Light from the Sidra

Ki Tavo ('When you have come') 5th September 2015 21st Ellul 5775

Torah: Deuteronomy 26:10-29:8(9). Haftarah: Isaiah 60:1-22

Tsuris upon tsuris

I liked the former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. He seemed to me to be the people’s Chief Rabbi: an intellectual but possessing the common touch. I admired the way he owned Richard Dawkins when they engaged in a televised debate over The God Delusion but Dr Sacks always seemed to me to be a moral philosopher rather than a spiritual leader.

The day after his installation as Chief Rabbi, Dr Sacks expressed the opinion on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day spot 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 former 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 that makes the plagues of Egypt pale into insignificance. Israel is a blessed nation. But with privileges come responsibilities, ‘You alone did I know from among the families of the earth; therefore I will hold you to account 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 will know the reasons and the remedy. When Jewish people complain that they have suffered throughout history, they are admitting 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, suffering and exile from the land. If the Jewish people had been faithful to their covenant with HASHEM they would have never suffered the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles. ‘If you had hearkened to My commandments, your peace would [flow] 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 Israel for their sins and has kept his promise. If the Jewish people had not suffered so much it would mean that 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 to HASHEM and he saved them. In the days of Elijah, God made the heavens over their heads as ‘copper’ and the land beneath 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 the Saviour to deliver the people. Jesus warned Jerusalem of the horrors of siege, famine and crucifixion that were waiting around the corner, and to save the city from that fate and the far worse judgement that follows death Jesus took upon himself the judgement that was 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 in 33 CE, 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 HASHEM!’— ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of HASHEM!

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