law. I was discussing this with Rabbi Garsek the other day, and he mentioned a teaching that says Rambam didn’t have to make aliyah a commandment any more than we have a commandment that says “you must breathe.” Israel is our home, where else would a Jew live if he has any choice?
Living in Israel both makes it possible to observe other mitzvot – like the shmittah year this week’s parsha commands us to observe – and it makes it easier to observe all the other mitzvot. It is far easier to observe Shabbat and the holidays in a place that lives on Jewish time. It is far easier to keep kosher in a place where most of the restaurants are kosher and most grocery stores only have kosher food on their shelves. We spend tons of money and effort as a community trying to pump up our kids with a strong Jewish identity in hopes of maintaining Jewish continuity, when in Israel, with 80% of the population being Jewish, Jewish continuity happens on its own.
Even though I believe it is a mitzvah to live in Israel, I don’t believe all Jews in the world have to live there all the time. In fact, given the tensions in the world, it is a good thing to have a vibrant Jewish community outside of Israel – we’re avoiding putting all of our eggs in one basket.
However I do believe all Jews should consider Israel home, and should live there a substantial part of their lives. All Jews should have an Israeli passport, testimony to the fact that Israel is truly home in a physical as well as a spiritual sense – even if they also have another passport and temporarily live somewhere else because of work or family considerations.
And for me, that is the essence of the mitzvah. Israel is our permanent home – anywhere else is a place we are merely visiting.
And Israel is an amazing place. The Midrash says God created ten portions of beauty in the world, nine in Jerusalem and one for the rest of the world. My feelings toward Israel parallel the way the Spanish writer Goytisolo describes his feelings toward Marrakesh, where he lives. People ask him why he lives there, and his response is “have you seen it? In the 70s, when I was very poor, I was offered a permanent teaching post in Edmonton. I realized I would rather starve in Marrakesh than be a millionaire in Alberta.”
Yes, for most of us, to fulfill the mitzvah of living in Israel requires financial sacrifice. But about living in Jerusalem, I would paraphrase Goytisolo: “have you seen it? I would rather live in a 3 bedroom apartment in Jerusalem than in a 6 bedroom house in Toledo – or even than in my beloved San Francisco.”
You can’t put a price tag on going home.