Rabbi Yisroel of Shkelov 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 Yisrael. 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 establish 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.

These years were fraught with danger, disease, disaster and death.

The original group led by R. Yisroel of Shkelov settled in Tsfat (Safed) 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 chasidim under the leadership of Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, who had arrived a decade or so earlier. 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 their Torah institutions.

In 1821 on the day after Shavuot, in the morning, the Arab population of the Galilee fell upon the Jewish community of Tsfat. While more fortunate residents escaped to the neighboring village of Biriya, 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.

But the plague could not be stopped...

As he lay racked in pain on an abandoned rooftop, with his young daughter in his arms, he began, one final time, to beseech G‑d for his life and for the merit of establishing a family on the soil of the Holy Land. Then he made a vow to Him: "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.

R. Yisroel recovered and was able to establish another family in Tsfat. He fulfilled his vow and completed his work Pe'at HaShulchan on the laws of Eretz Yisrael. In his introduction to this classic work, 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, G‑d began to reveal His (boundless) kindness onto me..."

In his introduction to Pe'at HaShulchan, R. Yisroel of Shkelov presents a heart-rending account of the many tribulations he suffered in addition to his struggle to establish a Torah community in Tsfat.

These include the massive earthquakes in 1827 and 1834 which leveled Tsfat, Tiberias and most of the northern Galilee. In the resulting fires, all of the manuscripts for Pe'at 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.

...through tremendous suffering I merited to attach myself to G‑d’s inheritance...

It is amazing, after considering R. Yisroel’s story of settling in Eretz Yisrael, what he writes further on in the introduction to Pe'at 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 G‑d’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 Pe’at 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 Yisrael. Should it make a difference whether G‑d tests our spirit and our resolution with an earthquake or with an obnoxious taxi driver or unsympathetic clerk? Let R. Yisroel of Shkelov serve as an inspiration to all of our far-flung people as we make our way back to the Holy Land.

Adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from www.nishmas.org)

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