By Rabbi Steven Pruzansky
Our Sages taught us (Kiddushin 49b) that “ten measures of wisdom descended to the world; the Land of Israel took nine, and the rest of the world took one. Ten measures of beauty descended to the world; Yerushalayim took nine and the rest of the world took one.” Other nations have a disproportionate share of wealth, poverty, arrogance, and might – all as the Creator saw fit to apportion.
Certainly faithful Jews accept the words of our Sages without question or hesitation, even if the notion of the pervasive wisdom in the land of Israel is not always obvious at first glance. Indeed, things happen here daily that cast doubt on that dictum. Even the beauty of Yerushalayim is not always apparent, unless the dictum refers to spiritual beauty, which it probably does.
Without being too brazen, I would edit the words of the Sages as follows: “Ten measures of beauty descended to the world; the Land of Israel took nine and the rest of the world took one.”
That seems about right.
There are many beautiful places across the globe, scenes of the majesty of nature, locations of such astonishing splendor that they serve as testimony to our Sages’ comment (Berachot 10a) “there is no Artist like our G-d.” I have been fortunate to visit many of them and even recite the blessing that acknowledges G-d “who made the works of creation.” I hope to visit others. But the Land of Israel is unique in the sheer number of stunning vistas that are compacted into what is, after all, a relative tiny country, barely the size of New Jersey.
I thought of this while gazing at three particular sites. To look out at the Mediterranean Sea as the sun is setting is to glimpse eternity, serenity and the infinite wonders of G-d’s world. The sea does not stop; it is as if there is nothing beyond it. It is exquisite in its tranquility. All the worries of life, all the turmoil around the globe –even in some of the countries that border on the Mediterranean – fade into nothingness. The Mediterranean, dubbed by our Sages the “Great Sea” because it borders the Land of Israel, has seen so much history and been at the center of civilization. Yet, its peace is undisturbed.
We spent two days in Mitzpe Ramon that overlooks the Machtesh Ramon, the Ramon Crater, Israel’s version of the Grand Canyon. (Yes, I know it is not technically a crater.) It was formed not by the impact of a meteorite or a volcanic eruption but by the receding of the ocean waters that once covered the Negev and receded during the third “day” of creation when G-d separated between the waters and formed dry land. It was essentially untouched since then, giving rise to rock formations of dazzling colors – and right in the middle of the desert. The canyon, the cliffs, the stark beauty of the hills and valleys all engender a profound sense of humility in the person who happens upon it. “A generation comes and a generation goes, but the earth endures forever” (Kohelet 1:4). That earth, that endures forever, is on spectacular display in Machtesh Ramon.
Just a few kilometers north of the town (which is less than 20 miles from the Sinai border) is the Kerem Ramon, the Ramon Vineyard, one of the largest vineyards in Israel. It encompasses hundreds of acres – and smack in the middle of the desert. The pioneers of early Israel vowed to make the desert bloom, in the famous cliché, and they largely succeeded. And here, modern pioneers, graduates of the Yeshivat Hesder in Mitzpe Ramon, have done it again. Across the street, literally, is desert, untended brown earth that has been barren for millennia. In the near horizon the mountains of the desert loom large, austere and forbidding in appearance. And that is what this vineyard looked like just a few years ago – bleak, brown earth – until faithful Jews acted on G-d’s promise to the Jews who would return to Israel after a long and bitter exile: “For G-d will comfort Zion and console all its ruins. He will turn its desert into Eden, and its dry places like G-d’s garden” (Yeshayahu 51:3). Indeed.
Perhaps the most striking feature that comprises the beauty of the land of Israel is the eye-catching array of colors. The blue of the sea and the blue of the sky; the greenery of the fields and the blue of the sky; the oases in the desert – the lush greenery set off against the austere brown - that offer hope and suggest limitless possibilities. It is a panoply of rich and vibrant colors that bring nature, and the human imagination, to life, and invariably to appreciation for the handiwork of the Creator.
When I was a teenager, a Rebbe assigned our class a project in tefila (prayer). Each student was asked to choose a verse from the prayers and depict that verse in pictures. I chose a verse from Hallel: “The heavens are the heavens for G-d and the earth was given to man” (Tehillim 115:16). My pictures contrasted G-d’s domain with that of man and compiled them for my project. “The heavens are the heavens for G-d” – the azure sky with tufts of clouds lazily ambling about, the infinity of space where all is calm and peaceful, the sunsets that fill us with awe. “And the earth was given to man” – scenes of violence, terror, war and hatred (even then!). Scenes of the brutality of man to his fellow man that seemingly has no limits, no boundaries, and no end. Scenes of vulgarity and coarseness that belie the image of G-d with which every human being is endowed.
Of course, the Rebbe told me that I misconstrued the verse, which is just as well, but nonetheless. When will the beauty of the natural world – especially of the Land of Israel – be appreciated by mankind enough to call a halt to man’s volcanic eruptions of hatred, anger and violence?
Perhaps when, despite my emendation above, the Land of Israel also reclaims the nine measures of wisdom with which it was blessed and shares its conclusions with willing listeners across the world. Then the beauty above will be matched by beauty below as well and He who has made peace in the heavens will bring peace upon us, all Israel and His troubled world.