May 26, 2016
In his commentary on this week’s sedra, Abarbanel explains why the Torah states that even after they have confessed their sins, God will punish the Jewish people.
He proves his thesis with several verses from the prophets.
At the end of the long series of curses that are predicted to befall the Jewish nation if it fails to keep the Torah, a curious, seemingly self-contradictory paragraph appears:
“Then they will confess their sin and the sin of their forefathers, for the treachery with which they betrayed Me, and also for having behaved toward Me with casualness. I, too, will behave toward them with casualness and I will bring them into the land of their enemies — perhaps then their unfeeling heart will be humbled and then they will gain appeasement for their sin.” (Vayikra 26:40-41)
Why is God telling them that after repentance, rather than experiencing God’s mercy, they will end up suffering an even harsher punishment?
The Abarbanel teaches us that the verse is referring to the generations of the second Beit Hamikdash. Even though the people confessed their sins, they never really changed their behaviour. Besides repeating the transgressions of previous generations, they also behaved with casualness, meaning that they attributed their punishments to coincidence and happenstance rather than Divine Providence. In order to eliminate these transgressions they would be sent into the exile of Rome — “perhaps then their unfeeling heart will be humbled.”
In effect, if the nation does not mend its ways absolutely, then exile will be required to achieve that goal.
How long that exile will last depends on their behaviour. As the verse in Isaiah states, “In its time I will hasten it.” (Isaiah 60:22) This means if they merit it, God will hasten the redemption. Otherwise, it will come “in its time.”
In the next paragraph the Torah returns to its prediction of the first exile which will follow the destruction of the first Beit Hamikdash:
“I will remember my covenant with Jacob and also my covenant with Isaac, and also my covenant with Abraham I will remember, and I will remember the Land. The Land will be bereft of them; and it will be appeased for its sabbaticals, having become desolate of them; and they must gain appeasement for their iniquity; because they were revolted by My ordinances and because their spirit rejected My decrees.” (Vayikra 26:42-43)
The exalted merit of the forefathers stands in contrast to the insult to the Land that will result from the failure to observe the years of Shemita and Yovel, when, in general, agriculture activities are forbidden. The Land will “repay” them by becoming “desolate of them”. The verse then continues, “They must gain appeasement for their iniquity.” This is in reference to other transgressions that were not the main cause of the Babylonian exile but were present during both the first Beit Hamikdash and during the second Beit Hamikdash, and resulted in the long exile following the destruction of the second Beit Hamikdash. These included idolatry, immorality, murder, theft and desecration of the Shabbat. Because they attached even more transgressions to those of the earlier generations, their exile would be longer and more difficult.
However, in order that we shouldn’t think that this last exile will be unending, without any hope for a rebirth, the Torah states, “Despite all this, while they will be in the Land of their enemies I will not have been revolted by them nor will I have rejected them to obliterate them. I am Hashem your God.” (Vayikra 26:44)
Even though Bnei Yisrael has broken their side of the covenant, God does not break His promise. This is expressed by the prophet Malachi, “I, God, have not changed, and you, Bnei Yisrael, have not perished.” (Malachi 3:6)
Because of this, God says “I will remember for them the covenant of the ancients, those whom I have taken out of the land of Egypt” with signs and wonders and miracles, “to be God unto them — I am Hashem.” (Vayikra 26:45)
God is promising to do the same at the end of our current long exile: “Like the days of your leaving Egypt, I will show My wonders.” (Malachi 7:15)