Parshas Ki Savo (5769)
If you think Nostradamus was good, just read the dire predictions made by Moses in the name of G-d in this week's Torah portion, Parshas Ki Savo. After Moses admonishes the Jewish nation to keep the Torah and its commandments, and not to follow the practices and the cultures of the nations surrounding them, he warns them of what G-d has in store for them should they choose to abandon His Torah:
"... And you will be torn from upon the ground to which you come to possess it. G-d will scatter you among all the peoples, from the end of the earth to the end of the earth ... And among those nations you will not be tranquil, there will be no rest for the sole of your foot ..." (Deuteronomy 28:63-65).
Moses is predicting that when the Jews will stop acting like Jews, and will no longer serve G-d as He wishes, they will be uprooted from the Land of Israel and will be scattered among all the nations. And not only will they be scattered around the globe, says Moses, but wherever the Jews will find themselves, they will not be tranquil for too long, and will eventually be expelled from there to a different country.
[Editors Note: The traditional Jewish belief is that the Torah was given by G-d to Moses and the Jewish people at Mount Sinai 3321 years ago. But even for those who don't accept the "traditional" view, it is important to know that all archeologists agree that whoever wrote the Torah did so at least 2300 years ago ... which would force us to conclude that these predictions, if they indeed came true as we will soon see, are the product of some really amazing human beings!]
Well, let's see ... did Moses' prediction come true or didn't it?
Unfortunately for our ancestors, Moses was only too right. Sadly, the prediction made by Moses in this week's Torah portion was uncannily accurate. We Jews, in our relatively short history, have been expelled from nearly every country in which we have found ourselves.
Here's just a partial listing of countries from which we have been expelled:
135 C.E. Israel (Second Temple destroyed by Rome; the Jews expelled from Israel)
415 C.E. Alexandria
855 C.E. Italy
1181 C.E. France (the first of at least three times when France expelled its Jews)
1290 C.E. England (they kept us out of England for a few hundred years!)
1394 C.E. Germany
1492 C.E. Spain
1497 C.E. Portugal
1559 C.E. Austria
1670 C.E. Vienna
1775 C.E. Warsaw
1862 C.E. American territory under jurisdiction of General Ulysses S. Grant
1948 C.E. Algeria, Iraq, Syria, Yemen
(For a really comprehensive timeline of all the expulsions and persecution that our ancestors experienced over the past 2000 years in exile, click here)
No wonder we have been referred to as the "wandering Jew(s)"! Every time we settled into a new country, built ourselves a nice Jewish community complete with synagogues, mikvehs, schools, Chinese restaurants (just kidding!), along comes some despotic ruler and expels us! So it really is true that for the better part of our history, we have not had a place to call home - a place in which to sink our roots before the non-Jews around us uprooted them and threw us out.
There's an old joke they tell which is really no joke at all:
Three weary Jews were caught as they attempted to sneak across the Russian boundary.
"Where were you three going?" asked the magistrate sternly.
"I was hoping to get to Palestine," said the first.
"My destination was Rome," said the second.
"My plan was to go to Australia," said the third.
"Australia!" exclaimed the surprised judge. "Why so far?'
"Far?" whispered the Jew with a catch in his voice. "Far from where?"
That's the story of our lives, at least up until the end of the 20th century. No home, no place to go and feel safe for too long, a sense of wandering and being lost and unwanted by the nations around us.
THE PATTERN OF OUR LONG AND BITTER EXILE
Okay, so maybe you're thinking that Moses just got lucky, and that it was just some random occurrence that our Jewish ancestors happened to be in the wrong places at the wrong times, getting themselves booted out of practically every country they lived in after only a few hundred years or so. Hey, anything is possible ..... but it is still highly unlikely. What's more, our expulsion and exile from every country we've lived in follows a certain, predictable pattern, making it all the more difficult to explain as some "tragic coincidence". In a lengthy commentary to Leviticus 26:44, the Meshech Chochmah explains the distinct pattern to the long and bitter exile that our people have suffered over the past two thousand years:
"Jews arrive in a new land. They and their children gradually prosper and become important citizens of their adopted country. They organize into communities to build and maintain their own institutions. With the passage of time, they become more deeply involved in the culture of their surroundings. Acclimation leads to assimilation, as the Jew abandons his Divine mission and his hope for spiritual salvation in favor of the seductive glitter of the non--Jewish world. After a time, the host country turns against its Jewish citizens, and several hundred years after its founding, the Jewish community is completely destroyed by the unleashed wrath of its non-Jewish hosts. The survivors, impoverished and broken in spirit, return to G-d once again and with His help, escape into a more hospitable country to rebuild in an atmosphere of relative peace ... until they are again subjected to harsh treatment."
This description of the pattern of our exile by the Meshech Chochmah is historically accurate. The Jew starts to become comfortable in his non-Jewish surroundings, and begins to think of it as his new Promised Land. He learns to behave in a manner typical of the lower elements of his host society. Then a storm of destruction follows which uproots him and deposits him in a distant land. This brings him to the realization that his adopted language and culture were, in fact, foreign to him. His true "culture" is Torah, his language is the Holy Tongue (Hebrew) and his sources of comfort are the words of the prophets.
Don't take my word on this ... look it up for yourselves ... read all about the glorious chapters of our history in such countries as Italy, Spain, Provence (France), Germany, Russia, and Poland. Read all about the tremendous contributions that our fellow Jews made to the host countries in which they lived. And then read about how all that glory came to an abrupt and tragic end as our ancestors were expelled from their adopted countries with nothing but the clothes on their backs and their failed hopes and dreams for a bright future that were now lost.
Sad, but true ... this is the reality of our nation's history of exile and expulsion ... all amazingly predicted with 100% accuracy over 3300 years ago by Moses, the Jewish answer to Nostradamus and then some.
AND EVERYWHERE THAT JEWS WENT, THE TORAH WAS SURE TO GO ...
But wait, things weren't as gloomy and destitute for our people as I am making it sound. You see, G-d loves us, and even if His children might need a little exile every once in a while in order to remind them of their true roots, that doesn't mean that He, G-d forbid, forgets about them. Heavens no!
We have a tradition that dates back to the time when Jacob was preparing to defend himself against his wicked brother Esau. Jacob separated his camp into two, and he said that if Esau shall come to attack one camp and overtake it, at least the other camp will escape. And this has been G-d's promise to the Jewish people throughout their history, as well. If the Jews are being persecuted and pursued in one area of the world, there will always be another, safer place where the Jews can go and find refuge.
So, for example, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain in 1492, after they had been living there peacefully among their non-Jewish neighbors for over 350 years, the countries of Turkey, Holland and Poland opened up their doors to the Jews, allowing them to come in and rebuild their communities anew. And this pattern has been relatively consistent throughout the many exiles and expulsions that the Jewish people have gone through (with the possible exception of the last great upheaval of our people - the Holocaust - in which no country, not even the United States or Canada, allowed our people entry. But that's a whole different discussion ...)
Additionally, and possibly even more important, G-d makes sure that wherever His people go, the Torah will be there for them to learn, and to find their comfort in.
Now, you might be thinking ... great, the Torah is here with me, small consolation for being expelled from the country in which my family lived for over 200 years! The truth is, however, that without the Torah and its wisdom and the way its lessons and beautiful commandments give meaning and significance to our lives, there would be no Jewish nation to keep together in one place. And, to be sure, what kept our ancestors going throughout all those persecutions and expulsions was only the connection they had with G-d through the study of His Torah and the observance of His commandments.
So even while G-d was preparing to have us exiled from our adopted country, He was planning for the Torah and its teachers to be there ready and waiting for the Jews to come and study it, thus reviving and maintaining their connection with their Father in Heaven.
THE “FOUR CAPTIVES”
One amazing and little-known example of Divine Providence in this regard is the story of the "Four Captives":
After the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in the year 70 C.E., a good portion of the Jewish people found themselves in Babylon, where they built new communities and academies of Torah learning. The head of the Academy was known as the Gaon, and he was also effectively the leader of the Jewish people. The Jews thrived in their adopted land, and relied heavily on the Gaon and on his Academy of Torah scholars for guidance and spiritual growth. This period of tranquility and growth lasted for many hundreds of years. But then the inevitable upheaval and expulsions started, and the uprooted Jews now found themselves strangers in new lands, such as North Africa, Egypt and Spain. They desperately needed spiritual guidance, and that could only come from the study of Torah, as disseminated by the great Rabbis. And this is where G-d's Hand came into the picture.
Shortly before the decline of the Babylonian Geonate, Providence arranged for an occurrence (990 C.E.) that would have far reaching consequences for the entire Diaspora and free its Jews from their dependence upon the Babylonian academies and their scholars. Four great Torah scholars from southern Italy embarked on a sea voyage to raise money for the Torah academies of their country. The four sages were Rabbi Moshe ben Chanoch, Rabbi Chushiel, Rabbi Shmaryah ben Elchanan, and a fourth whose identity and fate are unknown. En route they were captured by Ibn Rumahis, a Moorish-Spanish pirate in the service of the Spanish caliph, who decided to offer them for ransom to four different Jewish communities along the Mediterranean coast. The rabbis wisely kept their identities secret for fear that Ibn Rumahis would extort huge sums in return for their freedom. The pirate carried out his plan with an outcome that was of historic benefit to Jewish life.
Rabbi Moshe (together with his young son Chanoch) was ransomed by the Jews of Cordova, under the leadership of Chisdai ibn Shaprut. The community soon recognized the erudition and eminence of the captive and appointed him their spiritual leader. Rabbi Moshe promptly established an academy, and was succeeded by his son Rabbi Chanoch. Between them, they raised a new generation of scholars and Jewish leaders who would not have to look to Babylon for guidance on every question. Rabbi Shmuel HaNaggid, Talmud scholar par excellence, poet, and statesman, was one of his disciples. Other Yeshivos were later established in other Spanish cities.
Another of the captives, Rabbi Chushiel, was brought to the shores of Tunisia, where he accomplished in the city of Kairouan what Rabbi Moshe did in Cordova. His son, the famous Talmud commentator Rabbi Chananel, and his illustrious disciple Rabbi Nissim (Gaon) ben Yaakov, continued his work of making North Africa a major Torah center that became independent of Babylon in matters of Talmudic scholarship.
The third sage, Rabbi Shmaryah ben Elchanan, was ransomed in Egypt. He established an academy in Cairo, were he was succeeded by his son, Rabbi Elchanan. As a result, Cairo, too, became a thriving Jewish community and an important center of Torah knowledge.
The message of this Divine Providence is clear: So long as the Torah is with us, we can survive any exile. And G-d Who loves us, makes sure that no matter where we find ourselves, His Torah will be right there with us to give us comfort and guidance.
NORTH AMERICA: THE LAST STOP OF OUR LONG AND BITTER EXILE
Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, a disciple of Rabbi Elijah of Vilna and spiritual leader of East European Jewry in the early 1800's, was once heard to comment prophetically that the Jewish people would have to go through ten successive exiles before the Messiah will arrive - these include Babylon, Spain, France, Germany, Poland and Russia - and that the last stop would be North America. And if Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin's predictions are anything like his co-religionist Moses' predictions, this means that we Jews here in America are here to stay .... well, at least until the Messiah arrives.
But as the old joke goes, there's good news and bad news:
The good news is that we don't have to look forward to being expelled from America and being sent to some distant land. This is it, folks. America is "the end of the line". No more exile. No more feeling like we don't belong and that we are foreigners in our own adopted country. America truly is the "melting pot" where all different ethnic groups, cultures and religions blend into one harmonious entity called American, and nobody can claim that he or she is the true American and that the other person is a "foreigner". But therein lies the bad news, and the great spiritual danger of this last exile of the Jewish people. Precisely because we Jews feel so at home in our non-Jewish surroundings here in America, we run the risk of totally assimilating ourselves out of existence. And, I must say - tragically - we are doing a really good job of it. v The specific challenge of the North American galus (exile) for our people is to be able to maintain our distinct identity and uniqueness as G-d's special nation - this at the same time that we find ourselves comfortably enmeshed in the greater non-Jewish society. And we just have to hang in there and keep the faith ... until the Messiah arrives and takes us back to our true home.