Why do Jews from around the world, living comfortably in their birth countries, leave everything they know and move to Israel? The country a person grows up in and is used to provides a sense of familiarity and security that is torn away by a move to a foreign country. A person who moves to a different place is challenged by a new culture and language. Excluding antisemitic persecution or other life-threatening situations, moving to Israel isn’t an idea that makes much sense.
Yet, thousands of people move to Israel every year.
Israel is located in the most dangerous of regions. It is a tiny country, surrounded by hostile states bent on Israel’s destruction. It has faced conventional war, terrorism, and a concerted effort by regional enemies and their global allies to malign, sideline, and isolate it. Life in Israel is insecure. The smart move for Israelis would be to emigrate to a different country. Yet millions stay in the face of insecurity. Are they all irrational?
The Talmud teaches that Rabbi Shimon the son of Yochai taught, “God gave the Jewish people three precious gifts, all of which are acquired through suffering. The three gifts are Torah, Eretz Yisrael, and the World-to-Come.”
Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have emigrated from Israel to other countries. Millions of tourists visit Israel every year, and thousands come to study, volunteer, or work in Israel for extended periods of time. Even after deciding that leaving Israel made the most sense for them, many tell of heart-wrenching decisions to leave, and of a feeling of longing and even emptiness in their new homes outside of Israel. If they decided leaving was best for them, why are these people torn, for years, about leaving? Are they too, irrational?
Arriving in Israel
WHEN ATTEMPTING to explain the feeling they get when living, visiting, or even just walking in the Land of Israel, many Jews rely on calling the feeling “intangible” and something impossible to put into words. When they try to explain why they gave up more lucrative and comfortable lives outside of Israel, they’ll say it just can’t be explained, you either understand it or you don’t. It isn’t something that can be explained or understood intellectually, they claim, it’s just something that you feel. Is the sentiment of Israel really an intangible that can’t be explained?
Our Sages taught that every few steps a person walks in the land of Israel is a mitzvah. Without a direct command to walk in Israel, this teaching can’t be literal, rather our Sages’ teaching speaks to the meaning that permeates every moment and meter of Eretz Yisrael. This meaning comes from the long and profound Jewish history in this land, the Divine declaration that this land is home to the Jewish people, the sanctity of this land over all other lands, and the destiny of the Jewish people unfolding in the land. The land of Israel is more than just a home address for Jews in Israel and around the globe. It becomes a part of a Jewish person’s identity. The land hooks into a person and doesn’t let go of its hold.
Living in the land of Israel was the fantasy of Jewish history, the accomplishment of the previous generations, and the privilege of this generation to foster and grow. Israelis rejoice at the opportunity to live in a land their ancient ancestors called home and their more recent ones pined for.
Israelis are also scared of life here. They fear the constant terror attacks. Terrorism is no laughing matter, and it would be false bravado to laugh it off. Israelis’ confidence in their security isn’t the reason they stay in Israel. Israelis stay in Israel because it is home.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meier once said, “We Jews have a secret weapon in our struggle with the Arabs; we have no place to go.”
Her words were reflected in the words of one of Israel’s most famous songs where Gali Atari sings, “I have no other country. Even if my land is on fire, only a word in Hebrew penetrates to my veins, to my soul aching in the body, hungry in the heart…here is my home.”
God told Abraham, “Now lift your eyes, for all the land you see I will give to you and your children forever.” Ever since those words were told to Abraham, Jews have known that their only true permanent and eternal home was Eretz Yisrael. A Jew might temporarily live far from the land, but their home, and many times their heart, will always be in Eretz Yisrael.
WHEN DECIDING where to live a person lays out the many factors involved in their decision and weighs them against each other, checking the cost of living, schools, employment, etc. Yet those who have the hook of Eretz Yisrael under their skin will testify to its pull overriding all other factors. The pull of Israel isn’t a factor that can be put on a spreadsheet, it is an almost metaphysical draw. Yet, it isn’t an intangible – one’s past, present, and future eternal home is a very concrete factor for a Jew. The future of the Jewish people is being built in Israel, and Jews the world over want front-row seats to watch it unfold.
When a Jew is pulled out of Eretz Yisrael they experience a loss akin to mourning. Can someone who hasn’t experienced the same loss truly understand the pain and loss the mourner feels? The sadness that comes with leaving home isn’t something that can be felt by someone who doesn’t feel far from home. The mourners for Israel are in a constant state of animus (the status of a mourner between the death and the burial) and they can’t find closure because Eretz Yisrael is never closed. Like the mourner who knows that until burial their loved one isn’t truly gone; they’re still present just enough to generate a constant feeling of pain and no loss. No words can truly comfort this mourning Jew.
When the early Zionists debated the British offer of a large swath of land in Africa to create a Jewish state that would act as a refuge for persecuted Jews from around the world, it seemed the Jewish fears of security had been answered. Imagine the British surprise when the Zionists rejected their offer, 120 years ago, opting instead for Eretz Yisrael or bust.
Could any of the Zionists have explained why returning to Eretz Yisrael was more important to them than their safety? The pull of the land is so strong that it has historically outweighed the consideration of normally more vital factors.
Eretz Yisrael is the eternal home of the Jewish people, and nothing pulls a person more than home.
The writer is a senior educator at numerous educational institutions. He is the author of three books and teaches Torah, Zionism, and Israeli studies around the world.