Yaakov Klein
Author, Musician, and Lecturer

Upon the Mountain Stands a Tree: An Essay by R’ Hillel Zeitlin Hy”d

In recent weeks there has been much conversation about a so-called “aliyah explosion” when the current crisis abates. While I certainly hope these predictions of mass emigration materialize, I believe it is equally important for our holy nation – including those who already have the great merit of living in the Holy Land –  to reconnect with the inner spirit of the eternal Jewish longing for Eretz Yisrael.

In this heart-stirring essay penned in 1922 between the two World Wars to which he stood witness, R’ Hillel Zeitlin masterfully paints a portrait of the simple, pure, and apolitical yearning Jews have always felt for Eretz Yisrael throughout the long exile, as well as the great sacrifices they made to finally realize their lifelong dream.

(This essay appears in Hebrew on page 267 of the book, “B’Pardes HaChassidus”)

. . .

Upon the mountain stands a tree

Bent over, hunchbacked

A Jew travels to Eretz Yisrael

With tear-filled eyes.

I am familiar with that mountain. I recognize that tree. Once, in the very distant past, I was familiar with that Jew. Yes, that Jew with “tear-filled eyes.” Today, I do not recognize him. I no longer see him. Where has he gone?

Once, I watched as his tears poured upon the pages of Eichah, “Shali Serufah B’Eish.” “Tzion Ha’Lo Tish’ali.”

I saw the old, wrinkled pages soaked with tears. I saw the tallow candle. The Jew sitting on the ground, head bowed. I heard sigh after sigh. Early in the morning, they caught my ear and drove a stake into my heart for all eternity.

Yes, I saw how this Jew would rise at midnight and kindle the melted candle in the lantern. The Shechinah rested between his notes, garbed in black clothes, mourning over Her broken house and Her children who were exiled. Her son, the Jew, laments together with Her. His cries shatter the deep silence and rise above the face of a slumbering city, above the face of the fields and the forests – floating above, splitting the heavens and arriving before the Throne of Glory…

Immediately, the One Who rests His Name on the Holy House that now nestles in destruction and upon the Holy Land that lies in barrenness proceeds to announce the great pain of the world in the chambers of Moshiach and the rest of the tzaddikim in Gan Eden.

And then, from amidst the sadness, kindness stirs, and a silent hope is born. The scent of paradise drifts upon the face of mountain and valley and the dark notes slowly fade. Here and there, streaks of white appear across the sky, reflected on the windows of the house.

The eastern corner grows red as the sun, crimson with a fiery glow from its passing by the opening of Gehinnom, rises across the sky. Slowly, slowly, the sky brightens and grows clear, “a discoloration of white”, gentle rays of light filter through the window.

A blue and white Tallis envelops the Jew. “He wraps Himself in light like a garment, He stretches out the heavens like a tent.”

The Jew crowns himself with the seal of his Creator – upon his head and opposite his heart, and in his prayers, joy and sadness mingle as one: a cry erupts, hope sings; terror and joy, love and faith:

“And to Yerushalayim Your city return us with Mercy…”

“Cause the offspring of David to speedily flourish…”

“And may our eyes see the return to Tzion with mercy.”

And then the conclusion:

“To rectify the world with the kingdom of Sha-ddai, and all of humanity will call in Your Name.”

The Jew leaves his house and earns a living, buying and selling. But: “Although I am in the west, my heart is in the east.”

He trades, engaging in business transactions, but for what purpose? “A small measure of carobs would suffice for him from erev Shabbos to erev Shabbos”…

The Jew supports his wife and children. With great toil, he gathers profits. And from these coins, coins earned with honesty and integrity, he distributes ma’aser for the poor.

He gathers these coins one at a time. He hides them, watching them, guarding them. No, he isn’t greedy. He isn’t indulgent.

R’ Yid, why do you live so meagerly? Why do you not eat? Why do you not drink? For what purpose do you gather coins in some hidden drawer?

“A bit later, I will disclose,” he answers.

The elders decide to move. The old man takes his wife, and together they travel to there, to there.

The Jew travels from place to place, he moves from city to city.

Exhausted from the long journey, he sees a tree – ancient and bent just like he is.

The Jew’s tears flow under the old and twisted tree, and a silent consolation overwhelms his heart.

He continues:

God, God, great God!

Let us daven Mincha

When Jews will come to Eretz Yisrael,

The joy will be very great.

Where is that Jew? Today, I no longer see him. I no longer hear him.

Today I see only his shadow. I no longer see his form.

Will he never return?

Has he vanished with the shadow of the day? Or perhaps he has merited to ‘aliyas neshama’ and will yet return to us, shining with the glow of the upper worlds…

Along with the trumpets of an imminent World War – does nobody hear, echoing across a great distance, the first blasts of the shofar of Moshiach?

. . .

R’ Hillel Zeitlin Hy”d (1871–1942) was a unique figure in the Yiddish literary community of pre-war Poland. Raised in a Chabad family, R’ Hillel was recognized as a child genius and an elevated soul at a very young age. After a years-long foray into the secular world of the “Haskalah”, R’ Hillel forsook that lifestyle and returned to religious observance and Torah study, which he wrote about extensively and remained intensely engaged with until his murder in the Warsaw ghetto by the hands of the accursed Nazis, wrapped in his tallis and tefillin and holding a copy of the Zohar HaKadosh. Hashem yinkom damo.

About the Author
Yaakov Klein is an author, lecturer, and musician sharing the inner light of the Torah, His books "Sparks from Berditchov" and "Sunlight of Redemption" (Feldheim), as well as his numerous articles on various topics, have reached and inspired many thousands of Jews all over the world. His next book, "The Story of Our Lives", an in-depth elucidation of Rebbe Nachman's famous story, The Lost Princess, will be in stores soon. Stay tuned!
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