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I spent several years, through college and graduate school, expecting to make aliyah. I picked my graduate program in computer science specifically to help me make aliyah. I chose ultimately to stay in America because of the good I felt I had to do here, but my heart is still in Israel. It’s all I can really focus on in the news. It’s where a good amount of my tzedakah goes. It’s the only place I travel; I can’t bring myself to go anywhere else for a vacation - if I’m going anywhere, it’s Israel.
Which is why I’m always surprised at this time of year when someone inevitably questions my Religious Zionism, based on the fact that I don’t unequivocally declare the State of Israel to be ראשית צמיחת גאולתנו, the first flowering of our redemption, or based on the fact that I only say Hallel on Yom haAtzmaut without a berachah. Apparently, to some people, one is not a Religious Zionist unless he believes that Mashiach has already arrived.
As I see it, Religious Zionism has come in many forms, over the years - but it’s never been about what we say; rather, it’s been about what we do.
One form of Religious Zionism, that which is promoted in the gemara, is the ideal of having Jews live in Israel. Owning land, not owning land, having a state, not having a state, is irrelevant; just live there. As the gemara puts it, a Jew acquires merit just by walking four אמות in Israel, and even by being buried in Israel.
The Sifri goes even further, dismissing Jewish life outside of Israel, saying that HaShem told the Jews when He exiled us, “Even though I am exiling you from the land to live outside of the land, הוו מצויינים במצוות, be marked in mitzvot, so that when you return to the land they will not be new to you.” In other words, mitzvot performed outside of Israel are, more or less, practice for life in Israel.
This is one form of Religious Zionism - a drive to live in Israel.
A second form of Religious Zionism, promoted by Ramban and others, is centered on acquiring land in Israel. Per Ramban, the goal of ציונות דתית, of Religious Zionism, is to resume our ancestors’ presence in the land. We were instructed, “והורשתם את הארץ וישבתם בה, You shall conquer the land and you shall dwell in it,” and so that is our mitzvah.
R’ Yehudah Alkalai, in the 19th century, saw this mitzvah in the actions of Yaakov Avinu, back in Bereishis. Yaakov camped outside the city of Shechem, and he purchased a field. R’ Alkalai asked: Yaakov never intended to remain in Shechem long-term, he was on his way home to see his father! Why did he purchase a field?
R’ Alkalai explained that this was a case of מעשה אבות סימן לבנים, our ancestors acting out a lesson for us. Yaakov purchased the field in order to teach us about a second form of Religious Zionism: a drive to acquire Israel.
And then there is a third, stronger form of Religious Zionism, which was powerfully promoted by R’ Yehudah Alkalai in the 19th century and R’ Yissachar Techtel in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust. In this view, Religious Zionism is about laying the groundwork for Mashiach in Israel, by bringing large numbers of Jews to the land.
R’ Yehudah Alkalai argued that this vision of bringing Mashiach by creating communities in Israel is only logical. After all, as he put it, we daven every day ותחזינה עינינו בשובך לציון ברחמים, HaShem, may we see You return mercifully to Tzion, but if Tzion is only rocks and ruins, upon what should HaShem return? We must settle it first!
The Vilna Gaon seemed to hint to this in the 18th century, when he wrote in קול התור that if 600,000 Jews would return to Israel, that would have a major effect on our redemption.
This is a third view of Religious Zionism - a drive to settle Israel en masse as a means of preparing for Mashiach.
All three of these Religious Zionist visions have one theme in common: Action.
These visions are not about slogans, they are about substance.
These visions are not about labelling a Geulah, they are about earning a Geulah.
These visions are not about saying a berachah on Hallel, they are about making the next Hallel possible.
Zecharyah carried this message to the Jews of his day, some 2400 years ago. It was during construction of the 2nd Beis haMikdash, and the Jews asked Zecharyah, “האבכה, Shall we continue to fast for the Babylonian destruction of the First Beis haMikdash? Or has our period of mourning ended?”
Mefarshim explain that this question was born of frustration with the slow pace of redemption from the Babylonian Exile, גלות בבל. The Persian King Cyrus had permitted us to return to Israel and build the Beis haMikdash anew, but the process had been hampered by Samaritan antagonism as well as Jewish poverty. Those who remembered the glory of the first Beis haMikdash were antsy. They wanted to know: Is this what redemption looks like? Is our suffering truly over, or are we simply in another phase of גלות? Have we, yet, arrived at ראשית צמיחת גאולתנו?
And Zecharyah replied: Stop thinking about labels, and whether this is Geulah or not. Instead, he said, work on correcting the aveiros which preceded the destruction of the first Beis haMikdash, remember the exhortations of my predecessors: “Judge truthfully, and act with generosity and mercy toward each other. Do not cheat the widow, the orphan and the stranger, and do not plot evil against your brother in your hearts.”
Action, not labels of גאולה or non-גאולה.
Fast-forward to our own day, and May 2008, as we celebrate Israel’s sixtieth anniversary of modern statehood. When this new incarnation of a Jewish country was first established, just a few years after the Holocaust, many of us looked upon its birth as a Divine nod of approval, the first sproutings of Messianic redemption. We established Yom haAtzmaut, complete with הלל והודאה, special prayers of thanks and great celebrations.
Over the past sixty years, Israel has succeeded in fulfilling a great deal of its messianic promise. Millions of Jews have been saved from persecution in other countries, such as France, Argentina, Yemen, Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union. Torah is studied there in dozens if not hundreds of institutions. Sites barred to Jews by generations of Arab rulers are now open for all to access. A thriving economy, great universities, a society with civil rights for all of its citizens, a democratically elected government and a free press, all of these have been introduced for the first time in many centuries to a land which had been governed by one despot or another for almost two thousand years, since we were evicted by the Roman empire. In many ways, the past sixty years have seen a great, even messianic, Jewish renaissance in Israel.
But, at the same time, the question of Zecharyah’s era resonates with us. We look at constant warfare, internecine squabbles like the major conversion fight of this past week, political corruption and significant poverty among children and the elderly, and we ask the question of our ancestors: “Shall we continue to fast for the destruction of the Beis haMikdash? Or has our period of mourning ended?” Can we now say ראשית צמיחת גאולתנו?
And I, following the path of great Zionists like Rav Aharon Soloveitchik, would like to forget about the labels. To be a Zionist is to work to live in Israel. To be a Zionist is to work to acquire Israel. To be a Zionist is to work to bring Mashiach by preparing communities in Israel for his arrival. All the rest is semantic puffery.
The gemara records the story of a man who was walking through Yerushalayim wearing clothes of mourning, during the period after the destruction of the Beis haMikdash. Jewish police picked him up and arrested him, releasing him only when they found out he was a leading Talmid Chacham.
Rav Chaim Yaakov Goldvicht, my rosh yeshiva, a great Zionist and winner of the Israel Prize for his role in founding and leading the Hesder Yeshivot, explained the story. He said that wearing clothes of mourning is a show; it doesn’t mean we are doing anything to bring back the Beis haMikdash, to bring Mashiach. To broadcast slogans without substance is empty, and unworthy, and the Jews of the period had no patience for it. It was only when they found out the man was a leader, a Talmid Chacham, someone who was doing something to earn the Beis haMikdash back, that they released him.
May we always make sure that our Zionism is more than just a verbal declaration, a tefillah to say after the Haftorah on Shabbos. Whether we take the gemara’s Zionist view of Jews living in Israel, or Ramban’s view of acquiring Israel, or Rav Alkalai’s view of Jews laying the groundwork for Mashiach by creating communities in Israel, may we always make certain that our Zionism is not semantics, but substance, and so usher in ראשית צמיחת גאולתנו, the first flowering of our redemption.
Note 1: The Sifri I cited is Sifri Devarim 43. It is echoed in Ramban in several places, such as the end of Sefer Vayyikra.
Note 2: Yes, I know this derashah is very long. But I liked it.