We have a Zionism problem in the frum communities outside of Israel.
Or, a lack thereof.
Having an ayin tova – viewing events through a positive lens – is ubiquitous in Judaism. And no wonder: with a past in which glory and horrors are so intertwined, it’s a necessity and a survival tactic to hold onto the days of grandeur and reverentially file away the tragedies in hopes that they will not be repeated. When reminiscing about Jewish life pre-World War 2, the alte heim is portrayed in some circles as a world in which everyone was righteous and happy with the little they had; stories of dire poverty and depression are laced with lessons about steadfast faith and optimism. Nostalgia and wistfulness become sacrosanct: if only we had the same gedolim now that we had then, how much better off would we be. If only we lived as simply as they did, how much happier would we be. And growing up, children of the Diaspora are taught about the glory days of Judaism in Israel – the height of holy joyfulness in the Temple ceremonies, Torah learning being expounded and argued and manifested in the marketplace, prophets preaching on street corners and overt miracles commonplace. They are also taught to have confidence in the future: countless volumes have been written about and shiurim dedicated to the day the mashiach comes, as the culmination of centuries of prayers, suffering and longing for redemption is realized.
Nearly one hundred years ago a yeshiva student from abroad studying in Israel came to say goodbye to the Chazon Ish before returning to his home. The gadol asked him, “Is one permitted to leave Eretz Yisroel?” The student stammered, “I understood that if one came to Eretz Yisroel with the intention of leaving, he is permitted to leave.” The Chazon Ish responded with dismay, “We are trying to find ways to get bnei Torah to settle here, and you are involved in finding ways to be able to leave?” He wasn’t alone. A generation or so earlier, Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld voiced similar concern when he said, “’Because of our sins we were exiled from our country’ – by Hashem; ‘and we were distanced from our Land’ – this we have done voluntarily” (To Dwell in the Palace, p.17). And in the generations since, there have been no Torah opinions stating that, outside of extreme situations, living outside of Israel is better than living within. But attitudinally not much has changed.
Before you dismiss this as another self-righteous diatribe, I want to clarify that I know as well as you do that there are valid concerns and reasons some people have for not making Aliyah. Still reading? I believe the main issue here isn’t that not enough people are resettling the Land. It’s that not enough people want to. The mindset of the student as illustrated above is indicative of the mindset and education of many communities still thriving in the Diaspora. Multiple reasons are proffered for not living in Israel, while the basic tenet that Israel is the only Jewish land, that it is part and parcel of our mental and physical survival as a nation, the only place where it is a mitzvah to live, is largely glossed over as something that has potential but no practical bearing on our present life. In many cases, living in Israel is relegated to the passive, “I look forward to moving when mashiach comes …”
I ask: Why is there so much focus in our education on the illustrious, pain-filled past and the glorious, pain-free future while our present opportunity is ignored? It’s true that the present cannot be fully appreciated without knowledge of its roots. But where is the focus in the communities outside of Israel on what we can do today to physically fulfill the words we say multiple times each day in our prayers and bentching that overtly express longing to return to our Land? Why do people face east toward Jerusalem once, twice or thrice daily when they have little to no desire to actually return there?
Spiritual efforts are fantastic. Anti-lashon hara campaigns, baseless love (ahavat chinam) campaigns, and myriad kiruv and chessed efforts have doubtlessly created untold merits for all of us. But we live in a physical world too, and there comes a point where we need to physically put our money where our mouth is, so to speak. Having spent decades in the frum school system, and until very recently with children in the frum school system in the States, I have yet to hear lessons taught on the importance of living in Israel today. One can get a fantastic Jewish education but with lots of time spent discussing how wonderful things will be when we’re transported to Israel “on the wings of an Eagle”, after the arrival of mashiach. But bechira will not end when mashiach arrives. Short of societal disaster, G-d forbid, people will have free will about whether or not to get on that airplane – I mean, eagle.
One explanation may be thus. In his memoir/instructional book titled Man’s Search for Meaning, psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl describes the surprising lack of excitement felt when he and his concentration camp inmates were finally freed:
“With tired steps we prisoners dragged ourselves to the camp gates [. . .]Then we ventured a few steps out of camp. We walked slowly along the road [. . .] Soon our legs hurt and threatened to buckle. But we limped on; we wanted to see the camp’s surroundings with the eyes of free men. ‘Freedom’ – we repeated to ourselves, and yet we could not grasp it. We had said this word so often during all the years we dreamed about it, that it had lost its meaning. Its reality did not penetrate into our consciousness [. . .] We came to meadows full of flowers. We saw and realized that they were there, but we had no feelings about them [. . .]In the evening when we all met again in our hut, one said secretly to the other, ‘Tell me, were you pleased today?’ And the other replied, feeling ashamed as he did not know that we all felt similarly, ‘Truthfully, no!’ We had literally lost the ability to feel pleased and had to relearn it slowly.”
I daresay this psychological phenomenon (coined by Frankl as “depersonalization”) can be applied to modern-day Jews who have it easier than ever before to return to our land, but cannot find the feelings of excitement or motivation to return. After millennia of praying, anticipating, and including the memory of Jerusalem’s destruction in our every joyous occasion, we have lost the ability to believe that something we’ve been dreaming about for so long can possibly come true. The opposite of what you’d expect after experiencing years of wars, pogroms, and relentless anti-Semitism (even after having lived comfortably in various countries for many generations) has occurred: instead of moving to Israel, our suffering has created jadedness to the point that people do not see the importance of returning unless an overt miracle similar to the splitting of the sea occurs. For many, planning to return – for example, getting college degrees that are useful in or transferable to Israel in the future – has been relegated to the back burner. However, even and especially if someone can’t move to Israel, they should still carry the words on their lips: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem”- and not allow the death of the desire to return to the place that nationally we have always referred to as Home. Read Jewish history. Read Jewish commentaries. Read about how often Hashem Himself expresses love for Israel the land and her people. Read about the very first Jew moving to Israel and establishing a family there, and our subsequent return after each galut. Ask questions about where you are now and where/what you want your future to be. Listen to the stories of people who have made aliyah. And during this significant time of the Tenth of Tevet, read up on the destruction of the Temple and why we care about it. Read Josephus’ harrowing account of the events of Tisha B’Av. Learn, and teach others, about why our history and future (and present!) are so tied into this Land, and nowhere else. It’s time to stop wandering.
“Zionism” the word makes some people uncomfortable. To some, it’s a secular political ideology that has replaced religion. Maybe you feel that you can only support an Israel that’s ripe with potential for when mashiach comes. Call it what you want, then. But you and your children don’t have to be a fan of Rabbi Meir Kahane, or Theodor Herzl and Ze’ev Jabotinsky in order to put down roots in Israel and walk about in astonishment at the realization of ancient prophecies. Poet Heinrich Heine famously said that “the Jews carried the Bible through the ages as their portable homeland.” Since the destruction of the Second Temple and subsequent exile (which already started seventy years before its construction), we still carry the Torah all around the world, leaving a rich, varied and tragically woven landscape behind. But we have a permanent homeland that’s always been there. Don’t think that Israel isn’t relevant to you. It’s time to teach our children that Zionism isn’t a dirty word.