Light from the Sidra


Deuteronomy 29:9 - 30:20

The Jewish people occupy a unique place among the nations of the world. Israel is the only nation with which the Creator of the universe has entered into a covenant. Therefore Jews, among all people, should know that nothing happens to them by accident. Whatever befalls Israel, for apparent good or evil, has a purpose. And because of God’s covenant, Israel will continue to endure as a nation.

In the light of our Sidra, it is astonishing that any Jew could ever refuse to believe in the divine inspiration of the Bible or claim to be an atheist. In these verses history is written before the event. God reveals that if Israel breaks his covenant, he will scatter the nation and make the land desolate. But, because of his own faithfulness to his covenant with Abraham, he will bring the people back from exile. The fulfilment of these prophecies is now a matter of history. We know that Israel was exiled to Babylon but returned under the leadership of Ezra, Nehemiah and Zerubbabel.

But Israel was to suffer exile again. After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE the nation was scattered and remained without a national homeland and a temple for almost 1,900 years. There are rabbis and Jewish thinkers who consider Israel to be still in exile so long as the majority of the Jews live outside the borders of Israel. In view of its length and magnitude, this second exile, the galut, must be more significant than the Babylonian exile.

Israel’s Babylonian captivity was the consequence of the nation’s unfaithfulness to God’s covenant:

And the generation to come, your children that shall rise up after you, and the foreigner that shall come from a far land, shall say, when they see the plagues of that land, and the sicknesses wherewith the LORD hath made it sick; and that the whole land thereof is brimstone, and salt, and a burning, that it is not sown, nor beareth, nor any grass groweth therein, like the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which the LORD overthrew in his anger, and in his wrath; even all the nations shall say “Wherefore hath the LORD done thus unto this land? what meaneth the heat of this great anger?”

Then men shall say, “Because they forsook the covenant of the LORD, the God of their fathers, which he made with them when he brought them forth out of the land of Egypt; and went and served other gods, and worshipped them, gods that they knew not, and that he had not allotted unto them; therefore the anger of the LORD was kindled against this land, to bring upon it all the curse that is written in this book; and the LORD rooted them out of their land in anger, and in wrath, and in great indignation, and cast them into another land, as it is this day” (29:22-28, JPS translation).

The Babylonian exile lasted seventy years, during which time Israel was without a temple, a priesthood or sacrifices. As soon as the captives returned, their priority was to recommence the sacrificial system, even though the temple was still in ruins (Ezra 3:1-2) and the walls of the city remained broken.

For the best part of 2,000 years the Jewish people have again been without a temple, a priesthood and atoning sacrifices. What sin could account for such punishment? What did the Jewish people of the second temple period do to provoke the God of heaven to remove their sanctuary and cast them out of the land for nineteen centuries?

The Babylonian Talmud asks the same question in Yoma 9b, “But why was the second sanctuary destroyed, seeing that in its time they were occupying themselves with Torah, [observance of] precepts, and the practice of charity? Because therein prevailed hatred without cause. That teaches you that groundless hatred is considered as of even gravity with the three sins of idolatry, immorality and bloodshed together”.

Who did those who occupied themselves with the observance of Torah hate “without cause”? The prophet Daniel foretold that before the destruction of Jerusalem “an anointed one [Mashiach – Messiah] [would] be cut off [executed], and be no more; and the people of a prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary” (Daniel 9:26 JPS). Isaiah prophesied that Messiah would be “despised and rejected” by his own people (Isaiah 53:3).

These prophecies came to pass in the days of the second temple. Israel’s greatest sin was to reject the Messiah. But the good news is that the Messiah has not rejected Israel. God still loves the Jewish people for the sake of his covenant and, by a wonderful divine irony, the “cutting off” of the Messiah actually opened the way for Israel and the world to find atonement, wholeness and acceptance with God.

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