In the year 70 CE, the Roman general Titus sacked the city of Jerusalem and burned the Temple to the ground. Thus began nearly two millennia of exile, during which we went from one persecution to the next. Through the years, we never gave up hope of one day returning to our land and rebuilding our country. This dream was realized in 1948 when, seizing upon the U.N. partition resolution of 1947 (Resolution 181), the leadership of the Jewish community in what was then British Mandate Palestine declared independence. After a bloody war with the surrounding Arab nations, in which G-d performed many miracles on behalf of our fledgling state, Jews from the ends of the earth began to return from their long dispersion.
Many Jews, however, have chosen to remain outside the land of Israel, in the strong Jewish communities that have sprung up in America, western Europe, and elsewhere. Included in this group are many who consider themselves devoutly observant. They have their reasons for not coming here, and I mean them no disrespect, but there are issues of Jewish law and practice to consider.
For instance, while the commentators differ on whether or not the verse from Deuteronomy quoted in the heading constitutes a binding obligation for all time, all are in agreement that it is more blessed to live in Israel than in the diaspora. My personal opinion - and I must emphasize that I am not a rabbi - is that the opening sentence of the verse ("Behold, I have set the land before you") is meant as a qualifier: whenever the land is set before us, it behooves us to go in and possess it. Today, it is clear that at least some of the land (the land governed by the State of Israel) is set before us, as there is nothing stopping us from coming here.
The Amidah prayer, which is recited three times a day by devout Jews, contains a petition that G-d "gather us together from the four corners of the earth". If we really want to be gathered in, all we have to do is get on a plane.
The second paragraph of the Shema, a selection of Torah passages recited twice daily by observant Jews, contains blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. The blessings involve a plentiful harvest: "I will provide rain for your land in its proper time, the early and late rains, that you may gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil. I will provide grass in your field for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied." (Deuteronomy 11:14-15) G-d, by promising us blessings in "your land", presupposes that we be in the land to receive it. Imagine if G-d said, "Do X, Y, and Z, and I will drop a million dollars at such-and-such a location." You could do X, Y, and Z anywhere, but if you want the million dollars, you had jolly well better go where G-d said it would be. Imagine having a winning lottery ticket and not showing up at the claims office.
The curses involve banishment from the land: "Then the wrath of the L-rd will blaze against you. He will restrain the heaven so there will be no rain, and the ground will not yield its produce. And you will swiftly be banished from the good land which the L-rd gives you." (Deuteronomy 11:17) If banishment from the land is a curse, then residence in the land is a blessing. The person who chooses to remain outside the land thus spurns G-d's provision.
Bircat Hamazon, the blessing which is recited after a meal including bread, contains a paragraph which begins, "We thank you, L-rd, our G-d, because You have given to our forefathers as a heritage a desirable, good, and spacious land ...". What sense does it make to thank G-d for giving us the land if we choose not to live on it? That's like thanking G-d for the winning lottery ticket and then not cashing it in. And why be grateful that the land is "desirable, good, and spacious"? These attributes of the land are of benefit only to people who live here.
In the late 19th century, the early Reform Jewish leaders in Germany deleted references to Jerusalem from their prayer books, proclaiming, "Berlin is our Jerusalem". They ate their words a few short decades later when Hitler's armies wiped out six million Jewish men, women, and children. Meanwhile, those Jews who moved to British Mandate Palestine were spared the Holocaust and never saw a single German soldier. (General Rommel's forces got close to Palestine, but they never actually reached the border. They smashed through the British forces in northern Africa, but their offensive stalled in Egypt when they drank the water and got diarrhea.) I suspect, but cannot prove, that the Jews of Palestine were spared partly in the merit of having moved to the Holy Land. Meanwhile, the Jews who did not come here prior to the Holocaust found the door slammed in their faces with the British White Paper of 1941, which severely restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine.
Do you think the Holocaust can't be repeated in America? America's fast-growing Muslim population already equals the Jewish population, and the Muslims have many more children per family than other Americans. Already, in my former home city of Paterson, New Jersey, the Muslims held a rally in the year 2000, soon after the Palestinian intifada began, in which they chanted, "We hate Jews!" This was covered in a news article by the North Jersey Herald News (I don't recall the date, but it was either late September or early October). Note that they did not limit themselves to "We hate Israelis!" In another generation or two, they will be much more numerous, and in particular they will proliferate in positions of influence as news reporters and teachers, thereby gaining the ability to poison the minds of the masses. Meanwhile, in Israel, though it is true that secular Jews have a low birth rate, Orthodox Jews have a very high birth rate. (I have heard that the Orthodox birth rate is higher even than that of the Palestinians.) This has kept the Arab share of the population from increasing substantially.
It gets worse. Immediately before the Messiah comes, all the world will wage war against Israel: "Behold, the day of the L-rd comes, when thy spoil shall be divided in the midst of thee. For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle; and the city shall be taken, and the houses rifled, and the women ravished; and half of the city shall go into exile, and the residue of the people shall not be cut off from the city. Then shall the L-rd go out and fight against those nations, as when he fought in the day of battle." (Zechariah 14:1-3) War on the scale depicted here probably means that the common people will be drafted into the army, as happened in World War II. The result will be that Jews living outside the land could find themselves compelled to kill their fellow Jews here.
The book of Ruth begins with the story of Elimelech, Naomi, and their two sons. There was a famine in Israel in the days of the judges, and this family left Israel for the land of Moab to escape the famine. The sons married Gentile women and died in Moab. One of the women, Ruth, ultimately converted to Judaism and became the great-grandmother of King David. However, most mixed marriages don't have such a happy ending. At least in Israel, even if your children reject the Torah, they are unlikely to intermarry, because about 5/6 of the population is Jewish and because the Arabs are looked upon with suspicion.
Psalm 137 is a poignant depiction of the mourning of the Jews during the Babylonian exile. When the Babylonians requested that the Jews play Jewish songs for them on their lyres, they said, "How can we sing the song of the L-rd upon the alien's soil?" (verse 4) Thus we learn that the ideal place to sing G-d's praises is in Israel.
There are Jews who don't want to come here because it is not as easy to make a living here, as incomes here are not as high as they are in America. G-d doesn't want us to starve to death, but people aren't starving to death here. The difference in living standards is mainly that not everyone has such amenities as cable TV. Americans may find this statement blasphemous, but you can live without cable TV. (Most people here do have cell phones and e-mail.)
I have met a number of Orthodox Jews who don't want to live here as long as there is a secular government. I have also met secular Jews who don't want to live here because the Orthodox Jews allegedly control everything. Both groups are misguided. If the Orthodox Jews want a religious government here, all they have to do is come here, become citizens, and vote for the religious parties. Given our high birth rate, we are likely to be the majority of Israel's population in one or two generations. Meanwhile, Israeli Jews who wish to live non-religious lifestyles are perfectly free to do so and would retain their freedom even if a religious government were elected.
Many Orthodox Jews choose to remain outside the land on the grounds that our banishment from the land was a divine punishment. To return on our own initiative, they say, would be a denial of G-d's right to punish us. But the same G-d who banished us has in recent decades manipulated world politics in such a manner as to enable us to re-establish our state. True, the exile will not be completely over until the Temple is rebuilt. But it is clear that the punishment has been relaxed somewhat. To say otherwise is to deny G-d's power to install the political leaders of His choosing (in this case, the U.N. delegates who voted for Resolution 181 in 1947). The issue of the exile as a divine punishment is discussed further in my article on Jewish anti-Zionists.
That said, there are legitimate reasons for living outside the Land. For instance, as long as there are non-religious Jews in the diaspora, someone has to be there to explain to them what it means to be a Jew and why one should live a religious life. Jews who wish to explore their Judaism after growing up non-religious need access to rabbis and are seldom able, at that early stage in their spiritual quest, to take as big a step as moving to another country. Consequently, at least some rabbis must remain in the diaspora. There are also people who are psychologically incapable of studying Torah here in Israel, given the ever-present danger of terrorist attacks. Studying Torah is more important than living in the Land, because without studying Torah, we would not even know about our connection to the Land.
However, we should bear in mind that there are plenty of secular Israelis who might possibly pursue observant Jewish lives if religious Jews interacted with them and showed them reasons to become more observant. As for studying Torah, Jews who are that scared of the terrorists need to work on themselves and pray that G-d help them overcome their fears. For one thing, even when America's greater population is taken into account, common criminals in America are much more dangerous than Palestinian terrorists. More importantly, however, when our ancestors refused to enter the Land for fear of the Canaanites, they were punished with 40 years of wandering the wilderness (Numbers 14).
This is a land of miracles. It is "a land that the L-rd your G-d seeks out; the eyes of the L-rd your G-d are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to year's end" (Deuteronomy 11:12). Most of the mountains here have lush green trees, but the trees are small and widely spaced. This means that these mountains were completely barren less than a century ago, and they are only now coming back to life. Rosemary, a spice used in spaghetti sauce, is expensive in America. Here, it grows wild on the side of the road, as tall as a person. I have seen melon plants sprouting from land so dry you wouldn't think even dandelions could grow on it. Olive trees are as common as stones.
But don't take my word for it. Come and see it for yourself.
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