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The Book of Isaiah and the Unintended History of Israel, Part 3

September 3, 2013

The words of Hazal are full of examples of detours taken in our history (or our futures) the most important being the fulfillment of the prophecies of the exiles and destruction not having to come true if we had not sinned. The next one that comes to mind is the idea that had the Babylonian exiles returned en masse at the beginning of the Second Temple era, it would have heralded a new era of miracles, or that the Second Temple would have remained. Now, although there is an idea that the Jews were not supposed to leave the exile, and this idea was ignored by the halachic decisors throughout the ages, as Rabbi Bar Hayim points out, we see that as late as the Third Century, fully eight centuries after the building of the Second Temple and centuries after its demise, Reish Lakish laid the blame for the commonwealth’s destruction at the feet of the Babylonian Jews. The message: the responsibility of the exiles to return was not temporary. Rather, it was constant, and still in force in Reish Lakish’s day, and therefore, even until today. This point was taken well by men like Rabbi Yehuda Halevi and the Vilna Gaon, who realized that it was Israel’s responsibility to pick themselves up and leave the exile for the land of israel, and they themselves sought to do so. 

 (Hazal point out that it is a Mitzva to heed the words of the prophets, and Nathan himself sought to have his own prophecies fulfilled by facilitating Solomon’s succession of David. So too, it is incumbent upon us to act to fulfill the prophecies of the Redemption and the return to the land. I do not believe that this important point features in mainstream Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionist educational curricula.)

No mitzva ever ceased to be applicable. Rather, some were just temporarily impossible to fulfill. Thus, the commandments to settle the land and build the Temple are still incumbent upon us, especially now that it is in our hands to fulfill them.

How should a good English edition of the Mishna translate the word gola? Diaspora or exile? The practical difference bewteen the two terms is that exile is the root cause, and only persists as long as the gentile captor forces us off our land, and the diaspora is what results when we elect to stay there. Based on the classic line from the holiday  musaf service, “umipnei hatta’einu galinu mei’artzeinu, w’nithrahaqnu mei’al adhmatheinu,” “and because of our sins we were exiled from our country, and we have become distanced from our land,” the propper translation of gola is exile, and the persistent and elective diaspora is properly equivalent to the Hebrew hithrahaquth, (self) distancing.

 I would like to suggest that Hazal felt that the original descent to Egypt was another of these unnecessary historical digressions. There are a few midrashim that blame it on the animosity between Jacob’s sons, as a form of punishment, indicating that Plan A was for our ancestors to have stayed in the land. There is an important and overlooked understanding of the book of Genesis, espescially because of the opinion that Abraham was promised the land and was tested by never seeing it become his in his lifetime. Not all lists of his tests are in agreement. However, if you read between the lines, you will notice that in reality, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were leaders of large communitites, and spent the greater part of two centureis laying claim to the land, mainly by purchase and settlement. (This is also the claim of many archeologists. The Hebrew penetration into the land was gradual , and did not happen at once in Jopsua’s days. this is pointed out in a few places by the daat mikra commentary.) I have found an interesting support for this idea, namely that the children of Israel should not have ended up enslaved in Egypt. When Abraham was by all accounts less than 86 years old and was told in Genesis (15:13-16) that he would be given the land, “and the fourth generation shall return here, for the sin of the Amorite is not yet complete,” it could have been referring to Jacob’s sons, who were born out of the land and returned as children. The “sin of the Amorite” whIch at that time was incomplete, became complete some years later, when Abraham was 99 years old and when G-d started to push out the Sodomites (ibid., chapter 19), the southern-most Canaanites (ibid., 10:19. That is, Jacob’s sons were to receive the entire land as theirs, and even worked themselves to conquer a large territory that cmae to be known as the Land of the Hebrews, but when the nucleus of the family left to Egypt, it was all mostly undone.

I would like to suggest that the sole reason why Caleb chose to pray at Hebron, in the cave of the Patriarchs according to Hazal, was not because it is necessarily proper to pray at graves. In reality, it is wrong to do so. Maimonides (Mourning 4:4) and the Vilna Gaon (in his farewell letter to his wife) agree on this point, and for me that is the best way to identify a true halacha. If Rambam and the Gra agree on something, you can bet that it is correct. Rather, it was because the Canaanites set idols “on the high mountains, on the hills, and under every leafy tree” (Deuteronomy 12:2) and there was nowhere except the ancient family burial plot, which the Canaanites ignored, for him to pray in the absence of idols.

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