Arguably one of the Top Ten books on Judaism ever written, “The Kuzari,” by Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, is universally accepted as a classic of Torah scholarship.
After the Rabbi explains the role of the Jewish People as G-d’s Chosen Nation, who are commanded to be an example to the nations by living a holy national life of Torah in the Land especially chosen and favored by G-d, the King of Kuzar asks: “I understand what you mean about His People, but less so about His Land.”
You will have no difficulty in perceiving that one country may have higher qualifications than others. There are places in which particular plants, metals, or animals are found, or where the inhabitants are distinguished by their form and character, since perfection or deficiency of a person are produced by a mingling of the elements.
The King of Kuzar:
Yet I never heard that inhabitants of the Land of Israel are better than other people.
How about the hill where you say that vines thrive so well? If it had not been properly planted and cultivated, it would never have produced grapes. Priority belongs firstly, as we have stated, to the People who are the essence and kernel of the nations [those who have been chosen by the L-rd to be the bearers of His Word]. Secondly, it belongs to the Land, on account of the special Divine acts that are connected with it, which I would compare to the cultivation of the vineyard. No other location would share the distinction of the Divine Influence, just as no other mountain may be able to produce good wine.
The King of Kuzar:
How could this be? In the time between Adam and Moses were there not prophetic visions in other places, those granted to Abraham in Ur Chasdeem, to Ezekiel and Daniel in Bablyon, and to Jeremiah in Egypt?
Whoever prophesized did so either in the Holy Land, or concerning it, like Abraham, in order to reach it. Ezekiel and Daniel prophesized on its account. Adam lived and died in the Land. Tradition tells us that in the Cave of the Patriarchs are buried four pairs: Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah. This is the Land which bears the name “before the L-rd” and of which it is stated, “the eyes of the L-rd are always upon it” (Devarim, 11:12). It was also the first object of jealousy between Cain and Abel, when they desired to know which of them would be Adam’s successor and heir to his holy essence and perfection in order to inherit the Land and to stand in connection with the Divine Influence, while the other would be overlooked. When Abel was killed by Cain, the Land was left with an heir. It is stated that Cain went out of the presence of the L-rd (Bereshit, 4:16) which means that he left the Land, saying, “Behold, You have driven me out this day from the face of the earth, and from Your face I shall be hid” (Bereshit, 5:14). In the same way it is said, “But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the Presence of the L-rd” (Jonah, 1:3), but he only fled from the place of prophecy (Israel). G-d, however, brought him back out of the belly of the whale and appointed him to be a prophet in the Land.
When Seth was born, he was like Adam and took Abel’s place, giving him claim to the Land, which is the next step to the Garden of Eden. The Land was then the object of jealousy between Isaac and Ishmael, till the later was rejected as worthless. Although he was blessed with worldly prosperity, the birthright was established with Isaac, as it says, “My Covenant I will establish with Isaac” (Bereshit, 5:21) which refers to his attachment to the Divine Influence and eternal life in the World To Come. Neither Ishmael nor Esau could boast of this Covenant, even though they were otherwise prosperous. Once again, jealousy arose between Jacob and Esau over the birthright and blessing, but Esau was rejected in favor of Jacob, in spite of his physical strength.
Prophecy was granted to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam in Egypt [to free the Jews to bring them to Israel] and Sinai and Paran are reckoned as a part of Eretz Yisrael because they are located on this side of the Red Sea, as it says, “And I will set your boundaries from the Red Sea, even unto the sea of the Philistines, and from the desert unto the river” (Shemot, 23:31).
The “binding” of Isaac took place on a desolate mountain [in the Land of Israel] Mount Moriah. Not until the days of King David, when it was inhabited, was the secret revealed that it was the place especially prepared for the Shechinah [Divine Presence] as it is said, “And Abraham called the name of the place ‘The L-rd shall see’ as it is said to this day, in the mount of the L-rd it shall be seen (Bereshit, 22:14). In the Book of Chronicles it is stated more clearly that the Temple was built on Mount Moriah. These are, without out, the places worthy of being called the Gates of Heaven.
Look how Jacob ascribed the vision that he saw, not to the purity of his soul, nor to his faith, not to his true integrity, but to the place, as it says, “How awe-inspiring is this place” (Bereshit, 28:17). Prior to this, it is said, “And he lighted upon a specific place” (Ibid, 11) that is to say, the chosen one.
Was not Abraham also, after having been greatly elevated, brought into contact with the Divine Influence, and made the chariot of this essence, removed from his birthplace to go forth to the place where his perfection could be complete? So too, when an agriculture finds the root of a good tree in a desert region, he transplants it into properly tilled ground, to improve it and cause it to grow; to change it from a wild root to a cultivated one, from a tree that bore fruit by chance to one which produced a luxuriant crop. In the same way, the gift of prophecy was retained among Abraham’s descendants in Israel, their property as long as they remained in the Land and fulfilled the required conditions of purity, worship, sacrifices, and above all, the reverence for the Shechinah. For the Divine Influence, one may say, singles out him who appears worthy of being connected with it, such as prophets and pious men, and is their G-d.
The King of Kuzar:
Continue your discourse on the special advantages of the Land of Israel.
It was appointed to guide the world, and apportioned to the tribes of Israel from the time of the confusion of the languages, as it says, “When the Most High divided among the nations their inheritance” (Devarim, 32:8). Abraham was not fit to gain the Divine Influence, and to enter into a Covenant with G-d until he came to the Land of Israel. The Land was even granted its own Sabbaths, as it is said, “Sabbath of the Land” (Vayikra, 25:6) and “The Land shall keep a Sabbath unto the L-rd” (Ibid, 2). It is forbidden to sell it on perpetuity, as it says, “For Mine is the Land” (Ibid, 23). Observe that the “feasts of the L-rd” and “the Sabbaths of the Land” belong to the “Land of the L-rd.”
Thus the “Sabbaths of the L-rd” and the “Festivals of the L-rd” depend on the Land which is the “inheritance of the L-rd.” It is also called “His holy mountain,” “His footstool,” “the Gate of Heaven,” and it says, “For the Torah shall go forth from Zion” (Micah, 4:2). Our Forefathers endeavored to live in the Land while it was in the hands of pagans, they yearned for it, and had their bones carried there, as with Jacob and Joseph. Moses prayed to see it, and when this was denied him, he considered it a profound misfortune. Thereupon it was shown to him from the summit of Pisgah, which was to him an act of grace.
Persians, Indians, Greeks, and peoples of other nations, begged to be allowed to bring sacrifices there and to pray in the Holy Temple – they spent their wealth at the place, though they followed laws not recognized by the Torah. They honor it to this day, although the Shechinah no longer appears there. All nations make pilgrimages to it, long for it, excepting we ourselves, because we have been punished and are in disgrace. All which the Sages speak about its great qualities would take too long to relate.
The King of Kuzar:
Let me hear a few of their observations.
One teaching is “All roads lead to the Land of Israel, but none from it” (Mishna, Ketubot, 13:11). Concerning a wife who refuses to go there with her husband, the court decries that she is divorced and she forfeits her marriage settlement (Ketubot 110). On the other hand, if the husband refuses to accompany his wife to Eretz Yisrael, he is forced to divorce her and also pay her marriage settlement amount. The Sages further state: “It is better to swell in the Holy Land, even in a town mostly inhabited by heathens, than abroad in a town mostly populated by Jews; for he who dwells in the Holy Land is compared to him who has a G-d, while he who dwells in the Diaspora is compared to him who has no G-d. Thus said King David, ‘For they have driven me out this day from dwelling in the inheritance of the L-rd, saying, Go serve other gods,’ which means that he who dwells outside of the Land is like someone who serves strange gods” (Ibid).
Another say is: “to be buried in the Land of Israel is as if buried beneath the altar (Ketubot 111). They praise him who abides in the Land more than him who is carried there dead (Ibid). They say concerning he who could have live there, but did not do so, and only ordered his body to be carried there after his death: “While you lived you made My inheritance an abomination, but in death ‘you come and contaminate My Land’” (Jerusalem Talmud, Ketubot, 12:3; Jeremiah, 2:1). It is told that Rav Hananyah said, when asked whether it was lawful for a person to go abroad in order to marry the widow of his brother, “His brother married a pagan woman – praised be G-d who caused him to die – now this one follows him” (Ketubot 111). The Sages also forbade selling estates or the remains of a house to a heathen, or leaving a house in ruins. Other sayings are:
Fines can only be imposed in the Land itself (Sanhedrin 31). No slave can be taken abroad against his will (Mishna Gitten, 4:6), and many other similar regulations. Furthermore, the very air of the Holy Land makes wise (Baba Batra 158). The Sages expressed their love for the Land as follows, saying, “He who walks four cubits in the Land is assured happiness in the World to Come (Ketubot 111; Pesachim 113). Rabbi Zera answered a heathen who criticized his foolhardiness in crossing a river without waiting to reach a ford in his eagerness to enter the Land, “How can the place which Moses and Aaron could not reach, be reached by me?” (Ketubot 112).
The King of Kuzar:
If this be so, you transgress the commandment laid down in your Torah by not endeavoring to go up (make aliyah) to that place, to make it your abode in life and in death, although you say, “Have mercy on Zion, for it is the house of our life,” and believe that the Divine Presence shall return there. And had it no other preference than that the Shechinah dwelt there five hundred years, this is sufficient reason for men’s souls to retire there and find purification there, as happens near the abodes of the pious and the prophets. Is it not “the Gate of Heaven?” All nations agree on this point. Christians believe that the souls are gathered there and then lifted to Heaven. Islam teaches that it is the place of ascent, and that prophets are caused to ascend from there to Heaven. Further, you believe it is the place of the gathering on the day of Resurrection. Everybody turns to it in prayer and visits it in pilgrimage. Thus, your bowing and kneeling in its direction is either mere appearance or thoughtless worship. Yet your forefathers chose it as their abode in preference to their birthplaces, and lives there as strangers, rather than as citizens of their own country. This they did even at a time when the Divine Presence was not yet visible, when the country was full of unchastity, impurity, and idolatry. Your fathers had no other desire than to remain in it. Neither did they leave it in times of dearth and famine except with G-d’s permission. Finally, they directed their bones to be buried there.
This is a severe reproach, O king of the Kuzars. It is the sin which kept the Divine promise with regard to the Second Temple “Sing and rejoice O daughter of Zion” (Zecharia, 2:10) from being fulfilled. Divine Providence was ready to restore everything as it had been at first, if they had all willingly consented to return. But only a part was ready to do so, while the majority and the aristocracy remained in Babylon, preferring dependence and subjugation, and unwilling to leave their villas and their business affairs. The words, “I have put off my coat” (Shir HaShirim, 2-4) refer to the people’s slothfulness in consenting to return to Israel. The verse, “My beloved stretches forth his hand through the opening” may be interpreted as the urgent call of Ezra, Nechemiah, and the Prophets, until a portion of the people grudgingly responded to their call. In accordance with their unwillingly disposition, they did not receive full measure. Divine Providence only gives a man as much as he is prepared to receive – if his receptive capacity be small, he obtains little, and he receives much if it be great. Were we prepared to meet the G-d of our Forefathers with a pure mind, we would have found the same salvation as our Fathers had in Egypt. If we say, “Worship at His holy mountain – worship at His footstool, He who restores His glory to Zion” (Tehillim, 99:9) and other words to this effect, this is but as the chattering of the starling and the nightingale. We do not realize what we say by this sentence, nor by others, as you rightly observe, O prince of the Kuzars.
[The conversation between the Rabbi and the king of the Kuzars continues, covering all aspects of Judaism. At the end of the book, moved by his own teachings about the centrality of the Land of Israel to Torah and Am Yisrael, the Rabbi decides to make aliyah himself.]
The book concludes:
The Rabbi was then concerned to leave the land of Kuzar and betake himself to Jerusalem. The king was displeased to let him go and spoke to him as follows:
The King of Kuzar:
What can be found in the Land of Israel nowadays since the Divine Presence is absent from it, while, with a pure mind and desire, a person can approach G-d in any place? Why put yourself into danger on land and sea, and in encountering dangerous peoples?
The visible Shechinah has indeed disappeared, because it does not reveal itself except to a prophet, or to the chosen people in the chosen place. This is what we look forward to in the verse, “Let our eyes behold when You return Your Shechinah to Zion.” As regards the invisible and spiritual Shechinah, it is with every born Israelite of virtuous life, pure heart, and upright mind before the L-rd of Israel. The Land of Israel is especially distinguished by the L-rd of Israel, and no function can be perfect except there. Many of the laws of the Torah do not apply to those who live outside of the Land. The heart and soul are only perfectly pure and immaculate in the place which is known to be specifically selected by G-d. Thus the longing for it is awakened, for the sake of selfless motives, especially for him who wishes to live there, and to atone for past transgressions, as the Sages teach, “Exile atones for sins” (Makkot 2), especially if one leaves his country to go to the place of G-d’s choice. The danger such a person risks on land and sea does not come under the category of “You shall not tempt the L-rd” (Devarim, 6:16) since this verse refers to risks which one takes when traveling with merchandise in hope of gain. He who incurs even greater danger on account of his ardent desire to obtain forgiveness is free from reproach if he has made an accounting of his past deeds and is satisfied to spend the rest of his life in seeking the favor of the L-rd. He braves danger, and if he escapes, he praises G-d gratefully. But should he perish through his past sins, he has won the Divine favor, and he may be confident that he has atoned for most of his sins by his death.
The King of Kuzar:
I thought that you love freedom, but I now see you finding new religious duties which you will be obliged to fulfill in the Land of Israel, which are not in force here.
I only seek freedom from the service of the numerous foreign people whose favor I do not care for, and shall never obtain, though I worked for it all of my life. Even if I could obtain it, it would not profit me, the serving of men and courting their favor. I would rather seek the favor of the One whose favor is obtained with the smallest effort, yet it profits in this world and the next. This is the favor of G-d, it is His service which spells freedom, and humility before Him is true honor.
The King of Kuzar:
Since you believe in everything you profess, behold, G-d knows your mind, which is open before Him, who knows all that is hidden.
This is true only when action is impossible. But a man has free will in his yearnings and in his acting on them. A person deserves blame if he expects concrete reward without performing the actual deeds that lead to it. For this reason it is written, “You shall blow an alarm with the tumpets, and you shall be remembered before the L-rd your G-d” (BaMidmar, 10:9). G-d need not be reminded, but our actions in doing the mitzvot must be performed in their completeness to merit reward. This is similar to prayers which must be recited in wholeness and with the proper intentions to be considered worthy supplications, for only when both intentions and actions are complete, is reward granted. If the action is minus the intention, or the intention missing the action, the expectation for reward is lost. It is only when the deed is impossible to perform, then there is benefit when a person guards the desire firmly in his heart, while apologizing to G-d for not being able to perform the deed. This is the intent of our prayer, “On account of our sins, we have been driven out of our Land” (Festival Musaf).
Furthermore, the person who stirs the hearts of others to be aroused with a love for this holy place is worthy of reward, beyond any doubt. He brings closer the day for which we hope, as it says, “You shall arise and have mercy on Zion, for the time to favor her, yea, the set time is come. For Your servants take pleasure in her stones and embrace her very dust” (Tehillim, 102:14-15). This means that Jerusalem will only be rebuilt when the children of Israel yearn for it to such an extent that they embrace her stones and her dust.
The King of Kuzar:
If this be so, it would be a sin to hinder you. It is, on the contrary, a mitzvah to assist you. May G-d grant you His help, and may He be your shield and savior, and His kindness be upon you.
So ends “The Kuzari” with the Rabbi heading off to Eretz Yisrael.
Hope to see you here soon!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Before making Aliyah in 1984, Tzvi Fishman taught Creative Writing at the NYU School of the Arts. In Israel, he studied Torah at Yeshivas Machon Meir, Beit-El, Ateret Cohanim, amd Mercaz HaRav. He has published nearly twenty novels and books on a wide range of Jewish themes, available at Amazon Books and the tzvifishmanbooks.com website, including Free Downloads. He is the recipient of the Israel Ministry of Education Award for Creativity and Jewish Culture. Recently, he produced and directed the feature film, “Stories of Rebbe Nachman” starring Israel’s popular actor, Yehuda Barkan. Presently, he is working on Volume Four of the “Tevye in the Promised Land” Series.
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