Iyar: Thinking about the Land of Israel

Nov 17, 2014

Rav Yisroel of Shklov and the Paas Hashulchan
Rabbi Binyomin Adilman
From B’ohalei Tzaddikim

Thinking about Eretz Yisroel. . .

R’ Yisroel of Shklov was one of the closest disciples of the Gaon of Vilna. In 1810 he led a delegation of students and followers of the Gaon, together with their families, to Eretz Yisroel. With the Gaon’s blessings in hand, they intended to make a new home in the Holy Land. Their absorption into the Land of Israel was by no means easy. It took more than 50 years before they could firmly established a viable lifestyle. These years were fraught with danger, disease, disaster and death. Nevertheless, they persevered and today the descendants of that original group are founders of prominent families in Jerusalem and other cities in Israel.

The original group led by R’ Yisroel of Shklov settled in Tsfas in the Galilee. It took years before they were able to establish a harmonious community structure together with the already resident Sephardi community and with a large contingent of Chassidim under the leadership of R’ Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, who arrived around the same time.
The group lived in dire poverty and life was a constant struggle for survival as they endeavored to generate sources of livelihood, and re-establish theirTorah institutions. In 1821 on the day after Shavuos, in the morning, the Arab population of the Galilee fell upon the Jewish community of Tsfas. While more fortunate residents escaped to the neighboring village of Bira, the Arabs proceeded to satiate their hatred in a 30 day orgy of destruction, theft, rape, murder, and desecration of Holy Books and Torah scrolls. When the population was finally able to return, there was nothing left. The destruction left only disease and more intense poverty in its wake.

R’ Yisroel decided to seek refuge in Jerusalem with the remaining members of his family. But the plague could not be stopped and was soon sweeping through the Holy City like a wave. It wasn’t long before R’ Yisroel was bereft of both wife and children; all except for Shaindel, his youngest daughter. Then R’ Yisroel, too, contracted the plague.

As he lay racked in pain on an abandoned rooftop, with his young daughter in his arms, he began, one final time, to beseech Hashem for his life and for the merit of establishing a family on the soil of the Holy Land. Then he made a vow to Hashem. “If my life is spared”, he vowed with the last of his strength,
“I will dedicate myself to writing a comprehensive treatise expounding all the laws of the Torah pertaining to living in the Land of Israel.” And as he prayed and wept, he fell asleep.

In the introduction to his classic work, Pa’as HaShulchan, on the laws pertaining to the Land of Israel, R’ Yisroel of Shklov presents a heart-rending account of his struggle to establish a Torah community in Tsfas some 180 years ago. He writes, that after collapsing into sleep on that rooftop in old Jerusalem, “Someone approached and touched me, arousing me like one awaking from sleep. Then he said to me, ‘Afflicted and tortured one, be healed!’ From that time on, Hashem began to reveal His (boundless) kindness on me . . .”

R’ Yisroel was able to re-establish his family in Tsfas. He fulfilled his vow and completed his work Pa’as HaShulchan on the laws of Eretz Yisroel. He suffered many more tribulations, including the massive earthquakes in 1827 and 1834 which leveled Tsfas, Tiberias and most of the northern Galilee. In the resulting fires, all of the manuscripts for Pa’as HaShulchan went up in flames – before having been brought to the printing press. Yet he himself emerged unscathed, “. . .and not so much as a small rock grazed my head.” R’ Yisroel persevered, rewrote the entire book and jubilantly brought it to publication in 1837.

It is amazing, after considering R’ Yisroel’s story of settling in Eretz Yisroel, what he writes further on in the introduction to Pa’as HaShulchan. “This book covers the breadth of the laws pertaining to the Holy Land of Israel, which is beloved to me exceedingly, since through tremendous suffering I merited to attach myself to Hashem’s inheritance and to become beautified through its very soil during these past 27 years.”

After his death, one of his students found R’ Yisroel’s personal copy of the Pa’as HaShulchan with this inscription in it: “. . .this book . . .which is inspired by the holiness of the air of the Holy Land of Israel, which is connected to, and scented by, the air of the Holy Garden of Eden.”

The words and the example of R’ Yisroel of Shklov certainly give one pause when considering one’s relationship with Eretz Yisroel. Should it make a difference whether Hashem tests our spirit and our resolution with an earthquake or with an obnoxious taxi driver or unsympathetic clerk? Let R’ Yisroel of Shklov serve as an inspiration to all Klal Yisroel as we make our way back to the Holy Land.

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