September 22, 2016
In this week’s sedra, we find the second set of maledictions. Abarbanel, statesman and historian, as to be expected cannot help but explain them in their historical context.
In Devarim 28:49-68 the Torah enumerates a series of catastrophic events that will befall the Jewish People in the future if they stray from their observance of the Torah.
Abarbanel points out that these specific verses are an uncannily accurate prediction of the catastrophic revolt against the Romans that culminated in the destruction of the Second Temple and the subsequent exile in the year 70 C.E. He refers to eight specific situations, many of which are also discussed by the Jewish historian Josephus:
The verses specifically refer to the severity of the famine which resulted from the sieges imposed by the Romans. This was clearly the main reason for their success.
These sieges lasted for a considerable length of time and resulted in mothers consuming their offspring — a fact which Josephus also clearly records. Even those who did not die in battle or succumb to starvation were racked by disease.
Verse 62 states, “You will be left few in number, instead of being like the stars of heaven in abundance.” This is a reference both to the enormous loss of life and to the wretched condition of the survivors. Josephus records that over 800,000 people were removed from Jerusalem alone to be buried outside the walls of the city.
Unlike the previous Babylonian exile, where for the most part the Jews lived separately and peacefully, the Roman exile would result in their being scattered amongst foreign peoples, making it very difficult to maintain their identity.
The Torah indicates that the exiles will serve “gods you did not know, you or your forefathers.” Unlike the previous exile during which many lapsed into idolatries with which they were already familiar, this worship is in reference to Christianity, which came into existence only after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.
The verse continues, “And among the nations you will not be tranquil; there will be no rest for the sole of your foot.” Even though you will assimilate and even worship their gods, you will have no peace, because they will always suspect you of harboring Jewish beliefs and customs.
Abarbanel clearly indicates that he is referring to his own experiences in Spain, where Jewish converts to Christianity and their descendants were hounded for some three hundred years. He points out that there is a “silver-lining” here in that this is one of the ways that God employs to keep us from straying too far. The suspicions of the non-Jews will “push us back” to the path of Judaism.
The trials and tribulations of exile will produce constant fear and uncertainty which will produce a longing for redemption. We will have no rest, for in the day we will look forward to the night and in the night we will look forward to the day. This refers not only to the fully observant, but even to those who assimilate and have attained wealth and status. The non-Jews will always be their enemies, and their security will always be precarious — “the sword will always be against their necks.”
The Torah states, “God will return you to Egypt in ships…and there you will offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as slaves and maidservants…but there will be no buyers.” This is an indication of the shame and disgrace that the Jews will endure. They will offer themselves as slaves so as to at least avoid starvation. But they wouldn’t be purchased for two reasons: One, even though food in Egypt was cheap and plentiful, the Egyptians didn’t want to spend anything at all on the Jews. Two, the Egyptians didn’t want a repeat of what had happened earlier in history when we were enslaved and then rose up against our masters. Thus, we were doomed to die of starvation.
Abarbanel again finds a silver-lining in that God prevented us from becoming a caste of slaves, serving even the lowest elements of non-Jewish society as occurred among the Arab and African peoples. Instead, throughout our history we have remained honored servants and advisors to kings, officers and important members of non-Jewish society.