The Ramban (Nachmanides, 1194-1270) understood this verse as the Biblical source for the mitzvah to settle and build up the Land of Israel:
“You shall take possession of the Land and settle it; for I have given you the Land to possess it” (Num. 33:53)
The following remarkable story was told by Mr. Yigal Gal-Ezer, who served as Israel’s vice state comptroller. In his younger days, Gal-Ezer would often visit Rav Kook’s home in order to be inspired by his holy presence.
During one of my visits, I found the rabbi in his study, absorbed in a complex Talmudic topic. Suddenly I heard a hesitant knocking at the door. The door opened partially, and a Yemenite Jew — slight of stature, with streaks of white in his beard and long peiyot — entered the room.
The guest closed the door behind him and stood in the doorway, his back to the door. He lowered his head to the floor, afraid to look at the rabbi directly.
Rav Kook raised his eyes from his Talmud and looked at the man kindly. “Come closer, my son.” With a gentle voice, the rabbi tried to instill confidence in the visitor.
With slow steps, the man drew near to the rabbi’s desk. He remained standing, head down.
“What is disturbing you, my son?”
“Honored rabbi,” the Yemenite said. “I came to ask the rabbi an important question.”
“Ask, my son, ask.”
“For twenty-five years, I have performed backbreaking labor, from morning to evening. I weeded plots of land so that orchards could be planted. I planted saplings, dug up stones from fields, excavated foundations for buildings in Eretz Yisrael. I spent all my strength in exhausting manual labor. And yet I barely earn enough to support my family.”
Embarrassed, the Yemenite lowered his voice. “I would like to ask: is it permissible for me to immigrate to America? Perhaps there my fortune will shine and I will be able to properly support my family....” The visitor finished his short speech and remained standing in silence.
For several minutes, Rav Kook sat, deep in thought. Abruptly, he stood up, pointed to his chair and commanded the man, “Sit.”
The visitor became filled with trepidation. “Honored Rabbi,” he stammered. “It is improper that a stranger should sit on your chair.”
“Sit,” the rabbi repeated.
With short, reluctant steps, the Yemenite walked around the desk until he came to the rabbi’s chair. He slowly lowered himself into the seat.
As soon as he sat down, his head dropped to the desk and he fell into a deep sleep. A short while later, he woke, startled.
“What happened when you slept?” asked the Rav.
“I dreamt that I had passed on to the next world,” he reported. “My soul ascended to heaven. When I reached heaven’s gates, there was an angel standing at the entrance who directed me to the heavenly court. There I saw scales — scales of justice.”
The Yemenite laborer continued his account. “Suddenly, carriages drawn by horses rushed in front of me. The carriages were loaded with packages. Some of the packages were small, some were medium-sized, and some were large. The angels began unloading the packages, and they placed them on one side of the scales. That side of the scales plunged downwards due to the weight, until it nearly reached the ground.”
“What is the meaning of these packages?” I asked the angel standing before me.
“These, o mortal, are your sins and faults from your days on earth. Everything is accounted for,” he replied. My spirits fell.
Then other carriages arrived. These carriages were loaded with dirt, rocks, stones, and sand. As the angels loaded them on the other side of the scales, it began to lift up — slightly — the side of sins and transgressions.
“What is the meaning of these bundles of dirt?” I asked.
“These are the stones, rocks, and dirt which your hands labored to remove from the ground of the Holy Land. They have come to speak in your defense, for your part in the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz, settling the Land of Israel.”
“Trembling, I stared at the side of merits. I saw it dipping lower and lower, lifting the opposite side. Finally the side of merits ceased moving. It stopped as it outweighed the sins — but just barely.”
“You see, my son,” Rav Kook told the man gently. “You have received your answer from heaven.”
(Stories from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Malachim Kivnei Adam, pp. 321-322)
Illustration image: Photo of Jewish pioneers carting soil over the sands of Tel Aviv (1910)