Loving the Land

Photo: Yehoshua Halevi

Photo: Yehoshua Halevi

By Aryeh Z. Ginzberg

This year, since Yom Ha’atzmaut falls so soon after Pesach, we decided to include this article in our Pesach edition.

Almost a year ago, I received a call that was profoundly disturbing.

First, some background. Last year, in recognition of the sixty-seventh anniversary of the State of Israel, a yeshivah in my neighborhood organized a yom iyun to acknowledge the wonderful gift that Hashem bestowed upon Klal Yisrael after close to 2,000 years. Incidentally, this particular yeshivah’s mesorah is to not alter the seder hatefillah on Yom Ha’atzmaut or to celebrate the day in a manner that conflicts with the restrictions of the sefirah period.

The yeshivah administration invited me to share a few thoughts about the significance of Eretz Yisrael in our lives, which I happily did.

The caller heard about the talk I gave and contacted me to express his displeasure. How could I share in the celebration of a government whose secular outlook and orientation is wreaking havoc on religious life in Eretz Yisrael? he demanded. What about the difficulties facing the Chareidi community in Eretz Yisrael, particularly over the last few years with numerous governmental laws being enacted that significantly impact the quality of life in the Chareidi community? And finally, how could someone who was close to Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, zt”l, and also a talmid of Rav Henoch Leibowitz, zt”l, veer so far from the mesorah and give a public talk about Eretz Yisrael on Yom Ha’atzmaut?”

While I did not have the opportunity to respond to the caller at the time (he hung up rather abruptly), with Yom Ha’atzmaut almost here once again, I offer my reflections here.

The Rambam, when addressing the topic of one afflicted with tzara’at (a leper), discusses an interesting halachah: a Kohen who is blind in one eye cannot rule on a nega (skin lesion associated with tzara’at), even if he has perfect vision in the other eye. This is indeed a perplexing halachah. However, an insight from the Meshech Chochmah may provide some insight. When the Torah instructs the Kohen to look at the signs of tzara’at, it repeats the word “vera’ah”—“he should look.” The implication is that it does not suffice to look once, the Kohen must examine the evidence of tzara’at twice. Why? This is because the Kohen should not just examine the affliction itself, he has to examine the individual’s entire situation before rendering him tamei. He has to look at the whole person and his predicament before determining his halachic status. Perhaps this is why a Kohen who is blind in one eye cannot render a halachic decision on a nega. Symbolically, he needs excellent vision to view the entire situation.

Taking a few moments on Israel’s Independence Day (as well as on every other day of the year!) to reflect on the Divine gift and berachah of Eretz Yisrael is not just the right thing to do, it is our obligation.

This is the very message I would like to convey to the irate caller: one must have a wide-ranging view to fully grasp the gift of Eretz Hakodesh. Yes, there are difficulties and challenges in Eretz Yisrael, at times even painful ones, but how can any God-fearing Jew not be filled with gratitude and awe for this Divine present? Indeed, the greatest rabbanim throughout history always expressed a profound love of and appreciation for Eretz Yisrael.

Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook was once stuck in Switzerland during WWI. When he returned to Eretz Yisrael, he marveled at the sight of the Judean Mountains as he ascended to Yerushalayim. One of his students said, “But rebbe, you just saw the Swiss Alps, said to be the most beautiful in the world.” To which Rav Kook replied, “The Alps didn’t speak to me, the Mountains of Yehuda do; they are mine.”

Anyone who reads the letters in Pachad Yitzchak cannot help but be overwhelmed by the depth of Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner’s love for Eretz Yisrael. In one place he writes, “The fire of ahavat Eretz Yisrael burns inside me.” In another, he writes: “I was zocheh to be there. I saw, I heard, but I did not acquire it, for Chazal say that ‘Eretz Yisrael is only acquired with yissurim.’ I hope the next time I come, it will be through yissurim.

Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz was also known for his deep affection for Eretz Yisrael. He once quipped, “A Yid in chutz la’Aretz is like a polar bear in the Bronx Zoo. Yes, it eats and sleeps and is taken care of, but it is still not in its natural habitat.”

The previous Amshinover Rebbe, Rabbi Yerachmiel Yehuda Myer Kalish, was known for his passionate love of Eretz Yisrael. Once during a hot spell in the middle of the Eretz Yisrael summer, his driver, who out of respect for the Rebbe would wear a jacket in his presence, felt uncomfortable in the stifling heat. He asked the Rebbe if he could remove his jacket as it was so hot. The Rebbe replied, “For my part you can [even] take off your shirt, but please don’t speak lashon hara about Eretz Yisrael.”

Presumably, the Rebbe had the gemara in Kesubot in mind (112A), which describes how Rav Ami and Rav Asi, who were learning together, would move from the sun to the shade when it was either too hot or too cold to avoid having any negative feelings about Eretz Yisrael.

The Maharal explains that the Jewish nation committed two terrible sins during the forty years of wandering: Chet HaEgel (the Sin of the Golden Calf) and Chet HaMeraglim (the Sin of the Spies). Hakadosh Baruch Hu was able to forgive the Jewish people for Chet HaEgel; however, He could not forgive them for Chet HaMeraglim. Why? Hakadosh Baruch Hu can be “mochel on His own kavod,” but He cannot forgo the respect due to Eretz Yisrael.

So what’s my response to the indignant caller? Love of Eretz Yisrael is our mesorah. While not everyone celebrates this love in the same manner, as some change the tefillah on Yom Ha’atzmaut and others do not, taking a few moments on Israel’s Independence Day (as well as on every other day of the year!) to reflect on the Divine gift and berachah of Eretz Yisrael is not just the right thing to do, it is our obligation.

The caller mentioned Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and my rebbe, Rav Henoch Leibowitz. An interesting tidbit is that the name Elyashiv itself is based on a deep feeling for Eretz Yisrael. Rav Elyashiv’s family name was originally Luria (the same last name of the Ari, zt”l). Several generations back, Rav Elyashiv’s great-grandfather made aliyah to Eretz Yisrael, but the challenges were great and the family was forced to return to Europe. As an expression of their longing to return to Eretz Yisrael, Rav Elyashiv’s great-grandfather changed his last name to “Elyashiv,” in other words, “Keil yashiv,” Hashem should return us to Eretz Yisrael. Maybe in the zechut of changing his name to reflect this lofty goal, Rav Elyashiv’s great-grandfather merited to have a great-grandson not only return to Eretz Yisrael but lead Klal Yisrael from the holy city of Yerushalayim for decades.

While my rebbe, Rav Leibowitz, did not alter his tefillah on Yom Ha’atzmaut, he infused three generations of talmidim with his tremendous love for Eretz Yisrael. More than thirty years ago, I brought the rosh yeshivah to the Kotel for Minchah and asked him if he would like to see the Jewish Quarter, which had, at that time, undergone extensive reconstruction. He would love to see it, he said, but he was already elderly and it wasn’t easy for him to walk. We slowly walked together, and despite my incessant offers to stop and rest, the rosh yeshivah was so moved to be walking on those ancient streets, he couldn’t bring himself to stop.

These were our rabbanim who pass on our mesorah and whose depth of love for Eretz Yisrael knew no bounds.

I recently came across a beautiful story about Rabbi Aryeh Levin, known as “the tzaddik of Yerushalayim.” In 1949, Dr. Hillel Seidman, a Chassidic Jew and Holocaust survivor who was the chief archivist of the Warsaw Kehillah (Dr. Seidman kept a faithful account of the Warsaw Ghetto’s last days, from the deportations to the final uprising) arrived in Eretz Yisrael for a visit. It was the eve of Independence Day, and as he went out into the streets, he was surprised to see the sixty-four-year-old rav dancing with the youth in the streets, his face beaming with joy. When Dr. Seidman asked him why he was dancing with such fervor, Rabbi Levin responded, “After the sea of tears and the flood of hardships that befell our Jewish brethren in the Holocaust, we finally have the good fortune to see Jewish children dancing with joy in their hearts; isn’t that reason enough for us to give praise and thanksgiving to Hakadosh Baruch Hu?”

It certainly is.

Rabbi Aryeh Zev Ginzberg is rav of the Chofetz Chaim Torah Center in Cedarhurst, New York.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Spring 2016.