In the Same Barren Holy Land, Mark Twain and Nahmanides Saw Very Different Things

August 21, 2019 | Meir Soloveichik
About the author: Meir Soloveichik is the rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York and director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University.

In 1867, the journalist Samuel Clemens visited the Land of Israel with a group of American pilgrims; he described what he saw there in The Innocents Abroad, published two years later. The place described as so lush in the Hebrew Bible appeared to him to be barren and dispiriting. The nearer he and his fellow travelers came to Jerusalem, “the more rocky and bare, repulsive and dreary the landscape became.” As Meir Soloveichik notes, the exiled Spanish rabbi Moses Naḥmanides formed a strikingly similar impression when he arrived there 600 years prior. But with a difference:

Naḥmanides describes the barrenness of the land of Israel as ordained by God with the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jews by the Romans. . . . “From the moment we left” into exile, he writes, the abundance of the land has failed to show itself. Throughout the generations, “all seek to settle it,” yet the land resists cultivation. It mourns just as its people mourn. He, too, notes what Twain had sensed as a paradox: that the earth grows more barren as one approaches Jerusalem. “The general principle,” he wrote to his son, is that “the holier the land is, the more desolate it remains.” After all, the Holy Land yearns for the Jews; the holier a speck of soil may be, the more it refuses to provide its fruits until the Jews return.

Naḥmanides saw in 1267 what Twain in 1867 had failed to see. Clemens could never have imagined that exactly 100 years after he visited the Temple Mount in 1867, Jewish soldiers would stand there to claim it as their capital of a flourishing land. Yet credit for this wondrous event can in some sense be linked to Naḥmanides, whose own arrival in Jerusalem exactly 700 years before the Six-Day War marked the beginning of a seven-century Jewish presence in the sacred city. To this day, there is a synagogue in Jerusalem founded by this exiled rabbi—a man who believed that if Jews would return to Jerusalem, Jerusalem would one day return to the Jews.

Read more on Commentary:

Welcome to Mosaic

Create a free account to continue reading and you'll get two months of unlimited access to the best in Jewish thought, culture, and politics

Register Already a subscriber? Sign in now