from The Vilna Gaon (author).
CHAPTER FIVE: RABBI ELIYAHU GOES TO LAND OF ISRAEL
Rabbi Eliyahu taught that the source of the Torah, its dwelling place and revelation are rooted in Eretz Yisrael. Among the blessings in the parshah of Ki Savo, the chumash says, "you may be superior to all the nations that He has made, for praise, a name and beauty" (Devarim 26:19). Rabbi Eliyahu taught that the Jews are superior to the other nations in the wisdom of the Torah--and this is achieved when the Jews live on their own land, which is blessed with all the blessings and qualities listed in that parshah (Aderes Eliyahu, Devarim 1:6, in Hagaon Hachassid).
Rabbi Eliyahu said that all blessings that come into the world have their source in Eretz Yisrael.
And he said that those who settle in the Holy Land have great merit. "There is a tree of life--for those who cling to the Torah; and the garden of Eden--for those who keep the mitzvos and settle the land" (Hagaon Hachassid, p. 238).
At some point after his father passed away, and while only one of his daughters was married and he still had small children in the house, Rabbi Eliyahu set out for Eretz Yisrael.
He told his family, "When I get to the land, I will send for you."
Rabbi Eliyahu accepted money from several people to pay for his expenses.
As he had many years ago, Rabbi Eliyahu set out again from his home. Last time, he had gone into exile. Now he was on his way to the promised land.
Rabbi Eliyahu travelled through Prussia and Hungary.
A story is told that along the way, Rabbi Eliyahu passed the village of a hidden tzaddik named Reb Leib the Holy Animal, because he acted wild, like an animal. He didn't care what people thought of him. He had given away all his money to charity, and so he had been reduced to working in a vodka factory.
Rabbi Eliyahu wrote a letter to Rabbi Leib and gave it to a messenger to deliver. When the messenger entered the small village, he went to some people in the street and told them, "I have a letter for Rabbi Leib."
One of the men replied, "I'm afraid you've come to the wrong village, my friend. There is no Rabbi Leib here."
"But I know there!" the messenger insisted.
One of the men said, "Maybe he means Leib in the vodka factory?"
But the others laughed him down. "Leib in the factory getting a letter? Impossible!"
The messenger searched throughout the village, and at last came to the owner of the vodka factory. "I am looking for Rabbi Leib."
This man too burst out laughing. "There is no Rabbi Leib here, friend, only my Leib the Vodka Maker!"
"All right," said the messenger. "Maybe that's whom I want. Where can I find him?"
"What do you want to talk to him about?" the man asked.
The man looked the messenger up and down. "You look like a learned man. What do you want with Leib?"
"Just tell me where I can find him."
"I'll tell you, but first you tell me why you want to talk to him."
The messenger sighed. "I have a message for him."
"A message? For Leib? From whom?"
"From the Vilna Gaon, who is passing by here on the way to Eretz Yisrael."
The man's face paled. "You're making it up. Let me see the outside of the letter, at least."
The messenger drew the letter out and held it in front of the man.
"'To the Rabbi, the man of the Lord, Leib,'" he read aloud, and he looked back at the messenger soberly. "He works for me in my vodka factory. I'll show you how to get there. But before you go, I want you to tell me how he acted. How can it be that this simple Leib is a man of the Lord...?"
The messenger followed the man's directions to the wooden vodka factory. Inside, a simple-looking man was sitting next to the blazing oven, reciting Tehillim.
"I have a letter for you!" the messenger said, but Leib merely looked up at him. "It's from Rabbi Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna!"
"The Gaon of Vilna?" muttered Leib. He took the letter and tore it open, read it quickly, and threw it into the fire.
"But what is your answer?" said the messenger.
Leib sat back down and continued reciting Tehillim.
"You have to give me an answer," the messenger begged. "If I come back with nothing, Rabbi Eliyahu won't believe that I delivered the letter to you, and I won't get paid!"
Leib looked up at the messenger. "Tell him that it isn't necessary."
"What isn't necessary?"
But Leib said no more.
As he had promised, the messenger returned to the factory owner and told him what had happened.
The owner hurried down the village main street to the factory.
"Leib!" he called.
Leib was still sitting next to the oven, reciting Tehillim.
"Reb Leib, I want you to tell me what was in the letter that the messenger sent you."
Leib continued saying Tehillim.
The owner pressed him, and he finally said, "If you don't tell me what was in the letter, I will take away your job!"
Then Leib replied, "Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna asked me to travel together with him to Eretz Yisrael. But I said that I don't have to go with him, because he too will come back without getting there." (A slightly different version appears in Hagaon Hachassid.)
In a similar story, Rabbi Eliyahu is said to have sent a messenger with a letter to a hidden tzaddik named Reb Yaakov, who worked as a water drawer and wood chopper. After Rabbi Yaakov read the letter, he told the messenger, "Tell Rabbi Eliyahu to go outside at midnight and gaze at the sky."
Rabbi Eliyahu did so, and he saw an awesome sight: coffins were being carried into and out of Eretz Yisrael. Rabbi Eliyahu understood what the vision meant: those who are fit for Eretz Yisrael will come there even after their death; and those who are not fit will be expelled even after their death.
Rabbi Eliyahu continued travelling and arrived at Koenigsburg, where he wrote a letter to his family in which he expressed his loving and demanding personality:
Please do not be at all sad, as you promised me that you would not, and do not worry.
People go on years-long trips for the sake of earning some money. They leave their wives behind and wander about without anything. But as for me, I am thank heaven travelling to the Holy Land that everyone desires to see, the beloved of all Israel and the beloved of Hashem.
And I am doing well, thank heaven.
I have left behind my children for whom my heart yearns. I have left behind all my precious seforim. Like a stranger in a strange land, I have left everything behind.
But we know that the entire world is no more than vanity, that all of its pleasures are like nothing and that no good will come to those who chase after empty things that can give them nothing.
Do not care for wealth. "There is a wealth that is guarded for its owner for his evil." "As one goes out of the belly of one's mother naked, so will one return."...
And do not desire illusory honor, which is vanity.
Time is also a traitor. It can be compared to a scale, raising that which is light and lowering that which is weighty.
As for the things of this world, people think that they can quench their thirst with them, but it is like drinking salty water: the more one drinks, the more thirsty one becomes. "No one dies without half his desires in his hand" (Koheles Rabbah I)....
In the end, one returns to the dust, to insects and worms, where all one's pleasures will turn in the grave to bitterness.
And what is this world itself? All of one's days are filled with anger and pain. At night one cannot sleep, and death is no hope.
One will even be judged for every comment one makes--not even the slightest word will be overlooked.
So I admonish you to dwell alone as much as possible, for the sin of slander is everywhere....
Our sages have said that all of a person's mitzvos and learning do not suffice to make up for his gossip. "What is a person's craft in this world?" ask our sages--"to make himself like a mute" (Chullin)....
In the other world, for each empty word one spoke, one is shot from one end of the universe to the other.
This is merely for unnecessary words.
But as for forbidden words such as slander, scoffing, oaths and vows, controversy and curses--particularly in the synagogue and on Shabbos and holidays--for these one must descend deep into Sheol....
So do not leave the house. When you need to buy something, send a messenger to get it for you, even if you must pay two or three times as much. "Is the hand of Hashem short?" (Bamidbar 11:23). Hashem gives sustenance to all.
On Shabbos and holidays, do not say anything that is not absolutely necessary, for the holiness of Shabbos is very great, "and only with difficulty did they allow one to say Shalom on Shabbos" (Yerushalmi Shabbos and Tosafos Shabbos 113)....
Honor Shabbos as much as when I am with you. Do not scrimp at all, for "all of the food a man will have is determined for him between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, except for Shabbos and holiday expenses" (Beitzah 16).
And I also urge you to guide your daughters to never curse, swear, lie or speak contentiously. Everything must be with peace, love, friendship and softness.
I have a few seforim of ethics in Yiddish. Make sure that they are read constantly, particularly on Shabbos. Involve yourselves in nothing but reading such seforim, and always guide the girls with books of ethics....
Guide the girls as well in other things: not to gossip or slander, not to eat and drink without the proper blessings, to recite birkas hamazon and Sh'ma, and to do everything with the proper intention.
The most important thing of all is that the girls not go outside the house, heaven forbid. They must heed and honor you and my mother and all those older than they, and they should do everything that is written in the ethical books.
As for your sons, raise them in a straight and calm manner. Pay the money for their education. Hire a teacher to come to the house and do not scrimp on his salary....
I have also left you seforim. For the sake of heaven, guide the children with goodness and calm.
Take care of their health and make sure that they have enough to eat.
They should first learn all of Chumash, until they know it practically by heart. Do not force it on them, but teach it gently, for a person learns only when he is taught gently and calmly.
Give them pocket money and the like....
Woe! Everyone thinks of leaving his children an inheritance. But there is no advantage to sons and daughters besides their Torah and good deeds.
Read this letter every week, in particular on Shabbos before eating and in the midst of the meal, so that the children do not speak empty words, heaven forbid, and certainly not gossip and the like.
And every moment that a person keeps silent, he merits the hidden light that no angel or any creature can imagine (Midrash).
...For this, a person will be forgiven every sin and saved from the depths of Sheol...
And the best way to be able to do this is to be alone. Do not go out of the house, heaven forbid. Even in the synagogue, it is better that you stay a little while and then leave. It is better to pray in the house, for in the synagogue it is impossible to avoid jealousy and hearing empty words and gossip. And one is punished for this...
And particularly on Shabbos and holiday, when people gather to speak, it is better not to pray [there] at all.
Be careful not to go to the cemetery at all, for unclean forces cling there to a person--especially to women. All troubles and sins come from this....
Desire the fear of Hashem.
Do not say, How shall I be able to gain the world to come? "It does not matter if one does much or little, as long as one sets one's heart to heaven" (Berachos 17).
And for the sake of the Lord, donate a fifth of your income--but no more--for charity, as I have commanded and admonished you. When one gives less than that, one transgresses at every moment a number of negative and positive commandments. It is as though one has denied the holy Torah, heaven forbid.
Among my seforim is a Mishlei with a Yiddish translation. For the sake of the Lord, the children should read it every day. It is better than all other works of ethical instruction. They should also always read Koheles in your presence, for there Shlomo Hamelech dismisses the matters of this world.
But the main thing should not be the reading alone, heaven forbid...for this is like one who plants without plowing....
My son-in-law: read before the [children the seforim that] I have mentioned above. And all your learning should be for the sake of heaven....
Learn Avos and in particular Pirkei Avos Derabbi Nasan and Maseches Derech Eretz.
Honor your mother-in-law and honor her mother very much. Treat everyone with good manners, calmly and respectfully.
My dear mother: I know that you do not need my instruction. I know that you are modest. Nevertheless, let the others read this letter to you, for these are words of the living G-d. I ask you very strongly, do not trouble yourself for my sake, as you have promised me.
If Hashem wills and I merit to be in the holy city of Jerusalem by the gate of heaven, I will plead for your sake, as I have promised. And if I merit and the Master of Compassion so desires, we shall all see each other.
My wife: honor my mother, as the Torah teaches. It is a criminal transgression to trouble a widow in the slightest way.
My mother: let there be peace between the two of you...
Even if one of you acts incorrectly, forgive one another and live for the sake of Hashem in peace.
My mother: guide my sons and daughters with soft words that they will accept. And take care of them.
My sons and daughters: I command you to honor my mother.
And may there never be heard contention and anger among you, but only peace.
And the Master of Peace will give you, my sons and daughters and my son-in-law and my brothers and all Israel life and peace.
But in Koenigsburg, Rabbi Eliyahu turned back and returned to Vilna.
Many times in the coming years, Rabbi Eliyahu was asked why he did not continue his journey to Eretz Yisrael. Only once did he reply, saying that "I did not have permission from heaven."
Many conjectures have been made. It was clear to Rabbi Eliyah, av beis din of Kalish, on the basis of various signs that Rabbi Eliyahu was a spark of the soul of Moshe Rabeinu. And just as Moshe Rabeinu could not enter the land, neither could Rabbi Eliyahu. (But it has been pointed out that others, such as Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who were also sparks of the soul of Moshe Rabeinu, did enter Eretz Yisrael.)
Some say that Rabbi Eliyahu wished to go to Eretz Yisrael in order to reinstate rabbinical ordination--semichah. Realizing that he would be unsuccessful, he turned back.
Others say that Rabbi Eliyahu was afraid that on board ship, there would be a danger of wormy bread, and thus he might have to spend Shabbos on the ship without being able to eat three meals with bread.
Some consider that Rabbi Eliyahu's first Rosh Hashanah in Eretz Yisrael would be on Shabbos. He held that in Jerusalem one blows shofar before a beis din. He was afraid that the other rabbis would not agree with him, and so he would not be able to keep the mitzvah of blowing the shofar for the first day of Rosh Hashanah.
Some believe that Rabbi Eliyahu wanted to be strict regarding the obligation of giving tithes--ma'aser--on land owned by gentiles. But because the Beis Yosef decided otherwise, he felt that he had to return home rather than disagree with the Beis Yosef.
Others say that Rabbi Eliyahu learned that Ashkenazi Jews were being persecuted in Jerusalem, where he wanted to go.
Some months after he had set out for Eretz Yisrael, Rabbi Eliyahu's carriage rolled back into Vilna. He was home again.
He sought out those people how had given him money for the trip and returned it to them.
But Rabbi Eliyahu's stress on the importance of making aliyah had a profound impression on his followers. Hundreds of his followers, among them such talmidei chachamim as Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Shklov and Rabbi Yisroel of Shklov, author of Pe'as Hashulchan, moved to Eretz Yisrael both during and after Rabbi Eliyahu's lifetime. Their unified movements for aliyah, along with a similar movement among Chassidim, helped revive the Ashkenazi communities in Eretz Yisrael.