The First Aliya
“And Hashem said to Avraham: You go from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Bereishit, 12:1.)
Rashi, in his concluding comments to the next verse, explains that:
“…When initially commanding Avraham to begin his journey, Hashem did not reveal the final destination of that journey, in order to make it dear to him, and in order to reward him for each and every word. A similar example of this can be found in the approach to the Akeida, in Bereishit, 22:2, where Hashem commands Avraham to take ‘his son, his only son, Yitzchak…to one of the mountains…”
In Bereishit Rabbah, 39:8 (the apparent source of this Rashi,) the text is slightly different. Instead of the words, “in order to reward him for each and every word,” we find, “in order to reward him for each and every step.”
At first glance, the midrashic version seems to make more sense. Unaware of his destination, each step that Avraham took reflected a strong belief in the word of God, an unconditional dedication of purpose. The further away from home and the more alien the new environment, the harder the quest.
So why did Rashi decide to alter the original text? What does Rashi mean when he talks of ‘reward for each and every word’?
Perhaps we could suggest an explanation of Rashi by referring to the words of the Radak on the same verse:
“From your land” – For it is difficult for a person to leave his country, a country that he has lived in for many years. “From your birthplace” – It is all the more difficult if it is also the place in which one was born. “From your father’s house” – And it is even harder if you are forced to leave your family home. “To the land that I will show you” – If Hashem had told him where he was going, and told him that it was a good place, it would have been less painful.”
From the Radak’s comments, we can see that each word reflects a different level of difficulty. With this in mind, we can now understand Rashi. Avraham received a reward for each word, because each word related to a progressively harder challenge.
In reflecting upon these commentaries, I like to recall my own ‘Lech Lecha,’ my own aliya to Eretz Yisrael in the week following this very parasha over 15 years ago. As the Ramban says famously (Bereishit, 12:6,) “the actions of our patriarchs should be understood as a sign for their descendants, because everything that happened to our fathers happened to their children.”
These dramatic episodes in our ancestors’ lives can inspire us in our own lives, both nationally and individually. Indeed, when facing the reality of aliya to Eretz Yisrael I turned to Avraham for inspiration; Avraham Avinu, the very first oleh chadash (new immigrant) in the land of Israel.
Let us now look at our verse again, with the contemporary challenge in mind:
“And Hashem said to Avraham: You go from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Bereishit, 12:1)
“And Hashem said to Avraham”
In the exact same way that Hashem said to Avraham Avinu that he should leave his home for Eretz Yisrael, we too have been commanded to leave our homes in the Diaspora and to live in Israel.
“You shall possess the Land, and you shall settle in it, for I have given the Land to you as a possession.” (Bamidbar, 33:53)
The Ramban comments:
“In my opinion, this is a positive commandment, in which Hashem is commanding Am Yisrael to live in the Land and to inherit it, because He has given it to them; they should therefore not reject ‘the inheritance of the Eternal.’ Thus, if they think of conquering the land of Shinar or the land of Assyria or any other country and to settle there, they will be transgressing the commandment of God. And our Rabbis have emphasized the significance of the commandment of settling in the Land of Israel. It is forbidden to leave it (except for certain specified reasons,) and a woman who does not want to emigrate with her husband to live in the Land of Israel is considered a ‘rebellious wife,’ and likewise the man. The source of these statements is here in this verse, where we have been given this commandment, for this very verse constitutes a positive commandment…our interpretation of the verse is the principal one.”
In the light of the Ramban’s comments, the Rambam’s opinion on this issue is far from clear. Indeed, the omission of this mitzvah in his list of the 613 commandments seemingly points to a direct disagreement with the Ramban, i.e. there is no positive commandment to settle the Land of Israel.
This was the implication understood by the Megillat Esther, a famous commentary to the Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvot, when taking issue with the Ramban: “… It appears to me that the fact that the Rambam excludes the commandment of settling the Land from the 613 mitzvot, is because that this was only applicable during the earlier generations of Moshe, Yehoshua, and David. The mitzvah remained valid until the Exile. However, once Am Yisrael went into exile, this mitzvah was indeed suspended until the coming of the Mashiach. On the contrary, it would appear from the Talmud, at the end of Massechet Ketubot, that we are forbidden to return en masse to Eretz Yisrael until ‘the end of days.’ The fact that our Rabbis espoused the idea of living in Israel was clearly referring to the times when the Temple was still standing; however, nowadays there is no such mitzvah. This is also the opinion of Tosafot in Ketubot (110b).”
Rabbi Shlomo Teichtal, in his awe-inspiring work Eim HaBanim Smeicha, disputes the rationale of the Megillat Esther. He believes that the Rambam does think that settling in the Land of Israel is a positive commandment, and he provides a host of supporting proofs:
“I am amazed at the Gaon Megillat Esther, and his understanding of the Rambam that not only is there no commandment to settle in Israel, but it is even a transgression. How could one possibly interpret Rambam in this way?
…Regarding the mitzvah of Kiddush HaChodesh (mitzvah 153,) the Rambam writes that our calendar calculations in exile are of no consequence…We are completely reliant on the accounting of those in Eretz Yisrael… If there were no Jews living in Eretz Yisrael, our calendar in the Diaspora would be null and void, “For out of Zion comes the Torah and the word of God from Jerusalem…” (Isaiah 2:3)
…I would like to add further in the name of the Chatam Sofer who, when quoting the above Rambam, stated quite categorically, that even though Hillel and his colleagues sanctified all of the months in advance until the coming of the Mashiach, their act is only relevant if there are Jews living in Israel…
…Similarly, the Gaon Sde Chemed, quoting the Chatam Sofer, emphasizes that it is not only important to encourage settling in Israel for the sake of the actual mitzvah, it is of essential importance for the ultimate spiritual survival of Am Yisrael. If there are no Jews in Eretz Yisrael, the Jews in exile cannot function halachically…The Chidah adds that we should heed the Rambam’s view and endeavor to ensure that there should always be Jews living in Eretz Yisrael…
…The reason why the Rambam excluded this mitzvah is not that he does not regard settling Eretz Yisrael as a mitzvah, as is claimed by the Megillat Esther, but because this mitzvah is so fundamental and all-inclusive. According to the criteria (#4) the Rambam defines before his account of the 613 mitzvot, it is simply unnecessary to include these kind of mitzvot …Indeed, we can see from the Rambam’s comments on Kiddush HaChodesh, how living in Eretz Yisrael is so fundamental for the whole nation…”
Regarding the claim of the Megillat Esther that the mitzvah to live in Israel is no longer relevant during times of exile, it would appear that the Shulchan Aruch also disagrees. In Even HaEzer 75:4, he states that:
“Refusal of either husband or wife to go and live in Israel can be clearly used as grounds for divorce. If the wife refuses to leave, her husband can divorce her without any obligation to pay the Ketubah fee. Similarly, if the husband refuses the wife’s request to immigrate to Israel she can invoke divorce, and receive her full rights.”
The Pitchei Teshuva adds numerous sources in support of the view that it is indeed a mitzvah to live in Eretz Yisrael.
He also says that it is the view of all the poskim, Rishonim and Acharonim alike, that one can apply pressure to a husband or wife to move to Eretz Yisrael with their spouse. To claim that this mitzvah is suspended when we are in exile, because of danger, seems strange, particularly when it was no less dangerous during Temple times, and there is no opinion that would suggest that the mitzvah was suspended then. He concludes:
“Therefore, even if a regional Beit Din were to forbid families to immigrate to Eretz Yisrael because of the possible dangers, such families could surely rely on all of the above sources, and nevertheless make the journey to Israel, thereby fulfilling a positive commandment.”
According to the vast majority of opinions, living in Eretz Yisrael is an ideal that we should all endeavor to fulfill. It is a mitzvah like no other; it is also a national mitzvah, to the extent that if there were no Jews living in Eretz Yisrael, it would, according to the Rambam, the Chatam Sofer, and the Chidah, actually undermine our very existence.
I therefore respectfully suggest that we at least apply ourselves to this mitzvah as we apply ourselves to Shabbat, Kashrut, and other fundamental commandments. In fact, at a time when our rights to our Land are being so vigorously questioned, not just by our neighbors, but also by the world, I believe we must demonstrate heightened enthusiasm for this mitzvah. Would we ever contemplate not keeping Shabbat or wearing Tefillin if the nations attacked us for it? Our behavior regarding Eretz Yisrael should certainly be no different. I believe that the time has come for Orthodox Jewry to face the truth; understand the power of this mitzvah, listen to Hashem, and return home.
Once we accept this as a truth, believing Jews are left with only one option: aliya. Of course it is not easy; we also face similar difficulties to Avraham, but who says it must be easy? I would like to share my own experiences with you, while continuing our contemporary explanation of the verse:
“From your land”
This refers to the country in which you were born and bred. In my case this was England. Even though I would never have defined myself as a proud subject of Her Majesty the Queen, I nevertheless had an extremely happy childhood. I was well versed in the culture and sports of the country, and I felt comfortable with the ethical and moral norms around me.
The seemingly petty details can make all the difference to one’s self and social confidence. Knowing how to deal with banks and other bureaucracy, understanding local mentality, and even driving on the left side of the road and knowing your way around, is all crucial to one’s general morale. The ability to express oneself fully in a familiar language is of enormous importance.
Suddenly, upon arriving in Israel, I was struck by a new reality from the minute I entered the airport. The language barrier was the most immediate problem. A person needs to learn how to express himself in the clearest fashion. I found myself regressing to my infancy, appreciating the incredible frustration of a child trying to explain something to a parent who cannot decipher the strange group of sounds. Funnily enough, adults who encounter adults who do not speak the same language often seem to automatically assume that they are talking to infants, and they also tend to shout, as if the foreigner is deaf! So there I was, 23 years old, frustrated at not being understood, and feeling like a helpless baby.
In short, as the famous saying goes: “It is easier to take a Jew out of exile than to take the Exile out of the Jew,” and this is true even on a basic cultural level! The mere fact that one has left one’s home country and arrived in another land; the mere fact that one now has an Israeli passport, does not make one Israeli overnight. Cultural and social acclimatization is a slow, thorough, and often depressing process. If this was the only barrier then we would say ‘dayeinu’ – ‘that would suffice us’ -, however we then move on to the next stage:
“From your birthplace”
How does one’s birthplace differ from one’s homeland? When we think of where we were born, we not only relate to the social and communal culture, we also remember the places of our childhood.
Memories are so important. Preschool, grade school, high school, shul, friends, community; all of these elements are an intrinsic part of who we are. Our formative years, from infants to young adults, are such an inherent part of our self-definition, that when contemplating leaving one’s birthplace, it is almost as if one is leaving oneself. It is like leaving an old life and beginning a new one, and therefore leaving one’s birthplace is even harder than leaving your country.
“From your father’s house”
Nothing could be harder. As we embark on our journey, we are expected not only to leave familiar surroundings and warm memories, but often our entire families. This is a test that never really ends; the daily reality of an oleh chadash in the land of Israel with his family far away. Our “father’s house” is even more part of who we are than our childhood memories. Our parents, grandparents, and siblings are part of our being, and to leave them is the hardest test of all. Every simcha, every event, even a child’s laugh that your family can’t share, acts as a constant reminder to the sacrifice that one has to endure, at least until the Geula, if one wishes to fulfill this mitzvah. It is worth mentioning that our parents make an enormous sacrifice too. Even if they do not join us in Israel immediately, they see their children and grandchildren infrequently, and their ideal family reality is not is as it should be.
I know that the difficulties alluded to in our verse are real difficulties. It is no easy task to leave one’s land, birthplace, and father’s house, but it is our duty to do so. We look to Avraham Avinu for inspiration; we look to the Torah and we gain strength and commitment.
At the end of our verse, we are told that Avraham set out without prior knowledge of his destination:
“…to the land that I will show you”
Here the parallel ends. There is one awesome difference between our aliya and the first aliyot of our forefathers. We know exactly where we are going. Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov arrived in the idolatrous land of Cana’an, and we return to the historical homeland of our people. Yes, there are tests. Yes, there are troubles. But there is also Hevron, Yerushalayim, Tiberias, Ein Gedi, the Galil and the Golan. We are returning to the God-given land of the Jewish people. We are coming home.