Light from the Sidra

Ki Tavo

Deuteronomy 26:1 - 29:8

The day after his installation as Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Dr Jonathan Sacks expressed the opinion, on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, that the Jews have survived as a people because “the final chapter has not yet been written”. Maybe I misunderstood Dr Sacks, but in the light of this week’s Sidra, it was a little surprising to discover that the spiritual leader of Britain’s Jewish community appeared to believe that Israel’s survival is due to there being no ultimate purpose for the nation. If the last chapter has not been written, Israel’s future still hangs in the balance.

In view of this week’s Sidra the Chief Rabbi might have something to worry about. In Deuteronomy 28, fourteen verses list the blessing God promises to Israel for obedience to his commands, while the remaining 54 verses consist of a catalogue of terrifying judgements for disobedience that make the plagues of Egypt pale into insignificance. Israel is a blessed nation. But with privileges come responsibilities, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for your iniquities” (Amos 3:2).

The exhaustive list of punishments indicates that disobedience to God is a serious matter that deserves to be punished severely and, secondly, that Israel should know exactly what the penalties for disobedience are so that when she suffers she knows the reasons and the remedy. When Jewish people complain that they have suffered throughout history, they betray the fact that they are ignorant of this passage of Scripture. Deuteronomy states in no uncertain terms that faithfulness to the covenant will result in Israel’s blessing and prosperity, while covenant breaking will be followed by untold misery and suffering and exile from the land. If the Jewish people had been faithful to their covenant with the LORD they would have never suffered the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles. “Oh, that you had heeded My commandments! Then your peace would have been like a river, and your righteousness like the waves of the sea” (Isaiah 48:18).

But the picture for Israel is not totally bleak. The fact that Israel has suffered appallingly over the centuries is evidence that God has remained faithful to his covenant and to them. He promised to punish the people for their sins and he has kept his promise. If the Jewish people had not suffered so much it would mean the final chapter had been written and the book closed. Israel’s sufferings are evidence that God has not given up on his covenant nor on them. Israel has not ceased to be the chosen people of God.

In the period of the Judges the people became locked into a cycle of sin and suffering. They sinned and suffered the consequences; they made supplication and God saved them. In the days of Elijah, God made “the heavens as bronze and the earth as iron”, as stated in Deuteronomy 28:23. In fulfilment of God’s threat, the northern tribes went into exile to be followed later by the kingdom of Judah.

After the cataclysmic destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 CE Israel was scattered throughout all nations and, to this day, the majority of Jews remain in the Galut. Jewish history since then has been one of unremitting misery: the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Pogroms, the Shoah, and the Intifadas.

God has remained faithful to his covenant just as Israel has, tragically, remained unfaithful. How can the nation break out of the cycle of sin and suffering? In the biblical period God sent saviours to deliver his people and in the generation that saw the destruction of the temple God sent a Saviour to deliver the people. Jesus warned Jerusalem of the horrors of siege, famine and crucifixion that were waiting around the corner for the nation, and to save the city from that fate and the far worse judgement that follows death he took upon himself the judgement due to the nation. He endured crucifixion and separation from God in order that Jerusalem might not. When Jesus entered Jerusalem for the final time he lamented that the city did not know the time of its visitation. If only the city knew “the things that made for their peace…” But they did not. The authorities rejected the claims of Jesus and suffered the consequences. But because of the affliction endured by Israel’s Messiah, Jesus, there is hope for the nation and just as Jesus predicted the destruction of Jerusalem, he foretold that there would come a day when the nation would recognise him and welcome him saying, “Baruch haba b’shem Adonai!” — “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!”

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