Light from the Sidra

Nitzavim ('You are taking a stand') 12th September 2015 27th Ellul 5775

Torah: Deuteronomy 29:9(10)-30:20* Isaiah 610-63:9.

What did we do to deserve this?

How is it that people don’t expect God to lay down regulations, rules and laws? In this world you can’t learn to drive without following rules. You can’t play soccer, cricket or chess without following rules. You can’t rent a property without agreeing to terms and conditions that oblige you to look after the place. By doing that you and the owner of the property have a degree of security. If you do what the contract says you can live in the place with peace of mind; if you don’t do what you agreed to, you’re out. We readily sign up to human agreements and follow the rules of human institutions but we resent it when the Creator of the universe tells us how to live in the world he has given us. Go figure.

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. And part of the covenant arrangement was that if Israel was faithful to the covenant they could live in his land; but if they broke the arrangements of the covenant they would be evicted from the land. What’s the problem in that?

The Jews, of 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 unilateral covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Israel will continue to endure as a nation.

But in the light of this week’s Sidra, it is astonishing that any Jewish person could ever be an atheist or not be convinced of the divine inspiration of the Bible. In these verses history is written before the events of which they speak. God reveals that if Israel breaks his covenant, he will evict them from the land, scatter them and make the land desolate. But, because of his faithfulness to the covenant, he will bring them back from exile. The fulfilment of these prophecies is now a matter of history. About a thousand years after Moses wrote Deuteronomy, in accordance with this week’s Torah reading, Israel was exiled to Babylon but returned seventy years later under the leadership of Ezra, Nehemiah and Zerubbabel.

But Israel was to suffer another exile. After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE the nation was once again 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 any Jews live outside the borders of Israel. In view of the length and magnitude of the second exile – the Galut – is be more significant than the Babylonian exile.

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

The later generation will say —your children who will arise after you and the foreigner who will come from a distant land — when they will see the plagues of that Land and the illnesses with which HASHEM has afflicted it: sulphur and salt, a conflagration of the entire Land, it cannot be sown and it cannot sprout; and no grass shall rise up on it; like the upheaval of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which HASHEM overturned in His anger and wrath. And all the nations will say ‘For what reason did HASHEM do so to this Land: why this wrathfulness of great anger?’

And they will say, ‘Because they forsook the covenant of HASHEM, the God of their forefathers, that he sealed with them when he took them out of the land of Egypt; and went and served the gods of others and prostrated themselves to them — gods they knew not and he did not apportion to them. So God’s anger flared against that Land, to bring upon it the entire curse that is written in this Book; and HASHEM removed them from upon their soil, with anger, with wrath, and with great fury, and He cast them to another land, as this very day” (Deut 29:21-28).

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 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 HASHEM 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 in 70 CE, ‘the anointed one’ (Mashiach) would be ‘cut off’ [executed]… and the people of a prince will come will destroy the city and the Sanctuary’ (Daniel 9:26). The prophet Isaiah foretold that Messiah, whose coming Jewish people pray for, 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. One astonishing evidence of his faithfulness to Israel is the fact that for almost seventy years Israel has existed as a sovereign Jewish state in the Middle East.

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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