“A Short Treatise on Zionism” Parashat Mattot – Masaei 5777

I probably should have written this shiur when I was a young, foaming-at-the-mouth idealist. It probably would have come out very differently. But, alas, we cannot turn back time and so before you is a two-page treatise on Zionism written by an aging but still ardent Zionist.

As Am Yisrael stand on the East Bank of the Jordan River, a few short months before they cross over into the Land of Israel, Hashem gives them their marching orders [Bemidbar 33:53]: “You shall clear out the Land and settle in it, for I have given you the Land to occupy it.” Expel the inhabitants and take over the country[1]. Rashi and Rabbeinu Bachaye ibn Pekudah explain the verse in a causal manner: If you evict the Canaanites then you will be able to settle the land, and if you don’t, then it will be most difficult to live aside them. That is to say, there is no positive commandment to live in the Land of Israel.

The Ramban has great difficulty with this explanation: “In my opinion, this is a positive commandment. [Hashem] commands them to settle in the land and inherit it; He gave it to them and they should not abhor Hashem’s inheritance. And if it should enter their minds to go and conquer [some other place], they would be transgressing Hashem’s commandment… It is from here that this commandment [of settling in the land of Israel] has been commanded to us, as this verse is a positive commandment.” To summarize, the Ramban holds that there is a positive commandment to settle and to live in the Land of Israel. For whatever the reason, the Rambam does not include the commandment to live in Israel in his enumeration of the 613 mitzvot[2]. The Ramban takes him to task for it and he adds the settlement of the Land of Israel to his updated list of the 613 mitzvot [Mitzvah 4]: “We are commanded to inherit the land that Hashem has given our fathers, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, and never to abandon it in the hands of gentiles or to leave it in desolation, as the verse commands ‘You shall clear out the Land and settle in it, for I have given you the Land to occupy it.’”

In 1948, after two thousand years of exile, Am Yisrael returned to the Land of Israel and the Land of Israel returned to Am Yisrael. Zionism went from theory to practice. It became possible to live in Israel under Jewish rule. One of the most vocal Zionists in the twentieth century was Rav J.B. Soloveichik. While Rav Soloveichik never came on aliya, twice he made a concerted effort to do so: In 1935 he ran for the office of Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv and lost to Rav Moshe Amiel. In 1960, he ran for the office of Chief Rabbi of Israel. A combination of colon cancer and petty politics thwarted his run but he never lost his ardour for the State of Israel. The newly printed Book of Bemidbar in “Chumash Masoret HaRav” brings one of Rav Soloveichik’s more explicitly Zionist statements: “The mitzvah to settle in Eretz Yisrael is one of the mitzvos that has not found its rightful place in Jewish eyes. I am not speaking of the Middle Ages, when travelling to Eretz Yisrael and remaining there was hazardous… In modern times, Jews have failed to observe this mitzvah properly. The establishment of the State has halachic significance, since by its means we shall be able to fulfil the mitzvah of possessing and settling it. This mitzvah is fulfilled not only by building up the country economically, but also by our sovereignty there. The State of Israel is the instrument for the realization of ‘possessing the land’”.

Rav Soloveichik’s words beg a question: If many of the Modern Orthodox in North America see Rav Soloveichik as their spiritual mentor, why is it that the Nefesh b’Nefesh flight last week held only two hundred new immigrants? What about the rest of the 180,000 or so Modern Orthodox Jews in the US and Canada? When will they be immigrating to Israel[3]?

Let’s not kid ourselves. The answer to this question is “probably never” and the reason is pretty obvious. In “Halichot Shlomo”, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach discusses the laws of the second day of Yom Tov. Recall that in Israel only one day of Yom Tov is celebrated, while in the diaspora two days are celebrated. What about an Israeli family who are sent to Surfers Paradise for three years? And what about an American teenager who studies in a Yeshiva in Israel, falls in love with the country and decides to come on aliya – after he finishes four years of University in the US. How many days must these people celebrate? The answers to these questions are functions of many variables but Rav Auerbach consistently rules strictly in the case of a person presently in the diaspora and his return to Israel is questionable. His logic is straightforward: because the diaspora is so appealing, the probability that a person who happens to be there will remain there is greater than the probability that the same person would remain in Israel under similar circumstances. The hesitance of coming on aliya is so profound that it is woven into Halacha. Is there anything that Jews in the Diaspora can do in order to increase their chances of keeping the mitzvah of “inheriting the land”?

Dan Ariely is a Professor of Psychology and Behavioural Economics at Duke University, author of a number of best-selling books including “Predictably Irrational”, founder of the Center for Advanced Hindsight, and an erstwhile Israeli[4]. Ariely has a TED talk on YouTube called “Temptation and Self-Control”[5] that is well worth watching. Ariely asks a number of embarrassing questions. He first asks, “Who would give eternity in the Garden of Eden for  an apple right now?” The audience snickers. What kind of idiots were Adam and Eve, anyway? Then he asks, “Who would risk their life texting while driving?” Most of the audience raise their hands. “The rest of you are liars,” he says. Why do we fiddle with our smartphones while we drive when we know full well that it greatly increases our chances of being involved in an accident. Ariely continues by noting that in activities like dieting, exercising, and financial saving, humans systematically fail. We have wonderful goals. “In the future we’re wonderful people”. The problem is that we live in the present and we lack the self-control to implement our noble long-term goals. To counter this, Ariely recommends a “Ulysses Contract”. In Homer’s “Odyssey”, Ulysses prepares to meet the sirens, monsters in the guise of beautiful women with beautiful voices. If he hears their voices he will die and so to prepare for his meeting he stuffs his ears with wax[6] and ties himself to his ship’s mast. He tells his men that no matter how he cries and begs they must not release him. A Ulysses Contract is a way of eliminating temptation before it happens. What kind of Ulysses Contract can we use to encourage aliya? If you’re already raising a family in Teaneck, you’re going to have to work hard to be one of the next two hundred people that Nefesh b’Nefesh brings over. Alternatively, many of you will soon be sending children to Israel for their gap year. Many of these teenagers will fall in love with the country. They’ll ask for permission for another year away from home. Some of them will consider doing the army, others will apply to Hebrew University. Eventually they will inform you of their plans, hoping against hope for your support.

Let them do it.

If they return to the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, or South Africa, they will most likely stay there forever. Somebody else will inherit the land. As a parent, I know it’s a huge ask. But as a parent to eight Israeli children, I believe it’s the only way.


Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5777

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and HaRav Chaim Nosson Eliyahu ben Lana.

[1] The word “v’horashtem”, translated as “to clear out”, is sometimes incorrectly translated as “to possess”. This is the translation of the word “vi’rishtem”. The Torah is telling Am Yisrael to do something that goes against the grain of 21st century man – to evict a rightful owner from his property.

[2] Religious Zionists have great difficulty with this. There are many explanations as to why the Rambam left this mitzvah out of his “Big 613” but at the end of the day the Ramban explicitly includes this commandment while the Rambam does not.

[3] Why Rav Soloveichik did not come on aliya is a question that will never be answered.

[4] As a teenager Ariely suffered a horrific accident that left most of his body covered in third-degree burns. I do not question Ariely living in the US the same way I do not question Rav Soloveichik.

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xX-iXR_0uEU

[6] This is a good way to prepare for most meetings.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
Related Topics
Related Posts