The relationship of the Jews with the Land of Israel is long, varied and quite complex. While Jews have not always had sovereignty over the land, they have almost always had a presence there. Similarly, since the first expulsion by the Babylonians, the Children of Israel have consistently sought ways to return to the Promised Land. Although the vast majority of Jews remained in Babylon, and the diaspora in which the majority of the world’s Jews currently reside is a direct result of the Roman expulsion, prayers and hopes to return to Israel were always an ongoing part of Jewish life.
So important is the concept of settling in Israel that this particular act of immigration has a name of its own: “aliyah.” The word “aliyah” is derived from the infinitive la’alot, to go up. In this same vein, someone who “makes aliyah” is referred to as an oleh (male), olah (female), or as o’leem (plural). While aliyah is used to describe the act of immigrating to Israel, it is also used to define segments of modern Israeli history, e.g. the First Aliyah (1882-1903), Second Aliyah (1904-1914), Third Aliyah (1919-1923), etc, referring to large waves of immigration to Palestine.
The Hebrew language often reflects beautiful nuances, and in this one word, aliyah, contains the idea that Judaism considers the land of Israel to be holier than any other place on earth. Moving to Israel is therefore considered a move upward spiritually. While most of the Torah’s commandments may be fulfilled anywhere in the world, there are a fair number of mitzvot that are specifically ordained for, “When you come into the land that I have given to you” (Leviticus 25:1). The promised land is a sacred land with a unique and innate holiness, and living in this holy place unquestionably elevates one’s soul.
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