The Redemption can come in two fundamental ways: either from the Heavens and swiftly, or in a natural, and painful manner * Settling the Land of Israel was initiated by eminent Torah scholars, but the majority of Jews remained in the Diaspora. * Responsiveness to a movement calling for Aliyah, headed by leading Torah scholars and righteous individuals, would have advanced the process in a Torah path, and hastened the Redemption * In the end, it was only anti-Semitism that finally motivated the founding of Zionism, and the establishment of the State * Today as well, we have two options: to continue the path of trials and tribulations, or to awaken to the continued building of the nation and the Land directed by Torah * Accordingly, the focal point of Yom Ha’atzmaut must be Torah study in matters of Redemption and the State
Redemption Naturally and through Teshuva
We firmly believe in the words of the Torah and the prophets that the ‘Geula‘ (Redemption) will eventually come. However, it can come in two fundamental ways: “If they are worthy, I will hasten it: if not, it will come at its due time” (Isaiah 60:22). “If they are worthy” – ‘with clouds of heaven’, i.e., in a heavenly, and swift manner; “if not” – ‘lowly, and riding on a donkey’, i.e., slowly, and in a natural way involving suffering” (Sanhedrin 95a). If we awaken to do ‘teshuva‘ (repentance) appropriately, if we are able to understand the Torah properly, the Redemption will come swiftly, calmly, and joyfully. “Today, if only you will hear His voice” (Psalms 95:7). And even if we are not able to repent properly, the Redemption will come, in a natural and agonizing way. For this is how Hashem created His people, and His world – that when the Jewish nation behaves improperly, agony increases until, through a long and difficult process, the words of the Torah are eventually revealed – ‘here a little, there a little’ – a thought taken from one end of the Jewish world, an additional idea gained from the other end. Until finally, the growing agonies force the Jewish nation to return to their Land, to deal with the struggle of existence, and thus, as a result of trials and tribulations, return to their heritage, faith, and complete Torah.
A Combination of the Two Ways
As seen in recent generations, the Redemption appears to be developing in a combination of the two ways, as the plain meaning of the verse suggests: “I am the Lord; at the right moment, I will hurry it along” (Isaiah 60:22). In other words, in the midst of the natural and tormented course of events, there are various awakenings of repentance, which bring the Redemption closer, and lessen the sufferings.
The Dawn of the Awakening
Over two hundred years ago in 5537 (1777), a significant awakening of ‘aliyah‘ (immigration) to Eretz Yisrael, began. The most eminent disciple of the Maggid of Mezritch, the Admore Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, immigrated with three hundred Chasidim, thus laying the foundation for the Hassidic community in Israel. However, there was still no specific mention of immigration for the sake of ‘yishuv ha’aretz‘ (settling the Land), and the ingathering of the exiles.
The Vilna Gaon was the first one to talk about this explicitly. His students related that he would often speak emotionally, saying that the ‘Geula‘ (Redemption) would be quickened only through the ingathering of the exiles and the building of the Land. He also stressed that only by means of building the Land would we be saved from the dreadful torments of the birth pangs of Mashiach. He himself began the journey to Eretz Yisrael, parting from his family after writing a stirring will and testament, however from the Heavens he was instructed to return. Nevertheless, he continued encouraging his students to immigrate, and rebuild the Land.
In the year 5569 (1809), approximately ten years after the Vilna Gaon passed away, the first group of his students arrived in Safed, led by Rabbi Menachem Mendel from Shklov. About two years later, Rabbi Israel from Shklov, author of “Pe’at HaShulchan” also made ‘aliyah‘. Joining them were Rabbi Hillel from Shklov, and other eminent Torah scholars, craftsmen, and farmers. Many of the pioneers eventually settled in Jerusalem. Although they faced dreadful difficulties, they nevertheless drew inspiration from the words of their great Rabbi, the Gaon of Vilna, about the supreme importance of the mitzvah to settle the Land. Thus, from one generation to the next, they continued growing and establishing themselves in the Land, forming the core of the Ashkenazi “Old Yishuv.” From their ranks stemmed the builders of the first neighborhoods outside the walls of Jerusalem, and the moshavim of the “New Yishuv,” such as Petach Tikva.
The Missed Opportunity
If only the Jewish nation had heeded the call of the Gaon from Vilna and his students, who knows how many pogroms and disasters could have been prevented, and how many lives saved. The nation’s connection to the Torah and mitzvot would also have remained stronger, for multitudes of Jews would have witnessed with their own eyes how, thanks to the Torah’s instructions, life is properly established.
The abandonment of the Torah stems largely from a feeling that those who adhere to it have remained behind the times. The entire world is engaged in creating new states and regimes, while Judaism deals merely with survival—under increasingly harsh conditions. Had we had dedicated ourselves in building the nation and the Land, the great prophetic vision of Israel’s redemption in light of the Torah, would have filled the hearts of our people. All of the talented Jews who went astray, giving all their strengths to foreign nations in the fields of science, culture, politics, and economics, would have invested their energies here in the Land of Israel, for the sake of their own nation and homeland. The Jewish State would have been founded earlier – not as a result of pressures from adversities, but from mitzvoth of the Torah, and the vision of the Prophets. The conflict with the Arab population as well, would have been negligible, for only because of our failure to immigrate to Israel in overwhelming numbers did the land begin to be populated by several Arabs who emigrated here to enjoy the flourishing land that had begun to give off its fruits in anticipation of the Jews who were expected to return home.
The Majority of Jews Remain in the Diaspora
Sadly, we did not merit immigrating owing to of the mitzvah of settling the Land and the vision of the Redemption, and the troubles increased. About fifty years after the awakening of the students of the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kalisher and Rabbi Eliyahu Gutmacher arose, and began encouraging the masses of the Jewish people to immigrate to Israel, and bring the Redemption closer. As a result the number of immigrants to Israel increased, but we were still far from achieving the overall goal, and the difficulties of the Diaspora grew. Anti-Semitism intensified, the abandonment of religion accelerated, and many Jews began to assimilate in the Diaspora.
Tens of years later, a number of eminent rabbis from Eastern Europe, among them, Rabbi Shmuel Mohaliver, Rabbi Mordechei Elishberg, and the Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (HaNatziv), began encouraging ‘aliyah’ to Israel within the framework of the “Chibat Tzion” (Lovers of Zion) movement. At that time, many Jews had already left the way of Torah and mitzvot. These Torah giants agreed to work in cooperation with the leaders of Jews who were not “especially meticulous” in guarding the commandments, for the sake of settling the Land. As a result of their endeavors, what was termed the “First Aliyah” was inspired (beginning in 5642 ). The majority of new immigrants were religious, but were far from the level of the students of the Vilna Gaon, who were led by eminent and righteous Torah scholars. Unmistakably, among the immigrants were also important Torah scholars, such as Rabbi Mordechai Gimpel Yaffe (the great uncle of Rav Kook), who joined the agricultural community of Yehud and became its rabbi. But although the nascent communities continued to grow, the masses of the Jewish nation did not heed the call to return to Zion.
Anti-Semitism and the Establishment of the Zionist Movement
In Europe, anti-Semitism grew steadily, as did the number of Jews who strayed from the faith. Many of those who left the Torah hoped that by leaving Judaism and assimilating amongst the non-Jews, their troubles would cease. Anti-Semitism, however, increased. Among the Jews who tried to assimilate, a few of them realized that Jewish nature was unique and inescapable, and only through the establishment of an independent Jewish State in the Land of Israel would it be possible to save the Jews from the growing menace of anti-Semitism. Thus arose the Zionist movement headed by Herzl. There were great Torah scholars who supported it, and eventually, organized as part of the “Mizrachi” movement. But there were other Gedolei Torah who opposed the Zionist movement, mainly because they feared that many Jews would be swayed to follow the non-religious lifestyle of its secular leaders.
The Holocaust and the Establishment of the State
The Zionist idea, coupled with growing anti-Semitism, prompted larger groups of Jews to support immigration to Israel and the expansion of Jewish settlement, and to demand the establishment of the Jewish state.
But the painful truth must be told: the majority of Jews, whether religious or not, did not participate in the Zionist movement, and remained in the Diaspora. The Jewish community in Israel lacked the strength to raise the banner of Jerusalem, and demand the establishment of the state. The abandonment of religion and assimilation in Europe and America had already turned into a terrible plague. It was nearly impossible to depict a realistic scenario whereby assimilation would stop, and the Jewish nation would repent and return to its homeland to establish a state.
Only after the horrific Holocaust, whose dimensions of monstrous catastrophe were unimaginable, did it become clear to many Jews that there was no alternative. We were compelled to establish an independent Jewish state in the Land of Israel. Masses of refugees from Europe and the Arab countries immigrated to Israel. Thus the State of Israel was established.
An Awakening to Repentance, Today as Well
We are still on the way, and we must learn from the Torah and the word of God revealed through history, that if we are able to act appropriately in settling the Land of Israel in accordance with Torah and mitzvot, we will merit bringing the Redemption closer, calmly and joyfully. But if we are negligent, according to the natural order of Redemption we are liable, God forbid, to suffer great torment in order to guide us in the right path.
May we merit to enlarge all the communities in Judea and Samaria, and that the land give forth its crops abundantly, and our brethren be gathered from all four corners of the world to our Land, and that we walk upright in it, and God will remove the heart of stone from our flesh, and give us a new heart and spirit to study Torah and observe the mitzvot. And that all the desolate mountains shall blossom and give forth their fruit, and all the cities that were destroyed will be settled and built, and filled with the ‘flock of men’, the flock of holy things, and we will all know Hashem.
The Character of Independence Day
Consequently, it is extremely important that on Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day), to clarify for ourselves the great and awesome task placed upon us, so that the process of redemption may advance calmly, with joy and peace. In addition to the prayers of thanksgiving and praise, and the festive thanksgiving meal, it is essential to set time for studying issues of the day, analogous to what our Sages taught: “Moshe instituted for Yisrael that they study the laws of Pesach on Pesach, those of Atzeret (Shavuot) on Atzeret, and those of Chag (Sukkot) on Chag” (Megillah 32a).
The Four Levels of Celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut
The lowest level are those people who go out to a park and have a barbeque. Although their actions are devoid of spiritual content, nonetheless, if they are happy to be part of Israel – Hashem’s nation – their festive meal can be considered a se’udat mitzvah.
On the second level are those who tour sites where the rebuilding of the State of Israel is evident, such as national institutions, museums about the history of Israel’s settlement, and I.D.F. bases.
The third level are those who take trips to visit the communities in Judea and Samaria, to see the building of the country, and to recite the blessing “matziv gevul almana” (the blessing thanking Hashem for returning Israel to its land).
The highest level are those who study Torah on Yom Ha’atzmaut in matters related to the mitzvah of settling the Land, and the development of the state and society in accordance with Torah. From the ranks of this level will emerge the inspiration and ideas which will advance us to our redemption, and that of the entire world.
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew. Other interesting, informative, and thought-provoking articles by Rabbi Melamed can be found at: