Mitzvah to Live in Israel
I'm trying to get clarity on whether it is considered a mitzvah to live in Israel. Should a believing Jew live in Israel, or are other countries equally compatible with a Jewish life?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
The Land of Israel is central to Judaism. It is an intrinsic part of the covenant that God promised to Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 12), and most events recorded in the Bible took place in Israel.
The mitzvah to live in Israel is based on the verse, "You shall possess the Land and dwell in it" (Numbers 33:53). The Talmud states that "every 4 amot (about 7 feet) that a person walks in Israel is another mitzvah."
The question, however, is whether this mitzvah is compulsory in our times when the Holy Temple is not standing. This is the basis of a dispute between two great Talmudic commentators, Maimonides and Nachmanides. A leading 20th century sage, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, concludes that living in Israel is a "mitzvah kiyuma" – while it is a great mitzvah, there is no absolute obligation to do so.
The general approach today is that if both places (Israel and the Diaspora) are equally "livable," one should make the effort to live in Israel. Every year, approximately 3,000 Jews make aliyah from North America – 90 percent of them religious.
Over the centuries, Jews have always yearned to live in the Holy Land, so much so that many individuals, and occasionally small groups, risked their lives to be there. Nevertheless, the mass movement of aliyah ("going up to Israel") for the most part did not occur until the advent of political Zionism in the 20th century.
Nachmanides (13th century Spain) knew that he would have to endure great difficulty in coming to Israel due to the primitive travel conditions and plagues that often broke out on the way. Nevertheless, at the ripe old age of 72 he made the ascent.
When he came to Jerusalem, he was struck with both awe and grief – awe that he was standing in the place where Isaac was bound on the altar, where Jacob dreamed of the ladder, and where King Solomon built the Holy Temple. But grieved by fact that the entire city lay in ruins; a recent attack by Mongols had left Jerusalem with only 2,000 survivors, and barely a minyan of Jews. When he saw the desolation, he tore his clothes to mourn Jerusalem's destruction.
He had come to Israel to achieve a higher purpose. The Talmud says that "A person who dwells in the Diaspora is like one who worships idols" (Ketubot 110b). The commentators explain that it is important to live in the right moral and spiritual environment – even if this means sacrificing some material comforts. One who doesn't follow this path is as if living under the aegis of negative forces.
Indeed, Israel is the only land conducive to prophecy, the highest level of communion with God. Even today, those who live in Israel experience extraordinary Divine assistance in Torah study and spiritual growth. As the Sages said, "The air of Israel makes one wise." Despite the security situation, in many ways one can experience a higher level of tranquility in Israel than can be experienced elsewhere.
Furthermore, many commandments only apply in Israel – for example the mitzvot of Trumah and Maaser (tithes), the Sabbatical year (Shmitah), and more. In fact, the Bible tells us that after Moses erred by hitting the rock, God informed him that he would not merit to enter the Land of Israel. Moses begged to be given permission – solely because he wanted the opportunity to perform the mitzvot associated with the land.
Of course, this is not to say that life outside of Israel is somehow not "worthwhile." A life dedicated to Torah and mitzvot is worthwhile wherever it is. Sometimes a person's contribution to the Jewish people can be even greater outside of Israel, especially when involved in Jewish education, outreach or community matters.
For someone pondering a move to Israel, many factors should be considered. Will you be able to find work that provides you with the time and money to fulfill the mitzvot – for example, Torah study, giving charity, and providing a Torah education for your children? The Sages emphasize that a person should come to Israel only if he is reasonably certain that he can support his family and guarantee a successful education for his children.
Interestingly, many Western immigrants in Israel today maintain a full-time job back in their country of origin (e.g. America and England), either by tele-commuting or flying back and forth. Many creative options are available.
Other factors to consider: How will you deal with living far from family? How do you feel about the security situation? How will you adapt to a new culture? What suitable marriage prospects are available? What appropriate Torah study program will you connect with?
Coming to Israel is sort of like getting married: Everyone should do so eventually, but not because a well-meaning relative bullies you into it. If you do so when the time is right, you're more likely to fall in love.
Of course, don’t wait forever. One man I know woke up one morning and realized: If I don’t go now, I'll never go. That day he announced at work that he was leaving, and so he did.
Finally, you should know that it takes time to get past the "I can't take it here anymore, I'm going home!" stage. Dealing with all the adjustments and bureaucracy in Israel can be frustrating. Indeed, the Talmud says that the Land of Israel is "only acquired with difficulty." But I assure you that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and life in Israel is both marvelous and miraculous.
To help ease the transition, here are two excellent resources: Nefesh B'Nefesh (www.nbn.org.il) facilitates aliyah and even provides grant money, and AACI (www.aaci.org.il) is devoted to servicing the needs of immigrants from North America.
We pray to soon see the final redemption and the full ingathering of the Jewish exiles to our homeland.