Fundamentally Freund: The Vilna Gaon and Jewish destiny
It was 215 years ago that Rabbi Elijah the Gaon (Hebrew for genius) of Vilna returned his soul to its Maker.
Rabbi Elijah the Gaon Photo: Wikimedia Commons
This Friday marks the anniversary of the passing of one of the greatest men to
have walked this earth over the past few centuries, a figure that had a lasting
impact on the Jewish people, as well as the State of Israel.
It was 215
years ago this Friday, on the 19th of Tishrei during the intermediate days of
Succot, that Rabbi Elijah the Gaon (Hebrew for genius) of Vilna returned his
soul to its Maker.
Most contemporary Jews have heard of this prodigious
scholar, his vast erudition and unmitigated commitment to exploring all aspects
of Jewish knowledge and learning.
But few are familiar with how he laid
the intellectual, spiritual and physical groundwork for the rebirth of the
modern Jewish state more than a century before Theodor Herzl raised the banner
of political Zionism.
And in light of some of the challenges now facing
Israel in the international arena, it is well worth taking a look back at the
revolution that the Gaon wrought, the lessons of which remain remarkably
relevant even today.
Indeed, much has been written about the Vilna Gaon’s
towering scholarship and achievements. As Prof. Jay M. Harris of Harvard has
noted, the Vilna Gaon “set in motion an ethos of study that was to revolutionize
He revived the study of the Jerusalem Talmud and
other ancient Jewish texts, sought to harmonize conflicting passages that had
confounded other scholars for generations and meticulously traced the sources
for the rulings contained in the Shulchan Aruch (the code of Jewish
He waded through the vast sea of Jewish lore, correcting
inconsistencies and making emendations where necessary, driven by an
unquenchable thirst for truth and accuracy.
A profoundly humble man, the
Vilna Gaon neither held nor sought any public or communal position, devoting
himself with all his might to the texts of our people. But his influence would
extend far beyond the bookshelf, thanks in part to a simple yet weighty idea
that he passionately advocated: the Jewish people should not remain passive in
bringing about their own redemption.
Though this belief went against the
grain of much of European Jewry’s worldview at the time, the Gaon nonetheless
encouraged his students to make aliya, which many did in three large waves that
began in 1808.
Eventually, thousands of his disciples and their families
moved to the Land of Israel. As a result, by the middle of the 19th century, the
majority of Jerusalem’s population was Jewish for the first time since the Roman
invasion, and thus it has remained ever since.
All thanks to the vision
of a lone Jewish scholar in a study-hall in Lithuania.
The Vilna Gaon’s
groundbreaking conviction that the Jewish people needed to take practical steps
to reclaim their ancient homeland were best expressed in the volume Kol HaTor
(Hebrew for “Voice of the Turtledove,” a reference to a verse in the “Song of
Songs”), which was written by his student Rabbi Hillel of Shklov.
book cites the words of the prophet Isaiah (54:2-3), who said, “Enlarge
(“Harchivi” in the original Hebrew) the place of your tent and let them stretch
forth the curtains of your dwelling places… for you shall spread out to the
right and left, and your descendants shall possess the nations and inhabit the
The Kol HaTor says in the name of the Vilna Gaon that
these verses contain within them the key to Jewish redemption, for the prophet
Isaiah’s call of “Harchivi” is a command – a call to action to Jews everywhere
to move to Israel and settle every corner of the Land.
chillingly that the only alternative to “Harchivi,” to Jewish growth and
expansion, is “Hachrivi” (Hebrew for destruction). In other words, there is no
room for withdrawal, or for turning back.
Finally, says the Gaon, “we
must know in advance that all the precious treasures included in the blessing of
‘Harchavah’ (enlargement) will come only when action is first take by the people
of Israel themselves in an awakening from below.”
With these words, the
Vilna Gaon laid down a clear challenge to each and every Jew, delineating that
our task is not to sit passively and wait for redemption from exile, but rather
to take action and bring it about.
Through this novel approach, the Gaon
became a harbinger of modern Zionism, a forceful promoter of Jewish activism and
a restorer of Jewish self-confidence and esteem.
He stared at the
seemingly impossible and overcame it. Propelled by a belief in the justness of
our cause and deep faith in the Creator, he left behind a legacy of Jewish
reclamation and restoration.
After centuries of endless exile and
persecution, the Vilna Gaon taught us all a critical lesson, one which resonates
particularly strongly in light of today’s often frightening headlines: the
Jewish people are not prisoners of fate, but partners with God in shaping our
It is a lesson that we would all do well to learn.