Today is the 215th anniversary of the death of a Jewish visionary who should be credited for the resettlement of millions of Jews from throughout back to their ancient homeland, Israel.   Rabbi Elijah Kramer, from Vilnius, Lithuania (known as “the Vilna Gaon”)was the greatest rabbinic figure of the 18th century.  He encouraged his students to make the difficult trek to the land of Israel and make Israel their home.  This idea went against the worldview of European Jewry at the time but his students listened and made the move in three large waves beginning in 1808.

At the end of the story, thousands of his students moved to the Land of Israel together with their families.  This led to the remarkable achievement of a majority of Jerusalem’s population being Jewish by the middle of the 19th century, something which had not been the case since the Roman invasion 2,000 years earlier.  But this has remained the case ever since.

A student of Rabbi Kramer, Rabbi Hillel of Shklov, quotes him as saying: “We must know in advance that all the precious treasures included in the blessing of expanding (the nation) will come only when action is first take by the people of Israel themselves in an awakening from below.”  

In the words of Jerusalem Post columnist Michael Freund, “With these words, the Vilna Gaon laid down a clear challenge to each and every Jew, delineating that our task is not to sit passively and wait for redemption from exile, but rather to take action and bring it about.  Through this novel approach, the Gaon became a harbinger of modern Zionism, a forceful promoter of Jewish activism and a restorer of Jewish self-confidence and esteem.  He stared at the seemingly impossible and overcame it. Propelled by a belief in the justness of our cause and deep faith in the Creator, he left behind a legacy of Jewish reclamation and restoration.  

After centuries of endless exile and persecution, the Vilna Gaon taught us all a critical lesson, one which resonates particularly strongly in light of today’s often frightening headlines: the Jewish people are not prisoners of fate, but partners with God in shaping our own destiny.  It is a lesson that we would all do well to learn.”

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