Parashat Bechukotai: Mark Twain and the divine curse of Palestine

Because we betrayed our divine warrant to Israel, we were exiled, and our cities were demolished.

 THE LAND itself refused to embrace strangers. (photo credit: MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90)
THE LAND itself refused to embrace strangers.
(photo credit: MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90)

In 1867 Mark Twain visited Palestine on a well-documented journey. As he crisscrossed the barren landscape, he offered the following description and observations:

“We traversed some miles of desolate country whose soil is rich enough but is given wholly to weeds – a silent mournful expanse.... A degree of desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with pomp of life and action. We reached Tabor safely.... We never saw a human being on the whole route.... We pressed on toward the goal of our crusade, renowned Jerusalem. The further we went, the hotter the sun got and the more rocky and bare... the landscape became.... There was hardly a tree or a shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country. Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes. Over it broods the spell of a curse that has withered its fields and fettered its energies.”

This sterile and infertile condition, which Twain beheld in the 19th century, is foreshadowed in the horrific accounts of parashat Behukotai. Because we betrayed our divine warrant to Israel, we were exiled, and our cities were demolished. Following the description of the wreckage, the Torah announces: “I will destroy the land and it will remain desolate.” Much of the depressing narrative portrays the capture of the Land of Israel and the defeat and expulsion of the Jews. However, this verse describes the land in the period after exile. It will remain desolate. 

FAMOUSLY, THE Ramban (Nachmanides) viewed this prophecy as a favorable announcement. During our extended centuries-long absence from the land, no nation or culture will succeed in settling Israel. Their attempts to till the land will be fruitless, and their efforts to inhabit its cities will be futile. The land will remain desolate, empty and “available” for the return of its children. 

For centuries, powerful empires would conquer the land and endeavor in vain to establish a lasting presence there. But the land didn’t yield its fertility, nor did it invite long-term human colonization. The land still carried a divine curse, which could be alleviated only by our return and our rehabilitation of the land. We corrupted the integrity and honor of this land, and only we could lift the curse. 

 A portrait of Mark Twain taken by A. F. Bradley in New York, 1907. (credit: WIKIPEDIA) A portrait of Mark Twain taken by A. F. Bradley in New York, 1907. (credit: WIKIPEDIA)

Throughout history, the land itself refused to embrace strangers. They were welcome to come and sojourn, but each settlement of this eternal land came with an expiry date. Those who tried to remain beyond “checkout time” were violently expelled. The land waited in animated suspension for the return of its children, who alone could unlock its full potential. Until we returned, the land remained inactive and defiant.

Nachmanides didn’t just write about an abstract phenomenon – he lived this prophecy in a very personal fashion. In 1267, emigrating from Spain to Israel, he encountered a fledgling Jewish community in a land of ghosts. The city of Jerusalem could barely muster a minyan of 10 men!

During Nachmanides’s era in particular, the land violently revolted against its would-be conquerors. Even short-term admittance to foreigners was denied. In the roughly 120 years between 1177 and 1291, numerous wars were waged over cities in Israel and particularly over Jerusalem. Saladin fell to the Crusaders in 1177, only to defeat them 10 years later. Just four years afterward, in 1191, he fell to the armies of the Third Crusade. In the latter half of the next century, Crusader armies fell to invading Egyptian forces. The land was in outright convulsion, and all human attempts to seize the land of God were thwarted. The prophecy of Behukotai was in full display to Nachmanides and his contemporaries. 

Fast-forward six centuries, and Twain witnessed the same prophecy. Too bad he didn’t study the Ramban!

HOW LONG would it take for this eternal curse to be lifted? Surprisingly, not long at all. It just took the return of the indigenous dwellers of Israel. 

Less than 15 years after Twain’s visit through the wastelands of Palestine, history shifted and the land reawakened. Our motherland opened its arms to its lonely and long-lost children. Deserts and arid lands once again bloomed with lush verdant landscapes and sprouted fruits and crops which had been absent for two millennia. Malaria-infested swamplands were drained to forge modern cities such as Petah Tikva and Hadera. Through great devotion and sometimes at great cost of life, large dormant terrains were now teeming with Jewish life. 

We haven’t just restored the land’s ancient fertility; we have innovated modern ways to preserve it. Facing the challenges of limited water supply in an urbanized modern world, we have learned to conserve our sweet water while sweetening our hard coastal water. While we continue to pray for Heavenly rain, we provide as much human water as possible to our land and its children. 

Beyond the agricultural renaissance, we have managed to construct a modern democracy upon a land that had witnessed the brutal force of totalitarian rule since Titus demolished the Temple. The combination of democratic freedom and economic welfare is rare in the modern world, and even more so in our part of the world. Part of the resuscitation of Israel is not just the agricultural revival but the construction of a stable and sturdy modern state built upon the principles of freedom and human dignity. 

We still yearn for an ultimate and final spiritual revival, the construction of a Temple and a state saturated with the presence of God. Until then, history remains imperfect, and our accomplishments preliminary. Yet, who can ignore the revival of our homeland, the restoration of its energy and the joy of children returning home? 

Twain was correct: Palestine sat in sackcloth! The State of Israel, however, is bedecked in a wedding dress and dances to the sweet music echoing in its cities and in the streets of Jerusalem. Just as we were promised, the land remained abandoned while we were absent. Our motherland waited for us, just as we waited for it. The reunion is sweet, just as we were promised.  ■

The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.