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September 3, 2014 | 8th Elul 5774

Homecoming III

Galilee Diary #291, June 25, 2006

Marc J. Rosenstein

The Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you…” Abram went forth as the Lord had commanded him… [He] took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the persons that they had acquired in Haran; and they set out for the Land of Canaan.

-Genesis 12:1-5

Abram was the first oleh, the first immigrant to Israel. He came not as a poor refugee but as the wealthy leader of a clan, an ideological oleh, seeking a new life and a new culture. In a way, his aliyah was the beginning of the Jewish people: a new religion for a new nation in a new place. This new ideal of the unity of Am Yisrael, Eretz Yisrael, and Torat Yisrael became normative: the Jewish people, the Land of Israel, and the Torah are one. During the centuries when we lived as a sovereign people in the land, worshipping in the Temple, living according to Torah law, this unity seemed self-evident. And by the same token, the exile represented a disruption of this ideal unity: suddenly the Jewish people was separated from the Land of Israel, and whole sections of the Torah became inoperable. We have been mourning this catastrophic disruption for centuries – not only by fasting on the Ninth of Av, but by breaking a glass at weddings and leaving a spot bare whenever we paint our houses. As long as the three-fold unity is broken, we are incomplete, distanced from God: “Rabbi Elazar said: From the day the temple was destroyed, an iron wall separates Israel from their Father in heaven…” (Talmud, Berachot 32b).

Throughout the generations of exile, aliyah, returning to Israel, was seen in a messianic context: just as Abraham came to the land to implement the unity of people, land and Torah, so some day we would all return and that unity would be restored. We did not envision the land of Israel as a refuge for the oppressed, nor did we imagine it as an ethnic homeland. But with the rise of humanism and individualism in the modern period – and later, of nationalism at the end of the 19th century, many Jews began to see their connection to the Land of Israel through a different lens. The dream shifted from historical redemption to personal redemption: the Jew herself would be reborn by returning to the ancestral soil, would build a new life for herself in the context of a new Jewish state. Thus, the concept of aliyah as an act of personal regeneration and fulfillment became an important thread in the tapestry of Zionist thought.

Some see aliyah as driven by historical necessity (see the previous Galilee Diary entry) – the Jews who insist on not joining the state are destined ultimately to disappear. Others see it is a fulfillment of the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz – settling the land. And there are those who see it as a kind of nationalistic mitzvah – we are commanded to contribute to the survival of the Jewish people by means of insuring the survival of the Jewish state – which requires the maintenance of a Jewish majority there. However, it seems to me that beneath and behind all these ideologies, the personal motivation, the seeking of hagshama – actualization, fulfillment – by the individual immigrant, is the dominant force driving voluntary aliyah. Of course, this does not apply to aliyah that is driven by persecution and/or economics.

I walked away from my father’s house and my native land, just like Abraham. And somehow I can’t help imagining that my ambivalence about this transition reflected what he experienced when he set off for an unknown land, seeking a new life. He experienced wars and traumatic personal tests here. I wonder if he ever considered going back. I wonder if he kept his Babylonian passport like I kept my American one. I wonder if he stocked up on Babylonian delicacies from passing caravans. In any case, he seems to have found what he was looking for here. Me too.

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