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Parsha Pearls: Nitzavim-Vayeilech

Not Like the Redemption Under Cyrus
G-d Favors the Underdog
Those Who Seek to Avoid Exile
Christianity, Mendelssohn and Herzl

And Hashem your G-d will bring back your captivity and have mercy on you, and He will once again gather you from all the nations where Hashem your G-d scattered you. (30:3)

The Abarbanel writes that we learn from this passage that at the time of the future redemption G-d Himself will bring back our exiles, in contrast to the time of the Second Temple when the Jews returned to Eretz Yisroel by the permission of the Persian emperor Cyrus. That settlement, since it was established at the command of a mortal human being, was temporary; it came to an end with the destruction of the Second Temple 420 years later. But the future settlement will be established by G-d Himself, and therefore it will be permanent. (Mashmia Yeshuah, Mevaser 2, Nevuah 3)

To attempt to restore the Jewish kingdom in Eretz Yisroel by the permission of a government, in a manner similar to the settlement sponsored by Cyrus, would not only be going against the promise written in these verses; it would be an outright violation of Jewish law. This is clear from the words of Rabbi Yisroel of Shklov in his halachic work Pe’as Hashulchan, Laws of Eretz Yisroel, Chapter 1, Section 3. There he quotes the words of the Rashbash (Responsa, #2): “There is no doubt that living in Eretz Yisroel is a great mitzvah at all times, both during and after the time of the Temple, and my grandfather the Ramban counted it as one of the mitzvos, as it says, ‘You shall take possession of it and live in it,’ and so is the opinion of my father the Rashbatz in his work Zohar Harakia… However, during exile this is not a general mitzvah for all Jews… it is a mitzvah for any individual to go up and live there, but if there are considerations that prevent him he is not obligated. For example, if reaching the Holy Land would involve dangerous travel through deserts or by sea, or if in his own country he has property and an income while in the Holy Land he might not have enough income, or if he has no money to pay for travel and will have to beg from others, he is not obligated.”

The Pe’as Hashulchan explains in a footnote: “The Rashbash wrote this because the Gemora says in Kesubos (111a) that the Jewish people were made to swear not to go up as a wall. If the mitzvah of settling the land were an obligation on every Jew, then all Jews would go there and this would be a violation of the oath. Therefore he explains that it is not an obligatory mitzvah, and thus if there are other considerations he should not do it. If his wife does not wish to come with him he should not divorce her and go, for perhaps he will not find another wife there, or perhaps he will find one but it will cost too much. The Sages even say that one may leave Eretz Yisroel to get married (Rambam Melachim 5:9) – certainly then one should not lose his wife by going there. Similarly if he has children and cannot leave them he should not go.” (Rabbi Yisroel of Shklov wrote these words after he had lost his parents, wife and four children in the plague that decimated the population of the Holy Land in 1813.)

Why did the Rashbash and the Pe’as Hashulchan see the oath as a reason to say that the mitzvah must not be obligatory? Why couldn’t they have answered simply that the oath forbids taking the land by force, but if the ruling power gives permission for any or all Jews to immigrate, they are obligated to come? Evidently it was obvious to them that the oath forbids any mass immigration, even with permission from the ruling power.

For Hashem will once again rejoice over you for good, as He rejoiced over your ancestors. (30:9)

Rabbi Aryeh Leib Kagan, son of the Chofetz Chaim, related that once someone read to the Chofetz Chaim a line from the Haskalah newspaper Hameilitz: “We hope that some day we will be like Bulgaria, which rose up from its lowly status as a Turkish province and is today [1908] an independent nation like all other nations.” The Chofetz Chaim cried and said, “Is it for this that our blood was spilled for 1800 years – in order to reach the level of Bulgaria? The Torah says, ‘And Hashem your G-d will bring you to the land that your ancestors inherited, and you will inherit it, and He will be good to you and make you more numerous than your ancestors’ (Devarim 30:5). And it states further: ‘For Hashem will once again rejoice over you for good, as He rejoiced over your ancestors’ (ibid. v. 9). And in the words of the prophets it is written, ‘And kings will be your babysitters, and their noblewomen your nurses; they will bow to the ground to you, and lick the dirt of your feet, and you will know that I am Hashem, and those who hope to Me will not be ashamed’ (Yishaya 49:23).

“Furthermore, we are promised that the Jewish people will repent, as it states, ‘And you will repent and hearken to the voice of Hashem and do all of His commandments’ (Devarim 30:8). And the prophet Yechezkel (36:24-27) explains this more: ‘And I will take you from the nations, and gather you from the lands, and bring you to your land. And I will splash upon you pure waters and you will become pure, from all your defilements and all your idols I will purify you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will place into you, and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh, and give you a heart of flesh. And My spirit I will place in your midst, and make you walk in My laws, and My ordinances you will keep and do.’ Similar prophecies are found in Yirmiyah (30:18) and Zecharya (8:7).” The Chofetz Chaim went on about this for a long time. (Kol Kisvei Chofetz Chaim, p. 78)

I call witness to you today heaven and earth: I have placed life and death before you, the blessing and the curse; and you shall choose life, so that you might live, you and your offspring. (30:19)

Rashi says: “The Holy One, blessed is He, said to Israel: Look at the heavens that I created to serve you. Have they ever changed their ways? Did the sun ever fail to rise from the east and light up the world? Look at the earth that I created to serve you. Did it ever change its ways? Did it ever fail to sprout when you planted it? Did it ever grow barley when you planted wheat? If the heavens and the earth, which are not rewarded or punished, never failed to do their jobs, then you who are promised reward or punishment should certainly keep the commandments of the Torah.”

The Midrash Rabbah on Shir Hashirim (2:7) says that when G-d imposed the terms of the exile on the Jewish people through an oath, He swore by the heavens and the earth. The Maharal explains this in a manner similar to the Rashi quoted above. The heavens and the earth keep to the order of nature decreed by G-d, never changing; in the same way the Jewish people must keep the order of exile decreed by G-d. And just as the heavens and earth, if they were to change their nature and order, would bring havoc and destruction to the world, so too if the Jewish people leaves the exile decreed on them by G-d it would mean destruction for them, G-d forbid. Therefore they must not violate the decree. (Netzach Yisroel, Chapter 24)

You stand here today before Hashem your G-d.” (Devarim 29:9)

Rashi (on v. 12) says: When Israel heard the 98 curses at the end of last week’s parsha, in addition to the 49 curses in Vayikra, their faces turned green and they said, “Who can survive these?” Moshe then began to comfort them: “You have already angered G-d a lot, yet He has not totally destroyed you. Just as the day gets brighter and darker at various times, so too G-d shined His light upon you and in the future will again shine His light upon you. These curses and afflictions are what keep you alive and allow you to stand before Him.”

Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman explained that the reason affliction allows the Jewish people to survive is because of the principle stated in the book of Koheles (3:15), “G-d looks after the pursued.”
“At a time when anti-Semites raise their voices against the Jewish people,” Rabbi Wasserman wrote in the 1930’s, “and advocate our total destruction, G-d forbid, then we begin to be persecuted and chased, and this triggers the principle that ‘G-d looks after the pursued’ – which applies no matter what, even when the pursuer is righteous and the pursued is wicked. G-d’s attribute of justice, whatever claims it may have against the Jewish people, cannot argue with this principle, it is silenced, and thus the Jews are saved from total destruction.

“We see from this that our whole strength and survival depends on us being in the role of the persecuted. G-d forbid for us to try to become persecutors! One of the three oaths that G-d made the Jewish people swear is “do not rebel against the nations” (Kesubos 111a). “Some come with chariots and some with horses, but we call in the name of Hashem our G-d.” (Tehillim 20:8) (Article entitled “The Calm Words of the Wise are Heard,” printed in Yalkut Maamarim Umichtavim, pp. 101-102)

The words of Rashi together with Rabbi Wasserman’s explanation seem to be a prophetic description of our era. After seeing the 98 curses – the terrible destruction experienced by European Jewry – many Jews said, “Who can survive these? We can no longer tolerate this exile. Let us found a state in order to prevent another Holocaust.” The Torah tells them, no! It is precisely the exile that allows you to survive. G-d takes care of the persecuted. If you turn the tables and become persecutors of other peoples, who knows if G-d will protect you?”

Lest there be among you a man or woman, family or tribe, whose heart turns aside from Hashem our G-d…and when he hears the words of this curse he will bless himself in his heart, saying, I will have peace, for I will walk in the waywardness of my heart…Hashem will not be willing to forgive him, for then the anger and jealousy of Hashem will burn against this man, and the entire curse written in this book will rest upon him, and Hashem will blot out his name from under the heavens. (Devarim 29:17-19)

The “curse” refers to the prophecy of exile in Devarim 28:15-68. If the entire Jewish people will go into exile, why does this man think he will avoid it by walking in the waywardness of his heart? And what does it mean that Hashem will punish this man by giving him the entire curse – did not the whole Jewish people receive this punishment of exile?

The Ksav Sofer resolves these problems by saying that the exile is atonement for the sins of the Jewish people, as we see in the Midrash (Bereishis Rabba 44:21) that Avraham Avinu chose the exile in lieu of Gehinom. By virtue of their suffering the exile, they are spared punishment in the World to Come. The wicked Jew says that by throwing off the yoke of Torah observance and assimilating with the gentiles, he will be able to escape from the suffering of exile. The Torah tells us here that not only will he not be successful, but he will lose his atonement as well. “Hashem will not be willing to forgive him” as he forgives the rest of the Jewish people when they suffer the exile. “The entire curse will rest upon him” – he will suffer the exile just like all the other Jews – “and Hashem will blot out his name from under the heavens” – he will be banned from the World to Come as well.

The Ksav Sofer is clearly referring to the Reformers and Maskilim of his time, who thought that Jews could alleviate their suffering by assimilation. However, the same would apply to Zionists, even religious ones, who think that they can throw off the yoke of exile on their own. According to the Ksav Sofer, they will suffer exile in spite of their efforts, and moreover they will not reap the benefits of exile: atonement and escape from Gehinom.

It is interesting to note that the Zionist movement gained momentum in the late 1800s among “repentant” Maskilim who saw that their movement was not helping to save them from exile. The Russian pogroms of the 1870s and 1880s, in which the attackers made no distinction between enlightened Jews and religious ones, forced them to rethink their position. But their solution was not to return to Torah, but rather to find another way to escape exile: by founding their own country and learning to fight.

Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik once described the transition from Haskalah to Nationalism in a letter: “Not only my grandfather [the Netziv] supported the founding of settlements in Eretz Yisroel, but I myself liked the idea for a long time; however, the actions of the students from Charkov caused me to withhold my support. I always remember that great day [Jan. 21, 1882] when the students of several universities gathered in the great synagogue of Kiev. They fasted all day and confessed their sins, that they had become estranged from Judaism. And they came out with the slogan, “House of Jacob, let us go!” If only there had been someone who had said at that high moment, “Let us return to Hashem! Come, brothers, let us begin to be careful about keeping Shabbos and kashrus.” Nothing of the sort. All of them remained the same irreligious people they had always been. They came to Eretz Yisroel and did not improve their ways even a bit. But they crowned Ben Yehuda as their teacher, and they spread in our holy land heresy and lawlessness. Certainly we must oppose Zionism.” (Printed in the periodical Digleinu, 5720, and in the book Mara D’ara Yisroel, v. 2 p. 18.)

Herzl too conceived of Zionism after observing anti-Semitism in France during the Dreyfus trial. Prior to that he had proposed other “solutions” to the problem of exile, such as assimilation and conversion to Christianity. But after the Dreyfus trial he understood that, as the Ksav Sofer says, assimilation will not solve the problem of anti-Semitism. Instead, he proposed another way of running away from exile, not realizing that his new plan was just as doomed to failure as his old plans.

The Shelah (Parshas Lech Lecha) quotes two Midrashim about the Four Exiles, one saying that they are alluded to in the first verses of Bereishis, and the other saying that they were shown to Avraham at the Covenant Between the Parts. The Shelah asks why these unhappy events had to be mentioned at such times. Seemingly, at a time when the world or the Jewish people is being built, the Torah should focus on the good, saving punishments and misfortune for another time.

He answers that since man is imperfect, the exiles are a necessary element of the building of the world and of the Jewish people. Just as in the laws of Shabbos, a destructive act is considered work only if it leads directly to a constructive act, so too the exile is ultimately not destructive but accomplishes the purification of the Jewish people and of the entire world, to prepare it for the purpose of creation, the messianic era.

We say in Tehillim (30:2), “I will exalt You, Hashem, for You have lifted me up (dilisani).” The Shelah (Parshas Balak) comments that the root letters daled-lamed have two meanings – poverty and uplifting – because the poverty, the misfortunes of exile, are the reason for future uplifting. The Jewish people are children of Hashem (Devarim 14:1), and even when Hashem is angry with us and brings destruction, it is for our own good. “As a man chastises his son, Hashem chastises you.” (Devarim 8:5) The purpose of the misfortunes is the purification in the refinery of the exile: to destroy sin and be clean, without impurities, for the future.

The Jewish people accepted several oaths, which contain the terms and regulations of exile. Rabbi Moshe Hager, the Kossover Rebbe (in Leket Ani, Chayei Olam), says that the reason for the oaths is that every Jew must accept upon himself the yoke of exile lovingly, until the time of the redemption arrives. The exile is of great importance, because it atones for the sin of Adam eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Furthermore, exile was chosen by Avraham Avinu at the Covenant Between the Parts to spare us from Gehinom. We must not try to force the hour, for in so doing we will really just be delaying the redemption – G-d will in any case make us return to exile to serve the remainder of our term.

With this in mind, says the Kossover Rebbe, we can explain the two versions of the text in Kesubos 111a as being identical in meaning. According to one version, G-d adjured the Jewish people not to force (yidchaku) the end of exile. According to the other version, the oath was not to delay (yerachaku) the end of exile. Seemingly these two versions are opposites, but according to the above, the oath forbids pushing for the end, since by so doing we will really be delaying the end.

And they will say on that day, Surely because my G-d is not in my midst, these evils have befallen me. But I will hide My face on that day, due to all the evil that they did, for they turned to other gods” (31:17-18).

The question is: if they are repenting and attributing their misfortunes to their sins, why does Hashem continue to hide His face from them? The Sforno explains that even when tragedies befall the Jews, they do not turn to Hashem for help. Rather “they try to escape through other means.” In other words, their repentance in the previous verse was only an admission of guilt, but not a resolve to change. For all intents and purposes, they still rely on their “other means.”

In Haazinu the Torah speaks more about these idols that Jews will rely on in the final stage of exile: And He will say, where are their gods, the rock in which they trusted, who ate the fat of their offerings, and drank the wine of their libations? Let them arise and help you, and be a shield to you! (32:37-38)

This prophecy about the final stage of exile foretells that the Jews will be worshipping idols at that time. Idolatry does not mean only the worship of statues – it means any denial of G-d’s control over the world and attribution of that control to other forces or entities. In that context Zionism, with its claim that the Jewish people are in exile only because of their own weakness and can redeem themselves on their own initiative and with their own power, is a form of idolatry.

When Moses Mendelssohn died in 1786, the Noda Biyehuda said that Mendelssohn had the recycled soul of the founder of Christianity. Both were Jews who brought a Jewish idolatry into the world and wrought great destruction. The Noda Biyehuda prayed (or, according to another version of the story, decreed) that the soul should never come back into the world again. When Herzl founded the political Zionist movement in 1897, the Shinnover Rebbe said, “The Noda Biyehuda’s prayer was evidently not accepted. He is back again!”

Similarly, Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk said, “Zionism is a second Christianity, and Herzl is much worse that the founder of Christianity.” (Om Ani Chomah, Sivan 5734, quoted in Mishkenos Haro’im p. 391)

The Shinnover added that Rabbi Chaim Vital found an allusion to the founder of Christianity in the verse, “If your brother, the son of your mother, entices you…” (Devarim 13:7). This refers to the Nazarene, who had a Jewish mother and a gentile father (based on the uncensored text of Shabbos 104b). The Shinnover said, “In his second gilgul, he will be “your friend who is like your own heart” as the verse about the enticer continues. In Yiddish, this translates to “dein hertzel’s friend.”

In the end of days, the Torah foretells in Parshas Nitzavim, the “last generation” of Jews, as well as “the gentile who comes from a faraway land,” will see the desolate condition of Eretz Yisroel and ask, “Why did Hashem do this to this land? Why was this great anger aroused?” And the answer will be that they worshipped idols (29:23-25). The Brisker Rav commented: The worst part of the tragedy described here is that the Jews will be just as ignorant as the gentiles as to what caused the Jewish people’s problems. But note that only the gentiles from faraway lands will be ignorant; the gentiles from Eretz Yisroel will know well what the problem is.

What should the few remaining loyal Jews do under such conditions? Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman addresses this question: “At a time like this, such as there never was in all of Jewish history, what should we do? Should we despair of doing anything to change the situation, sit back and wait for Hashem to have mercy and bring back His people? G-d forbid to think so! The Mishnah at the end of Sotah (49b) says, ‘Just before the coming of moshiach, chutzpah will increase… the government will be transformed into heresy, and there will be no one who can rebuke…the wisdom of the sages will become rotten, those who fear sin will be despised, truth will be absent…and what will we have to rely on? Our Father in heaven.’ They say in the name of Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner that just as the rest of the Mishnah lists bad things that will happen, these last words are also a bad thing, the worst of all the curses: that the Jews who fear sin at that time will give up hope and stop fighting the war of Hashem, saying, ‘We will rely on our Father in heaven.’ But this is a terrible mistake. Scripture calls out to us (Tehillim 68:35), ‘Give strength to G-d.’” (Omer Ani Maasai Lamelech, paragraph 7)

In another place, Rabbi Elchonon elaborates on this theme, “Can we fulfill our obligations by saying ‘we have no one to rely upon but our Father in heaven’? He promised us that the Torah would never be forgotten from the Jewish people (Devarim 31:21). Can we simply rely on this promise? True, we have complete faith that impurity will lose its war against holiness, as Scripture says, ‘I will cause the spirit of impurity to pass from the earth’ (Zechariah 13:2). ‘And I will sprinkle on you pure water, and you will be purified’ (Yechezkel 36:25). But this does not exempt us from our obligations.

“As an analogy, if a man were drowning, would anyone ask: ‘What is the point of saving him? We believe that no one even hurts his finger unless it was decided in Heaven that he should hurt it (Chullin 7b). So if it was decreed that this man should die, it will not help to save him, and if was not decreed, he will surely be saved without my help. Hashem has many emissaries.’ This logic is flawed, because we have no business looking into Hashem’s secrets. We must do what we were commanded to do, and let Hashem do what He wishes (Berachos 10a). One must save a drowning man as if his life were dependent only on him. One who refrains from saving him based on the above logic is considered a shedder of blood. The same applies to our subject: we are obligated to save the Torah and the Jewish people, and to act as if Hashem had never promised us anything at all.” (New Kovetz Maamarim, v. 1 p. 237).