The Jewish emphasis on ‘Coming Home’
The latest book by former MK Rabbi Dov Lipman explores the history and ideology of aliyah
Throughout the ages, the decision to pick up and move to the Holy Land has been a fundamental theme in Judaism. From the dangerous 1488 sea voyage by Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura, to the perilous 18th-century journey out of Romania by legendary hassid Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, to deadly treks from Ethiopia through the Sudanese desert, to American Jews boarding modern aircraft on flights chartered Nefesh B’Nefesh, the phenomenon has endured.
In Coming Home, former Yesh Atid MK Dov Lipman delves into the reasons and sources behind this. He scours countless Jewish texts to analyze the benefits and importance of living in this tiny stretch of highly contested land.
It all starts with the Bible.
In Genesis 12:1, God calls out to Abraham, the founder of monotheism and the forefather of Judaism: “Lech lecha” (“Go to yourself,” in literal translation), “from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”
The wording of the verse is strange and has been interpreted by countless rabbis and scholars. Lipman cites sources that suggest the terminology resembles other biblical phrases in which God’s intention is not to issue a commandment, but to offer an opportunity.
He then aligns the idea with an explanation from Rabbi Meir Leibush Wisser – more commonly known as the Malbim – who argues that God was encouraging Abraham to leave the negativity associated with his place of birth on a journey “to himself,” to self-actualize mentally and spiritually.
To this end, Lipman offers a chapter devoted to understanding Abraham’s aliyah, his “ascendance” – both physically and spiritually – as well as a chapter on Jewish literary teachings “about the spiritual and physical benefits of living in the Land of Israel.”
The book delves into a talmudic discourse that analyzes Judaism’s stress on Jews living in this land and its fundamental role in the Jewish identity. It then explores the 13th-century teachings of the Spanish scholar, philosopher and physician known as the Ramban, or Nachmanides. The Ramban, who stressed the importance of living in the land, left his family at the age of 73 to spend his last years in the place to which he devoted so much of his writing.
From there the reader is off on a literary adventure. Poetry from Rabbi Yehuda Halevi’s tragic 12th century describes an expedition from Spain that culminated in his being trampled to death upon arriving on Israel’s holy streets. We learn about the selfless devotion by Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld toward the success of the Jewish settlement in the late 1800s. We read impassioned calls to create a Jewish country penned by Hungarian Rabbi Yissachar Shlomo Teichtal in his book Eim Habanim Smeicha, which he wrote in the dark days of 1943. Then come letters written by the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, Avraham Yitzhak Kook, to Jews of the Diaspora, calling on them to come home.
Lipman devotes one chapter to the special commandments connected with the land. Some of the laws – like shmita, the sacred sabbatical year when the land rests and whatever grows is ownerless, and truma, the command to designate a portion of each crop for the priests – are well known, while others are obscure. Nonetheless, the book offers the reader details and practical ways of completing these unique mitzvot that are only demanded of Jews while living in their biblical homeland.
Lipman argues that the current State of Israel is the fulfillment of a biblical prophecy signaling the nearness of the messiah. He quotes verses from Amos, who prophesied the ingathering of exiles, which now continues in modern-day Israel. The Book of Amos speaks of Jews from Europe, the Middle East and Africa living together in the Holy Land, and predicts they will “build desolate cities and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, and drink their wine.”
Likewise, in the Talmud, Rabbi Abba, a scholar of the third century CE, understands a verse in the Book of Ezekiel to mean the telltale sign of the messiah’s arrival will be when the Land of Israel once again sprouts vegetation in abundance. Lipman sells this point convincingly by comparing the image of the current landscape we all know – orange, palm and banana groves, wild almond trees and grapevines – to the one Mark Twain described during his 1867 trip to Ottoman-ruled Palestine.
“Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince,” Twain wrote. “The hills are barren, they are dull in color... The valleys are unsightly deserts fringed with feeble vegetation that has an expression about it of being sorrowful and despondent.”
By the end of the book, if Lipman hasn’t convinced readers to move to Israel, he has definitely convinced them of his wide breadth of Jewish knowledge. Lipman even offers common Jewish arguments against many of his propositions before refuting each of them individually.
The book is densely sourced, which some readers might find to be its biggest flaw. The book can be somewhat challenging before getting accustomed to the structure and format of its flow.
Nonetheless, rest assured that even the most scholarly rabbinic students who read it will walk away having gained some fundamental Jewish knowledge on the topic of Israel. ■
RABBI DOV LIPMAN argues the current State of Israel is the fulfillment of a biblical prophecy signaling the nearness of the messiah.