By Vardah Littmann
Rav Meir Chodosh, zatzal,(1898-1989), Mashgiach of Yeshivas Chevron, Ateres Yisrael, and Ohr Elchanan, was known to say: “Israelis who were born here have missed something - the deep excitement of the feeling ‘I made aliyah to Eretz Yisrael.’ Even for those people coming from Chutz Laaretz to live here today, it is not the same. Nowadays the world is small and one can arrive easily. But once, to be zocheh to arrive here was the height of attaining what one longed for. ”
The Vilna Gaon (5480/1720–5558/1798) had tried twice, in 1772 and in 1782, to settle in Eretz Yisrael, but both times a Heavenly decree prevented him from realizing his dream.
According to the Gra, the Geulah will come about in the same way that it had in the days of Ezra Hasofer (at the beginning of the Second Temple Period). At first, there had to be an awakening from below (isarusa d’l’sata), which entailed settling in Eretz Yisrael and building Yerushalayim both spiritually and physically. “Spiritually” means making Yerushalayim the Torah center of the world; “physically” means expanding the Yishuv of Yerushalayim within and beyond its walls. These steps would allow the light of Moshiach to shine forth and enable his coming.
It is because “Your servants have cherished her stones and favored her dust” (Tehillim 102:15) that “You will arise and show mercy to
, for the time to favor her at the
designated time has come” (ibid.102:14). That is to say, to the extent
we hasten the Redemption by cherishing her (Yerushalayim’s ) stones
and favoring her dust (building her up), the Redemption will hasten
toward us. Zion
The era of settlement of talmidei HaGra in the
Holy Land was the beginning of
the resettlement of the Land in modern times. In this period, the journey to
reach the longed for Eretz Chemdah ( ) took many weeks and
months. In fact the expedition of the first group of talmidim took almost
a year and its participants gave praise and thanksgiving to HaShem for meriting
them a kivizat haderech (a shortening of the way). Desired
In the beginning of the winter of 5569 (1809), preparations were made by the first group of the students of the Gra for the aliyah to Eretz Yisrael. They were aptly called “Ayelet HaShachar” (“The Breaking of Dawn.”). Shortly before their departure, Rav Menachem Mendel of Sklov was sent ahead to make arrangement for the group’s coming.
The excitement was palpable; all felt a great occurrence was taking place. Even so, the moments of parting were extremely hard as fear gripped their hearts. Who knew what hardships and real life-threatening dangers they would encounter on the way? Rumors of pirates abounded.
Yet, motivated by the vision of the Gra, they felt they were taking the first steps towards the Geulah, and therefore they let nothing deter them. They felt they had a Heaven-directed mission and this sustained them to brave the challenges of settling the neglected and primitive country that Eretz Yisrael was at that time.
They were not immigrating because they were fleeing from oppression or anti-Semitism. They had no need to leave their land of origin. Some of them belonged to the wealthiest and most respected families in
, and there were many
great talmidei chachamim among them. They were idealists who
came solely because of their yearning to carry out their master’s vision. Lithuania
There were 70 people in this first group. Many of the olim had given their wives a conditional divorce because the future was so unclear. However, many families were also going up.
Ayelet HaShachar left White Russia in Shvat of 1809, and the group made its way to the port city of
In each town they passed, they were received in great joy and given much honor.
“Parting- parties” were given for them where people sang “Next year in Odessa .” Jerusalem
They boarded the four ships that had been rented in advance. When the ships reached coastal towns, the brave among them would descend and acquire food for the next stage of the voyage. Many times the sea was turbulent and rocky. The passengers, especially the women and children, got seasick.
At one point, the captain refused to take them further unless they paid an exorbitant sum. With no other choice, they agreed.
By Pesach they reached
. The town’s people provided their needs
for the chag. Immediately after the holiday, they set out again, but pirates
were viewed up ahead. The sailors hastily returned the ships to the shore. The
frightened passengers took out their weapons; books of Psalms and poured forth
heart-rendering prayers. Izmir
Eventually they reached
. From here, they intended to continue by
land. They found some Druze guides and were about to close a deal with them to
take the group inland when an urgent message arrived from the city residents
that these Druze should not be trusted. They were known to murder their clients
and then take all their possessions as booty . Beirut
The group hurriedly stopped negations, and they felt they had been miraculously saved from a tragic end. They continued by boat to
and then on to the Galil, reaching Tzfas on the 8th of Elul, 5569. Haifa
The new olim were astounded at the desolation of the Land. They had heard reports that all was wasteland but as Our Sages say, “The hearing of something cannot compare with seeing it.” The kinot of Tisha b’Av echoed in their minds’ ear. Yet despite all this, their hearts soared upwards for having merited to reach the Eretz Chemdah, the land promised to Am Yisrael.