“Persecution’s ‘Silver Lining’”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tavo, is one of two weekly Torah portions that contain the verses known as the “Tochacha ,” G-d’s reproof of the Jewish people. The other Tochacha is found in parashat Bechukotai, in Leviticus 26:3-46.

Before analyzing the difference between the two Tochachot, it is important to note that both Tochachot are preceded by abundant blessings that the Al-mighty promises to bestow upon the Jewish people if they follow the mitzvot of the Torah. It is only when the people stray from G-d that these harsh prophecies will be realized.

The first Tochacha in Leviticus was pronounced by G-d Himself, hence, it is expressed in the first person. In that Tochacha, G-d informs the people of Israel what punishments He will bring upon them for defying His Torah and mitzvot. The second Tochacha, in parashat Kee Tavo, was an admonition uttered by Moses just before that great leader’s own passing. It contains a chilling prophecy of the horrors that would befall those who spurned G-d and His Torah. Since he was stating in his own words what G-d would do to those who defied the Al-mighty, Moses’ Tochacha is articulated in the third person.

According to the Ramban, the punishments found in Bechukotai refer to the period of destruction of the First Temple, and the consequent Babylonian exile. The Tochacha in Kee Tavo, alludes to the destruction of the Second Temple and the continuing exile until our times.

The Or HaChaim points to another distinction between the two admonitions. The first Tochacha , which is written in the plural, decries the communal sins of the people, that would lead to a broad national spiritual downfall. The Tochacha found in parashat Kee Tavo is mostly in the singular, underscoring that G-d will hold accountable each individual who defies Him.

The great Professor Nehama Leibowitz perceptively notes that Moses’ Tochacha in parashat Kee Tavo proceeds “in ascending order, from the more usual or natural upheavals and catastrophes, to sickness and plague, drought and famine, war and persecution, until the climax of exile and expulsion from the homeland is reached.”

The Bible in Deuteronomy 28:64 declares, “V’heh’feetz’cha Hashem b’chol hah’ah’meem mik’tzay ha’ah’retz v’ahd k’tzay ha’ah’retz, v’ah’vah’d’tah shahm eh’lo’heem ah’chay’reem ah’sher loh yah’dah’tah, ah’tah vah’ah’voh’teh’chah aytz vah’ah’vehn,” The L-rd shall scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other end of the earth; and there you shall serve other gods which you have not known, you or your fathers, even wood and stone.

Some contemporary scholars cogently point out that the striking use of the expression “wood and stone” (normally seen as the most common forms of ancient idolatry) may very well refer to the wood of the Christian crucifix and the Mecca stone of Islam. Long before the appearance of Christianity and Islam on the world scene, the Torah remarkably alludes to the fact that major persecution and exile of the Jews will take place at the hands of Christians and Muslims.

Interestingly, Professor Leibowitz notes that the passage regarding worshiping idolatry of wood and stone does not seem to be in sync with the crescendo of the catastrophes awaiting a disobedient Israel. Since the verse already underscores that the people will worship idols “there” [in exile], it can hardly be interpreted to imply that the people had been expelled and exiled because they worshiped idolatry in Israel.

Rashi, quoting Targum Onkelos, therefore concludes that the Jews did not literally practice idolatry, but rather that their punishment was to pay forced tribute to the heathen priests and idolaters.

This interpretation is also difficult, since the verse states that they [the people] shall “serve” idols of wood and stone, not pay tribute to them. The Abarbanel, who lived during the period of the Spanish Inquisition, suggests that Jews will be forced to worship gods in which they do not believe, and that will be their form of punishment.

Isaac Arama, a contemporary of the Abarbanel, goes even further in describing what he witnessed during his own lifetime. Arama cites the verse from Deuteronomy 28:65 that immediately follows the above-quoted verse, “Oo’vah’goy’yeem hah’haym lo tar’gee’ah v’loh yee’yeh mah’noh’ahch l’chaf rahg’leh’chah; v’nah’tahn Hashem l’chah shahm layv rah’gahz v’cheel’yohn ay’na’yeem v’dah’ah’vohn nah’fesh,” And among these nations you shall have no repose, and there will be no rest for the sole of your foot; but the L-rd shall give you there a trembling heart, failing eyes, and a languishing of soul.

Arama understands the statement of the Torah, “that among the nations, you shall have no repose,” to mean that although Jews will assimilate among the nations, the assimilation will not prove to be a source of relief. Instead, nations among whom the Jews will be exiled will continue to relentlessly revile the Jews and denounce them as lapsed converts.

Says Professor Leibowitz:

Thus, the forcible conversion to idolatry and acceptance of the alien creeds against their will, do not constitute the worst punishment yet in store for them. Even assimilation and acceptance of the dominant faith would not solve their problems and give them relief. The nations of the world would still not accept the Jewish people as part of their community, and barriers would still not be removed.

Professor Leibowitz concludes her analysis of this portion by citing a remarkable Midrash found in Bereishit Rabba 33a. The Midrash states:

“But the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot, and she returned onto him [Noah] into the ark” (Genesis 8:9). Rabbi Judah ben Rabbi Nachman, in the name of the Rabbi Shimon stated: Had it [the dove] found a resting place, it would not have returned. Parallel to this we found (Lamentation 1:3), “She [the people of Israel] dwells among the heathen, she finds no rest” – had she found rest, she would not have returned. Parallel to this we find: “And among these nations, thou shall have no repose, and there shall be no rest for thy sole of thy foot.” (Deuteronomy 28:65) – thus, if they [the people of Israel] would have found rest, they would not have returned.

The Midrash brilliantly points out the “silver lining” in the “curse” of “not finding rest.” Had the dove found rest, she would never have returned to Noah and the ark. Had the people of Israel, after the First Temple’s destruction, found rest among the Babylonians, they would never have returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the Second Temple. Similarly, in our parasha, the blessing in disguise is that persecution of the Jews would continue in exile.

But how can continued persecution in exile be a blessing?

Serious students of Jewish history know well that far more Jews have been lost to assimilation over the millennia than to crusades, pogroms and physical attacks upon our people. At the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, Jews constituted fully 10% of the Roman Empire. According to calculations, had they not assimilated, there should be over 500 million Jews today.

Jewish life in America confirms this assertion. In 1945, there were approximately 6 million Jews in the United States. Today, 65 years later, there are still only 6 million Jews. While the population of Americans has doubled during this time period, the population of the Jews has remained the same, despite large-scale immigration from the Soviet Union and from other countries. Even among the 6 million Jews in America today, about two thirds of them have nothing or very little to do with Jewish life. Time and again, we have seen in Jewish history that Jews do not know how to flourish in tolerant societies, and that adversity, very often, proves to be a blessing.

Perhaps, by being aware of this reality, contemporary Jews can be saved from the failures of the past. If only the people were to follow G-d’s directives and perform mitzvot, Jews of contemporary times would be granted many blessings, enabling our people to flourish not only in times of persecution and suffering, but even in good times. The choice is literally in our hands. May we have the wisdom to choose correctly.

May you be blessed.