Lech Lecha – Go to…Israel!
The first words of G-d to Abraham are a commandment for him to go to Israel, Aliyah. Aliyah has been cherished dream of Jews throughout the centuries. In fact the very word aliyah means to “go up” because the Jewish people have always regarded moving to Israel as an ascent, an act of spiritual elevation. At times, this dream was realized, but more often, circumstances prevented it becoming anything more than a faint hope. Today, aliyah to Israel no longer involves sailing a pirate-infested Mediterranean, risking attacks by Crusaders or Saracens, or living in poverty. One can travel to Israel on a comfortable jet, live there in a modern house or apartment, own a car (or two), and enjoy a rich, religious life.
Beyond the emotional and philosophical significance of aliyah, what is the halachic (Jewish legal) perspective on living in Israel? In the book of Numbers, God commands the Jewish people to “possess the Land and settle in it.” This commandment was fulfilled when the Jews entered Israel under Joshua’s leadership, fought the Canaanites, and settled the Land.
After centuries of oppression and exile does this mitzvah still apply? Does this verse constitute an obligation on Jews today to live in the Land of Israel or did it refer only to a particular time in history? Nachmanides maintains that the verse is timeless. Every Jew in every generation is obligated to live in the Land of Israel. He notes that the Mishnah considers it grounds for divorce if a spouse prevents his or her partner from going to Israel. The Talmud even permits arranging for a non-Jew to write a purchase contract for Land in Israel on the Sabbath. A later authority expressed this obligation in the following way:
Every Jew must make an unwavering, firm commitment in his heart to go up to live in the Land of Israel and he should aspire to merit to pray there before the palace of the King, which the Divine Presence has never left even though it has been destroyed…
Maimonides took a different view however. In his authoritative listing of the mitzvot, he does not mention the commandment to live in Israel. Some authorities maintain that Maimonides believed the mitzvah was only applicable during an era of Jewish monarchy, when the Temple in Jerusalem existed, and will only be obligatory once again in the Messianic Era.
Some commentaries maintain that although the commandment may no longer apply to the Jewish nation as a whole, nevertheless, individuals still fulfill a mitzvah by living in Israel. One of the most respected halachic authorities of our times, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, wrote that he felt inadequate to resolve a controversy between two such great authorities as Maimonides and Nachmanides. He rules, however, that even though there may be no obligation today [according to Maimonides], it is nevertheless a praiseworthy act to live in Israel. Ultimately, the choice of where to live affects virtually every aspect of a person’s life — physically, spiritually and emotionally. The decision whether or not to make aliyah must therefore take into account all these factors, and should be made with rabbinic guidance