I have always wondered why the Rebbe—whom I personally consider the most righteous Jew in our times—didn’t move to Israel, or even visit once?
Before addressing the question, it is important to note that there was perhaps no stronger advocate and defender of Israel than the Rebbe. Over the years, countless Israeli government officials—including generals, presidents and prime ministers—sought his blessing and advice on subjects ranging from societal issues to military strategy.
Additionally, there is no question that the Rebbe was personally responsible, directly and indirectly, for tens of thousands of Jews finding their heritage and moving to Israel. Moreover, the Rebbe personally sent dozens of shluchim, emissaries, to settle in the Holy Land.
It is also important to note that since the Rebbe assumed leadership in 1951, he never took a day off or even left New York.
Now, you are not the first to ask this question. In fact, many asked the Rebbe himself, both in writing or personally. As you can imagine, the Rebbe’s answers were not all identical. Here is a sampling of the Rebbe’s responses, both in his own words and as recollected by others.
Why Didn’t the Rebbe Move to Israel?
Here is a letter written by the Rebbe in 1983:1
Greeting and Blessing:
I am in receipt of you letter, in which you write that you are concerned and puzzled, and urgently request a reply—as to why I do not go to Eretz Yisroel.
With all due respect, I do not understand at all what you will gain by having an answer to this paramount question.
Moreover, in as much as Hashem created everything according to His design, and knowing that nothing is superfluous, it would be a waste of one’s time and effort if it were not used productively to the fullest extent.
On the other hand, a Jew’s primary mission in life as the Rabbis express it, “I was created to serve my Master,”2 and this service is carried out by strengthening and spreading Yiddishkeit, first of all in one’s own life, and then in one’s surroundings, bearing in mind that the mitzvah of v’ahavta l’re’acha kamocha is the Great Principle of the Torah.3 Thus, if one should squander one’s time and energy on extraneous matters, instead of using them in fulfillment of one’s life’s task, it would be an obvious waste and a disruption of the whole Divine order.
According to my information, the city in which you live is one where there is a great deal of room to work for the strengthening of Yiddishkeit, insofar as Jews are concerned, as well as for the promotion of the so-called Seven Moral Laws with all their ramifications, insofar as gentiles are concerned, for they were given by G‑d to the children of Noah, i.e. all humanity. This is why I am all the more surprised at your question.
Inasmuch as you write that you are very puzzled, and do request an answer, I will not evade giving you one—all the more so since the answer is quite simple. Indeed, it is already implicit in what was said above about the first duty of a Jew, and of any human being, to fulfill his mission in the place where he lives, and only after he has done everything expected of him locally, to consider whether he should go to another place to carry on his mission there. Obviously, one should not abandon “the front” before making sure that everything is in order.
I am using the expression “the front” advisedly. You surely know what is happening around you—the very same thing that is happening wherever Jews live, especially where they are a small minority—in terms of alienation from Yiddishkeit, loss of Jewish identity, intermarriage and outright assimilation. It is the duty of every Jew to do his or her very utmost to combat the forces that are threatening the very foundations of our people—first and foremost where he find them in his immediate surroundings.
A Captain of a Ship
After the Yom Kippur War, (future Prime Minister) Ariel Sharon asked the Rebbe why he didn’t act like a commanding officer who marches ahead of his troops. If the Rebbe moved to Israel, he reasoned, many Jews would follow him.
The Rebbe replied that in many instances, it is actually forbidden for the commanding officer to go first, as in the case of a captain of an endangered ship. The captain is the last to leave the ship. Only after everyone has been evacuated safely is the captain permitted to leave the ship.4
This was consistent with the advice the Rebbe often gave to others as well.
In 1973, Moshe Ishon met the Rebbe. Here is a translation of his recollection of their conversation:
Moshe Ishon: But still, when will we merit seeing the Rebbe in Israel?
The Rebbe: The day will come. I hope it is not too far off.
Moshe Ishon: What about the chassidim, do they have to wait until the Rebbe leaves to live in Israel?
The Rebbe: Any chassid who comes to ask about going to live in Israel, who isn’t involved in education or in the rabbinate, is advised to go, and we give him our blessing for his move. The problem is for those who have vital roles in the community, and if they leave, everything will crumble. They are compared to ships’ captains in stormy seas; the captain is always the last to abandon ship. First, he must save the passengers . . .
Why Not Visit?
We’ve addressed why the Rebbe didn’t move to Israel—but why didn’t he even visit the Holy Land? Here is a video of Israeli businessman Yosef Yakir posing this question to the Rebbe in 1991:
Yosef Yakir: Finally, honored Rebbe, may you live long, I ask you personally, in the name of all the Jews in the land of Israel—come to visit us. Fulfill the fourth mitzvah in the Maimonides’ Book of Commandments, “settling the land of Israel.”5 For a week or two, I ask you sincerely. It will help to bring us all to complete teshuvah, complete redemption, and perhaps hasten the coming of Moshiach.
The Rebbe: If you would write to me a halachic responsa that according to Jewish law, I would be permitted to afterward return to the United States, not to abandon the Jews here, then I would evaluate the validity of the argument to see if it is indeed a proper conclusion according to Jewish law. But to abandon all the Jews here, more than three million people! And it’s not just the American Jews. Some of the Russian Jews are settling here now in the United States, and when they come here, the ground must be prepared so they can continue in their Judaism. And this will be much more difficult to solve if I am in one place and they are in a different place.
And also, I wish it were so that people would listen to me when I am close by. But if I were to be in a different land—even in Israel—they would not listen to my voice. . . . [Also, seeing me return from such a trip, people] would say to themselves that living in the United States is better for them, and “proof” is that I left the United States and I regretted it. . . . It will not interest them that I “regret” it because there are still [more than] three million Jews here who request help in all things possible.6
To give some background on why it would be problematic for the Rebbe to leave the Land of Israel following a visit, let’s take a look at Maimonides:
It is forbidden to leave the Land of Israel for the Diaspora at all times except to study Torah, to marry, or to save one’s property from the gentiles. After accomplishing these objectives, one must return to the Land of Israel.
Similarly, one may leave the land of Israel to conduct commercial enterprises. However, it is forbidden to leave with the intent of settling permanently in the Diaspora unless the famine in the Land of Israel is so severe that a dinar’s worth of wheat is sold at two dinarim . . .7
To be sure, there are exceptions to the rule, and the Rebbe himself sent people to Israel for short periods of time. Nevertheless, for whatever reason the Rebbe was either being strict with himself or felt that the leniencies would not apply to him.
Another interesting point in this conversation is that the Rebbe was concerned that people would think that he left Israel because he felt that the United States was better than Israel. This may be related to the Talmud’s statement regarding the incident of the 12 spies who returned from Israel with a negative report, that one has to be very careful not to speak negatively about the Land of Israel.8
By: Yehuda Shurpin
- A Hebrew translation of the letter can be found on our Hebrew site here.
- Talmud, Kiddushin 82a.
- Leviticus 19:18. Bereishit Rabbah 24:7.
- See ‘Rebbe’ by Joseph Telushkin p. 315
- Note: Maimonides himself does not list settling in Israel as a mitzvah. Rather, Nachmanides, in his notes on Maimonides’ Book of Commandments, writes that in his own opinion it should have been included.
- English translation based partially on the subtitles on the above video.
- Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 5:9.
- See Talmud, Sanhedrin 110a.