The Upside of Learning in Eretz Yisrael

When my brother-in-law, who is today a successful mechanech in Lakewood, was thinking about going to learn in Eretz Yisrael, he approached Harav Chaim Epstein, zt”l, with a question. “I’m learning well,” he said, “and I have good chavrusos. While I am at that time of life when bachurim traditionally go to learn in Eretz Yisrael, maybe I don’t need to go. Does the Rosh Yeshivah think there is a reason I should go to learn in Eretz Yisrael?”

The response from the Rosh Yeshivah surprised him. “Go to Eretz Yisrael. There are things you can get from going there which you will not be able to get if you stay here. Go see the Yidden from Yerushalayim, the types of lives they lead, and the amount of mesirus nefesh they have for the Torah way of life.”

Anyone who ever went to learn in Eretz Yisrael (the operative phrase here being “to learn”) can vouch for the difference the experience has made in his life. Aside from the learning, the experiences one has when he must personally take care of all his needs (unlike in his American yeshivah, where everything was more or less handed to him on a silver platter), cannot be understated.

I remember my first “Chumash shiur” by Rav Dovid Soloveitchik, shlita, when he told us that a group of philanthropists had approached him with the grand idea of building a dormitory and dining hall for the yeshivah so that the talmidim wouldn’t have to be busy with paying rent, bills, and arranging meals. He turned them down, he said. “Ah bachur darf lernen as fahr Torah darf mehn mutchen.” (A bachur must learn that for Torah you must be ready to deal with struggle.)

There is no question that there is a problem. A number of young people go to Eretz Yisrael ostensibly to learn, but end up doing very little of the same. Does that make the entire institution of learning in Eretz Yisrael worthy of being discontinued? The pitfalls being real, does that mean the practice should be stopped altogether?

There is an important vort I heard in the name of Rav Itzeleh  of Volozhin. In Parashas Ki Savo, the Torah spells out the horrible klalos that will befall a nation that does not heed the word of Hashem. One of the things enumerated in the pesukim there (see Devarim 28:66–67) is that people will not have enough food each day for the next day. They will then constantly live in fear of not getting food the next day, and perishing from hunger.

There was, however, another time in Jewish history when Hakadosh Baruch Hu made it so that Bnei Yisrael did not have enough food but for that day alone. That would be the Dor Deiah, the ochlei hamann, the generation that was mekabel the Torah on Har Sinai and which reached the highest levels possible. How can it be that the same state of affairs which Hashem set up for the Yidden in the Midbar can also be what we are told will happen “im lo sishma b’kol Hashem Elokecha”?

The answer, explains Rav Itzeleh, is that it is indeed possible for the same situation to both be the ideal and the worst of circumstances. For someone on the level of the Dor Deiah, being able to live a life totally dependent on Hakadosh Baruch Hu is ideal. For someone in the dor of the Tochachah, it is the greatest curse possible.

The same can be said for everything. Yes, there are reasons many bachurim should not be going off on their own to Eretz Yisrael for an extended period of time. But it is many of those same circumstances that help the bachurim who should be going reach a level in ruchniyus that they would not otherwise be able to attain.

Bachurim, bnei aliyah, grow tremendously from the added responsibilities that living in Eretz Yisrael and having to fend for themselves thrust upon them. The very same thing that is a pitfall for others — the fact that one’s aliyah in Eretz Yisrael is in a situation wherein “ein hadavar talui ela bi — It isn’t dependent on anything but myself.” (Avodah Zarah 17a) is what uniquely helps prepare our young bnei Torah for the future. The idea to deprive them of these, among the other opportunities learning in Eretz Yisrael presents to them, just because there are others who aren’t cut out for it is, as one Rosh Yeshivah said, like solving the problem of a misbuttoned shirt by cutting off the bottom instead of rebuttoning the shirt.

Parents ought to be aware of the inherent pitfalls of any situation into which they send their children. Learning in Eretz Yisrael is no different from anything else. The idea that “one size must fit all” is quite ludicrous. Before blindly sending your son off to spend an extended period of time overseas in yeshivah, consider whether or not it is for him. If it is, ashrecha! If it isn’t, don’t send him. But parents shouldn’t be doing things this consequential without thinking. It certainly should not be done without consulting his rebbi — as the decision is entirely dependent on what is best for the student as an individual. This “problem,” as with many other great “problems” we have, can be solved by doing just that.