Why I Could Not Live Anywhere Else

“Make aliyah!” call many Religious Zionists. As Jews, they tell us, we belong in the Jewish homeland, so every one of us who lives elsewhere must get up and move to Israel. How simple! But, unfortunately, most of us are not getting up and moving, even if we identify with the Religious Zionist movement. This tension has long provoked reflection among the American Modern Orthodox about aliyah.[1]

As I plan my own aliyah in the coming months, I wish to express why I personally cannot imagine living my life anywhere other than Israel. My religious and cultural heritage centers on this land. It is the home of God’s plan, commandments, and immanence, the land for which our people has yearned and sacrificed for millennia, and the focal point of today’s unique moment in our history and beyond into our future.

God’s Plan

We find in the Bible that the Land of Israel is essential to God’s vision for the People of Israel. The very first words that God speaks in His first appearance to each of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob concern the Land:

God said to Abram, “Go from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to the Land that I will show you.…”[2]

God appeared to [Isaac] and said, “Do not go down to Egypt. Dwell in the Land that I will tell you.…”[3]

Behold, God was standing over [the ladder], and He said [to Jacob], “I am God, Lord of Abraham your father and Lord of Isaac. The Land upon which you are lying I will give to you and your descendants…”[4]

The Land is likewise a central point of God’s early speeches to Moses about the nation he would lead.[5] Much of Prophets revolves around the nation’s struggle to establish and maintain sovereignty in the Land.

The Bible identifies the Land as among God’s priorities. Is it my priority?

God’s Commandments

The mitsvot, which constitute the foundation of Israel’s covenant with God, are closely tied to the Land.

First, many mitsvot can only be performed in the Land. R. Simlai presents this fact as the motivation of Moses’ plea to enter the Land,[6] and the Mishnah associates these mitsvot with the Land’s superior holiness.[7]

Furthermore, settling the Land is itself a mitsvah, obligatory even today according to many Rishonim,[8] most famously Ramban.[9] In his discussion about this mitsvah, Ramban quotes a powerful passage from Sifrei:[10]

R. Judah ben Beteira, R. Matya ben Heresh, R. Hananiah ben Ahi, R. Joshua, and R. Nathan were leaving the Land. They reached the border and recalled the Land of Israel. They raised their eyes and their tears flowed down; they rent their clothes; and they read this verse: “You shall inherit it, and settle it, and be sure to keep all the mitsvot that I am commanding you today.”[11] They inferred, “The settlement of the Land of Israel is equal to all the mitsvot of the Torah.[12]

Ramban also asserts that any mitsvah performed in the Diaspora is inferior to one performed in Israel, “for the essence of all the mitsvot is for those who live in the Land of God.”[13]

God’s Presence

One of the chief goals of Judaism, achieving nearness to God, is best achieved in the Land of Israel. The Talmud describes the Land as ideally suited for prophecy[14] and Torah study.[15] The Land also merits direct providence from God: “It is a Land that the Lord your God cares for; the eyes of God are continually upon it, from the year’s beginning to its end.”[16]

The Talmud quotes stark words for those who live outside the Land:

Our Rabbis taught: One must always live in the Land of Israel, even in a town of mostly idolaters; and let no one live outside the Land, even in a town of mostly Israelites. For whoever lives in the Land of Israel is as one who has a God, and whoever lives outside the Land is as one who has no God. As it is said, “To give you the Land of Canaan, to be your God.”[17][18]

This, then, is my religious motivation for aliyah: pursuing God’s vision, will, and presence. But I also feel compelled by the course of Jewish history.

Longing for the Land

Ever since Moses pleaded with God, “Let me cross over and see the good Land,” [19] our people has longed for the Land of Israel.

Rambam describes in his legal code the love of the Talmudic sages for the Land: “The greatest of scholars would kiss the borders of Israel, kiss its stones, and roll in its earth. And thus it says, ‘Your servants take pleasure in her stones and favor her dust.’”[20][21] One sage, R. Zeira, even risked his personal safety to enter the Land at his first opportunity, explaining, “The place that Moses and Aaron did not merit to enter—who could assure me that I should merit to enter?”[22]

Many of the rabbinic giants of history ventured to settle the Land of Israel, including Rambam in 1165,[23] the “three hundred rabbis” from the Tosafists in 1210–1211,[24] Ramban in 1267,[25] R. Joseph Caro in 1536,[26] R. David ibn Abi Zimra (Radbaz) around 1553,[27] and R. Moses Hayyim Luzzatto (Ramhal) in 1743.[28]

R. Judah Halevi composed about thirty-five “Poems of Zion” expressing his yearning for the Land.[29] In his Sefer ha-Kuzari, he castigates at length those who choose to remain in exile, including charges of shamefulness and hypocrisy.[30] R. Judah Halevi finally left for the Land of Israel in 1141.[31]

This yearning for the Land did not end with our ancestors. We ourselves pray every day in our davening[32] and bentshing[33] to return to the Land. I must ask myself: Do I mean the words I say?

Suffering for the Land

Jewish yearning for the Land of Israel has inspired much sacrifice. The Midrash identifies the Land as one of three “good gifts” that God gave to us through suffering.[34] Unfortunately, we find ample expression of this suffering in modern history.

The pioneers who founded the Yishuv in the 19th century faced poverty, starvation, plagues, and bloodshed. R. Israel of Shklov, a student of the Vilna Ga’on, describes in the introduction to his work Pe’at ha-Shulhan the unremitting suffering he endured from 1813 to 1836 while founding Jewish communities in Palestine. During the First Aliyah from 1882 to 1903, approximately 25,000 Jews immigrated to Palestine, but conditions were so difficult that only about 10,000 remained in the Land at the start of the Second Aliyah.[35]

Defending the Yishuv has taken a difficult human toll. As of Israel’s 2012 Memorial Day, 22,993 sons and daughters have sacrificed their lives since 1860.[36]

One moment that deeply impressed me as a high school student occurred on a visit to a small military cemetery in Israel. The soldiers buried there were casualties of the 1948 war; under the pressure of battle they were buried two or more to a grave. The headstones listed their ages. Many were teenagers, as I was at the time of that visit. Many had lived through the Holocaust. I imagined such a boy picking up a gun, running into combat, and collapsing mortally wounded on the battlefield. What drove him? The dream that Israel could be free for Jews to call their home; that now, six decades later, all I need to become a citizen of Israel is a passport and some paperwork. Standing in that cemetery, I wondered: What would I be willing to sacrifice?

This Moment

Those generations of longing and sacrifice have led to a unique moment in our history. We now have a State of Israel whose Law of Return guarantees citizenship to any Jew who wants to return home. The Jewish army protecting the State is among the most advanced in the world.

The State still faces many challenges, but those challenges pale compared to the sheer fact of a Jewish State. I am blessed to have already spent about fourteen months of my life in Jerusalem. The daily joy of seeing its stone skyline, counting the construction cranes, and thinking, Today I woke up in Jerusalem, a bustling Jewish city, finds expression in Isaiah: “You will see, and your heart will rejoice; your bones will flourish like grass!”[37]

Journeying to Israel, which not long ago was fraught with risk, now amounts to less than a day of sitting in an airplane seat. Imagine how R. Zeira would react to the sight of air traffic at Ben Gurion International Airport!

Looking Ahead

Watching the Jewish population grow in our homeland stirs our historical consciousness. R. Abraham I. Kook saw the aliyah movements of early Zionism as fulfilling “anticipation of the salvation,”[38] one of the criteria upon which Rava says the soul will be judged in the next world.[39] Dozens of leading rabbinic authorities viewed the establishment of the State of Israel as the “beginning” of the final redemption of the world.[40] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik described the events of the 1940s as the “knock of the Beloved,”[41] meaning God’s call to the Jewish people after centuries of exile; he bemoaned that “we Orthodox Jews are still enveloped in a sweet slumber,”[42] when we should be seizing the opportunity to realize our “Covenant of Destiny” as a nation.[43]

Even without this lofty idealism, I see aliyah as simple self-interest: The future of the Jewish nation is in Israel. This is not just a dream but a demographic fact. And I want to live my life on the side of the future. Will I strive to raise a Jewish family in the eternal home of our people, or in a country with rampant assimilation and rising tuition costs? Centuries from now, where will my descendants point on their family tree and say, “This is when we returned from the exile”?

Far be it from me to moralize to those with no plans for aliyah. Many people far more righteous than I have chosen to make their mark in the Diaspora, where much important work needs to be done.[44] Many who wish to move to Israel find the practical obstacles to aliyah overwhelming.[45] But no matter the justifications, we ought to keep our ideal clear. Our home is in Israel.


Rafi Miller is a senior in YC majoring in Mathematics and Physics, and is the webmaster for Kol Hamevaser.



[1] For example, the 2008 Orthodox Forum at Yeshiva University focused on Religious Zionism. So did the Summer 1992 issue of Tradition (26, 4), as well as numerous individual articles in that periodical over the decades. In my own experience as a student in shanah alef at Yeshivat Hakotel in Jerusalem, rarely did a visiting speaker hold a question-and-answer session without someone asking a question about religious pressures toward aliyah; such questions weighed on many Anglo students there.

[2] Genesis 12:1. All translations in this article are mine.

[3] Genesis 26:2.

[4] Genesis 28:13.

[5] Exodus 3:8,18; 6:4,8.

[6] Sotah 14a.

[7] Kelim 1:6.

[8] Encyclopedia Talmudit asserts this as the opinion of “most rishonim and posekim;” see “Yeshivat Erets Yisra’el” (Hebrew), Encyclopedia Talmudit, ed. by Shlomo Yosef Zevin (Jerusalem: Mekhon ha-Encyclopedia ha-Talmudit, 2002), volume 25, 664–688, at p. 676. The ideology that this fact represents, not the technical law, concerns this article. As for how this mitsvah might obligate you le-halakhah, consult your local rabbi.

[9] Ramban, Shikhehat ha-Asin 4.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Cf. Deuteronomy 11:31–32.

[12] Sifrei to Deuteronomy 12:29.

[13] Ramban to Leviticus 18:25.

[14] Mo’ed Kattan 25a.

[15] E.g. Bava Batra 158b, Bava Metsi’a 85a, Ketubbot 75a. See also Be-reshit Rabbah 16:4: “There is no Torah like the Torah of the Land of Israel, and no wisdom like the wisdom of the Land of Israel.”

[16] Deuteronomy 11:12.

[17] Leviticus 25:38.

[18] Ketubbot 110b.

[19] Deuteronomy 3:25.

[20] Psalms 102:14

[21] Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim 5:10. Based on Ketubbot 112a.

[22] Ketubbot 112a.

[23] Louis Isaac Rabinowitz et al., “Maimonides, Moses,” Encyclopaedia Judaica, ed. by Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik, 2nd edition (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007), volume 13, 381–397, at p. 382.

[24] Ephraim Kanarfogel, “The Aliyah of ‘Three Hundred Rabbis’ in 1211: Tosafist Attitudes Toward Settling in the Land of Israel,” The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series 76.3 (Jan. 1986), 191–215. Note that key details of this aliyah might be apocryphal.

[25] Joseph Kaplan et al., “Nahmanides,” Encyclopaedia Judaica, volume 14, 739–748, at p. 740.

[26] David Tamar et al., “Caro, Joseph ben Ephraim,” Encyclopaedia Judaica, volume 4, 488–491, at p. 488.

[27] Hirsch Jacob Zimmels, “David ben Solomon ibn Abi (Avi, ben Abi) Zimra,” Encyclopaedia Judaica, volume 5, 470–472, at p. 471.

[28] Joseph Dan and Joelle Hansel, “Luzzatto, Moses Hayyim,” Encyclopaedia Judaica, volume 13, 281–286, at p. 282.

[29] Angel Sáenz-Badillos and Daniel J. Lasker, “Judah Halevi,” Encyclopaedia Judaica, volume 11, 492–501, at p. 495.

[30] Sefer ha-Kuzari 2:23–24.

[31] Angel Sáenz-Badillos and Daniel J. Lasker, p. 494.

[32] E.g., in the tenth blessing of shemoneh esrei: “Gather us together from the four corners of the earth [to our Land]” (the bracketed words are omitted in nusah Ashkenaz).

[33] E.g., toward the end of birkat ha-mazon: “May He guide us [speedily] upright to our Land” (the bracketed word is included in nusah Edot ha-Mizrah).

[34] Mekhilta to Exodus 20:2.

[35] Itzhak Alfassi, et al., “Land of Israel: Aliyah and Absorption,” Encyclopaedia Judaica, ed. by Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik, 2nd edition, volume 10 (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007), 329–373.

[36] Yoav Zitun, “2012: Number of Israel’s fallen stands at 22,993,” Ynet News, 22 April 2012, available at: http://www.ynetnews.com.

[37] Isaiah 66:14.

[38] E.g., Abraham I. Kook, “Orot Erets Yisra’el” (Hebrew), Orot (Jerusalem: Agudah le-Hotsa’at Sifrei ha-Re’iyah Kuk, 1950), 9–13, at p. 9.

[39] Shabbat 31a.

[40] For extensive citations see Yitshak Dadon, Athalta Hi: Yahasam shel Gedolei Sefarad ve-Ashkenaz la-Tsiyyonut u-le-Hakamat ha-Medinah (Hebrew) (Jerusalem, 2006).

[41] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek: Listen—My Beloved Knocks, transl. by David Z. Gordon (New York: Yeshiva University, 2006), 31 ff.

[42] Ibid. 47.

[43] Ibid 65 ff.

[44] Cf. Herschel Schachter, Nefesh ha-Rav (Hebrew) (New York: Flatbush Beth Hamedrosh, 1994), 98.

[45] R. Aharon Lichtenstein discusses these challenges with great sensitivity in Aharon Lichtenstein, “Diaspora Religious Zionism: Some Current Reflections,” Religious Zionism Post Disengagement: Future Directions, ed. by Chaim I. Waxman (New York: Yeshiva University Press, 2008), 3–30, at pp. 15–17.