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Mark Twain in the Footsteps of Moshe Rabbeinu

Mark Twain in the Footsteps of Moshe Rabbeinu

Based on Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak

By Braha Bender


Mark Twain visited Israel in 1867. Here’s what he had to say:

...There is not a solitary village throughout its whole extent, not for thirty miles in either direction. There are two or three small clusters of Bedouin tents, but not a single permanent habitation. One may ride ten miles hereabouts and not see ten human beings. To this region one of the prophecies is applied: ‘I will bring the land into desolation; and your enemies which dwell therein shall be astonished at it...’ [VaYikra-Leviticus 26:32-33] No man can stand here by deserted Ain Mallahah and say that the prophecy has not been fulfilled! (The Innocents Abroad [1869], ch. 46)

Twain’s words eerily echo Moshe Rabbeinu, speaking almost 3,000 years out of the past:

And a later generation, your descendants, who will rise after you, along with the foreigner who comes from a distant land, will say, upon seeing the plagues of that land and the diseases with which Hashem struck it: Sulfur and salt have burned up its entire land! It cannot be sown, nor can it grow [anything], not [even] any grass will sprout upon it… And all the nations will say, Why did Hashem do so to this land? What [is the reason] for this great rage of fury? Then they will say, It is because they abandoned the covenant of Hashem, God of their fathers… And Hashem's fury raged against that land, bringing upon it the entire curse written in this book. (Devarim-Deuteronomy 29:21-26)

A little heavy, yes? Parashas Nitzavim warns the Jewish People against the myriad consequences to come about if they decide to abandon their relationship with God. Mark Twain wasn’t the only “foreigner from a distant land” to visit pre-state Israel and marvel at the bitter, prophetic emptiness of the Promised Land.


Bitter Infused With Sweet

Artifacts of biblical history – graves, ruined cities, towering pillars and walls of once epic structures – lay bleaching in the Middle Eastern sun, shocking skeletons of former greatness. The stark evidence of biblical reality contrasted with the vast desolation all around them. The curses of Parashas Nitzavim were plain for all to see.

Yet the bitter was infused with sweet:

I will make the Land desolate, so that it will become desolate [also] of your enemies who live in it. (VaYikra-Leviticus 26:32)

Torah prophesized that the Land of Israel would never truly thrive without Jewish inhabitants. Was this part of the prophecy fulfilled as well? History speaks for itself:

The country is in a considerable degree empty of inhabitants and therefore its greatest need is of a body of population. (James Finn, British Consul, 1857)

Or, to bring history a little more up-to-date:

The area was under-populated and remained economically stagnant until the arrival of the first Zionist pioneers in the 1880's, who came to rebuild the Jewish land. The country had remained "The Holy Land" in the religious and historic consciousness of mankind, which associated it with the Bible and the history of the Jewish people. Jewish development of the country also attracted large numbers of other immigrants – both Jewish and Arab... (Report of the British Royal Commission, 1913)

Eretz Yisrael waited for her children to come home. Without us, she was barren. Nobody even wanted her.

Then suddenly, like a woman welcoming back her long-lost beloved, her dull eyes lit up like stars. Her deserts began to bloom. New roads were paved. Within not a century of Jewish settlement, internationally valuable innovations began sprouting in the land of former desolation.

Some termed the turnaround by the catchphrase Start-Up Nation. Others called these changes the footsteps of mashiach (messiah). One way or another, the land visited by Mark Twain had been transformed. A lonely stretch of desert once grimly ruled by the British now burgeoned with Jews from Ethiopia, Russia, America, France, Canada, India, Germany and myriad other destinations. 

How? By the hands of the very people Torah had promised would be banished – and would eventually return.



Survival by Exile

Exile, another one of the curses that Parashas Nitzavim warns of, has taken place in spades:

[Israel’s exile] is [particularly] harsh, for when the people of a country are all exiled to the same place, they see one another and take comfort. However, Israel was scattered… (Toras Kohanim 26:39)

Our homes were destroyed, but worse still, our community was torn to shreds. Yet Talmud Pesachim 87b audaciously declares:

The Holy One, Blessed be He, performed a righteous deed with Israel in that He scattered them among the nations.

Really? Could have fooled me. Exile has meant inquisitions, pogroms, and holocausts. Rashi jumps in to explain:

Instead of being exiled to a single country, the Jews were scattered among several countries. God thereby ensured that the gentiles would be unable to destroy all the Jews at the same time.

Once again, God’s curse contained His blessing. No, we weren’t all together, but our infamous Jewish wandering ended up being our national salvation. No single monarchy could destroy the Jewish People, since there were always more Jewish People poking around some other corner of the planet.

Hitler might have taken Europe, but he didn’t take the United States or England. There were Jews there, too. Russian pogroms couldn’t murder Moroccan Jews. Even the most vicious of papal decrees didn’t reach the Jews in Afghanistan. Conflicting interests and alliances between world leaders meant that somehow, somewhere, the Jewish flame stayed alive.

Being distant from one another might have sapped our strength and our unity, but it ensured our survival. Much as we suffered from the curse that we brought upon ourselves, the very mechanism of our punishment promised that we would eventually get past it.


The Strange Secret of Anti-Semitism

Even anti-Semitism, the third of the horrific triumvirate of consequences described in Parashas Nitzavim, carries a dove in its gnarled hands:

And you will become an [object of] astonishment, an example, and a topic of discussion, among all the peoples to whom Hashem will lead you. (Devarim-Deuteronomy 28:37)

Over the many years of our exile, the Jews’ greatest danger was never suffering. The Jews’ greatest danger was annihilation. Like the many peoples who have come and gone since our inception 3,000 years ago, the Jews could have very easily assimilated into oblivion.

Assimilation is the death-knell of a people. The Roman empire used this principle to great effect. Upon conquering a foreign people, the Roman government would simply divide the locals into several smaller groups and exile each small groups to a different locations. Communication between the various groups would be restricted if not impossible. Each small groups, now very much the minority, melted like butter into the surrounding culture.

In modern-day lingo, we call this peer pressure. Under mass cultural pressure, individual identities weaken and fade away.

How did the Jews manage to get scattered all over the earth yet remain unassimilated? How did we retain our autonomous identity within the melting pot of world history? Simple: no matter how much the Jews tried to assimilate, host cultures refused to forget that they were Jews. We might not be here if they hadn’t forced us to remember who we are.

One of the extreme examples of this came up in recent history when Hitler’s murderous forces corralled and murdered even those who had tried to assimilate up to the third generation. Even just being married to a Jew was enough.

In other words, it has never mattered how secular, how German, how enlightened, how American, or how gentile we looked and acted. Anti-Semitism always found us in the end. In fact, it was precisely when we were doing our best job assimilating that anti-Semitism always seemed to rear its ugly head.

Coincidence? Such a coincidence did not take place for any other 3,000-year-old universally dispersed people. The Canadians are in Canada. The Taiwanese are in Taiwan. The Tibetans are in India, but for one thing, huge numbers of them are together, and for another thing, they haven’t even been there a decade. Try dispersing them in small groups across the globe, having them excel in their host countries to the extent that they are easily mistaken for celebrated locals, and letting it all sink in for a few millennia. See what happens then.


Choose Life

What an astonishing system. While the mass dispersion of our exile protected us from genocide, and the Land of Israel withered away awaiting our return, anti-Semitism was the third leg of the miraculous structure that kept us standing.

Who would have known that we would make it this far? Well, Somebody knew:

And it will be, when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse which I have set before you, that you will consider in your heart, among all the nations where Hashem your God has banished you, and you will return to Hashem, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul…then, Hashem, your God, will bring back your exiles…Even if your exiles are at the end of the heavens, Hashem, your God, will gather you from there, and He will take you from there… (ibid 1-4)

Exile doesn’t last forever. Not Jewish exile. Because Jewish exile is only a means to an end. What end?

I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life…

Choose life, by being a conduit for the Source of all life:

To love Hashem your God, to listen to His voice, and to cleave to Him. For that is your life… (ibid 19-20)

Don’t waste it.

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