Exile from the Land, and from the Earth: Nitzavim/Vayelekh 5774

Yearning to enter and inhabit the land is the great desire that suffuses Deuteronomy; fear of exile is the dark counterpart that lurks insistently by its side. Midrash Sifre (Ekev, piska 43) says that, “exile is equal to all other afflictions.” Indeed, the experience of exile has been the all-too-real nightmare of Israel, though paradoxically, exile has also been a source of blessing over the course of our millennia. Chancellor Eisen explores these themes in his 1986 book, Galut: Modern Jewish Reflection on Homelessness and Homecoming: “In order to teach humanity the truth about blessing and ownership, God deprives Israel of a normal, continuing relation to blessing, much as He from time to time closes human wombs. Exile from home, uprooted from their very own piece of earth, they can learn what has to be learned—the Source from which blessing, like earth, is derived.” (p.15)

Parashat Nitzavim highlights the opposite states of exile and return, warning Israel that national sin will lead inexorably to national exile, but that national repentance will awaken divine mercies and cause God to take the people back home in love. Chapter 29 concludes with the consequence of Israel’s betrayal of the covenant: “The Lord uprooted them from their soil in anger, fury and great wrath, and cast them (וַיַּשְׁלִכֵם) into another land, as is still the case.” Here Moses is has skipped through several chapters in Israel’s future history—past the conquest of the land that will occur in the days of Joshua, and on to the exiles of the northern tribes (which occurred in 722 BCE) and the southern kingdom (which occurred in 586 BCE), and then even further, to the return to Zion. 

Modern Bible scholars conclude that this text, with its anachronistic reference, “as is still the case,” (lit. “like this day”) obviously was written after the Babylonian exile, but ancient sages have no trouble attributing prophetic powers to Moses. Their question relates to the restoration. While the southern kingdom of Judah was indeed restored, with a second temple rebuilt on the site of the first in Jerusalem, what about the ten lost tribes of Israel? Will they too be brought home? In Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:3, our verse is cited to prove that the ten tribes of Israel will never return. Rabbi Akiva proves this pessimistic point with the verse’s phrase “like this day”—just as this day once gone will never return, so too are the ten tribes gone forever. Rabbi Eliezer reads the same phrase optimistically: just as this day will grow dark, but the light will return tomorrow, so too the ten tribes who are hidden now will be revealed in the future.

In the Bavli,  the optimistic and pessimistic positions are harmonized, with both dependent on repentance. If the deeds of Israel remain sinful then they will never return, but if they repent, then they will be returned. Indeed, chapter 30 of Deuteronomy promises just such a restoration. If you return to God, then God will return to you, gathering you in “from the end of the heavens” and bringing you lovingly home.

It is odd that Rabbi Akiva plays the pessimist in this passage, since he is otherwise optmisitic about Israel’s fortunes. Rabbi Yohanan says, “Rabbi Akiva has abandoned his compassion,” שבקה רבי עקיבא לחסידותיה. But perhaps R’ Akiva is just being realistic. By his day, nearly a millennium had passed since the ten tribes were dispersed by the Assyrians. And now, it is already 27 centuries. Still, we have the famous verse of Isaiah 27:13 that on “that day the great shofar will be blown, and those who were lost in Assyria…will come back to bow down to the Lord on the holy mount, in Jerusalem.” Indeed, there are tribes of people in remote regions such as the Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur that claim to be descendants of Menashe, eager to return to Israel.

We don’t know what will happen to these ancient exiles and whether we can ever expect them to rejoin Israel. Given the events of the past century, one should not rule it out. However, what we do know is that the threat of exile from “the land” remains a very real concern, both for the State of Israel, which has been besieged so steadily for its entire existence, and more generally, for people all over the globe who are threatened by accelerating climate change. I will not develop this message in depth here—that is the focus of my sermon for Day One of Rosh HaShanah—but I will say that the words of Deuteronomy seem appropriate to the dangers that face us all as human cities are threatened by rising oceans, food supplies are threatened by desertification, and frightening new diseases such as ebola are threatening all with terrifying virulence.

We need to act differently, that much is clear, especially in the ways that we produce and consume energy. But we also need to shift our consciousness through study, prayer, and fellowship. This is why I am spending the hours before and after Shabbat this week at the Religions for the Earth conference at Union Theological Seminary, including our interfaith Selihot program on Saturday night, and the People’s Climate March on Sunday. Somehow we need to mobilize all people of faith to take the fear of exile from the earth as seriously as Deuteronomy teaches it, and turn our hearts back to the Creator, choosing life for ourselves and our descendants.

ספרי דברים פרשת עקב פיסקא מג ד”ה דבר אחר

דבר אחר וחרה אף ה’, אחר כל היסורים שאני מביא עליכם אני מגלה אתכם, קשה גלות ששקולה כנגד הכל שנאמר +שם /דברים/ כט כז+ ויתשם ה’ מעל אדמתם באף ובחימה ובקצף גדול וישליכם אל ארץ אחרת כיום הזה

דברים פרק כט, כז

(כז) וַיִּתְּשֵׁם יְקֹוָק מֵעַל אַדְמָתָם בְּאַף וּבְחֵמָה וּבְקֶצֶף גָּדוֹל וַיַּשְׁלִכֵם אֶל־אֶרֶץ אַחֶרֶת כַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה:

 משנה מסכת סנהדרין פרק י משנה ג

עשרת השבטים אינן עתידין לחזור שנאמר (דברים כ”ט) וישליכם אל ארץ אחרת כיום הזה מה היום הזה הולך ואינו חוזר אף הם הולכים ואינם חוזרים דברי רבי עקיבא רבי אליעזר אומר מה היום מאפיל ומאיר אף עשרת השבטים שאפל להן כך עתיד להאיר להן:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת סנהדרין דף קי עמוד ב

גמרא, תנו רבנן: עשרת השבטים אין להם חלק לעולם הבא, שנאמר ויתשם ה’ מעל אדמתם באף ובחמה ובקצף גדל. ויתשם ה’ מעל אדמתם – בעולם הזה, וישלכם אל ארץ אחרת – לעולם הבא, דברי רבי עקיבא. רבי שמעון בן יהודה איש כפר עכו אומר משום רבי שמעון: אם מעשיהם כיום הזה – אינן חוזרין, ואם לאו – חוזרין. רבי אומר: באים הם לעולם הבא, שנאמר ביום ההוא יתקע בשופר גדול וגו’. אמר רבה בר בר חנה אמר רבי יוחנן: שבקה רבי עקיבא לחסידותיה, שנאמר הלך וקראת את הדברים האלה צפונה ואמרת שובה משבה ישראל נאם ה’ לוא אפיל פני בכם כי חסיד אני נאם ה’ לא אטור לעולם.

רש”י מסכת סנהדרין דף קי עמוד ב

שבקיה ר’ עקיבא לחסידותיה – שרגיל לזכות את ישראל והשתא מחייב להו, דאמר לעיל /סנהדרין/ (קח, א): דור המדבר אין להם חלק לעולם הבא, ולקמן מפרש מאי חסידותיה.

שנאמר הלוך וקראת – כלומר שהרי היה יכול לדרוש שיש להם חלק [לעולם הבא] דכתיב הלוך וקראת וגו’.

דברים פרק ל, א-ו

(א) וְהָיָה כִי־יָבֹאוּ עָלֶיךָ כָּל־הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ וַהֲשֵׁבֹתָ אֶל־לְבָבֶךָ בְּכָל־הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר הִדִּיחֲךָ יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ שָׁמָּה: (ב) וְשַׁבְתָּ עַד־יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ וְשָׁמַעְתָּ בְקֹלוֹ כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר־אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם אַתָּה וּבָנֶיךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל־ נַפְשֶׁךָ: (ג) וְשָׁב יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת־שְׁבוּתְךָ וְרִחֲמֶךָ וְשָׁב וְקִבֶּצְךָ מִכָּל־הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר הֱפִיצְךָ יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ שָׁמָּה: (ד) אִם־יִהְיֶה נִדַּחֲךָ בִּקְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִם מִשָּׁם יְקַבֶּצְךָ יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ וּמִשָּׁם יִקָּחֶךָ: (ה) וֶהֱבִיאֲךָ יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶל־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר־יָרְשׁוּ אֲבֹתֶיךָ וִירִשְׁתָּהּ וְהֵיטִבְךָ וְהִרְבְּךָ מֵאֲבֹתֶיךָ: (ו) וּמָל יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת־לְבָבְךָ וְאֶת־לְבַב זַרְעֶךָ לְאַהֲבָה אֶת־יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ לְמַעַן חַיֶּיךָ:

ישעיהו פרק כז, יג

(יג) וְהָיָה בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא יִתָּקַע בְּשׁוֹפָר גָּדוֹל וּבָאוּ הָאֹבְדִים בְּאֶרֶץ אַשּׁוּר וְהַנִּדָּחִים בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם וְהִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לַיקֹוָק בְּהַר הַקֹּדֶשׁ בִּירוּשָׁלִָם: