Israel’s Destiny

Behold, I place before you today a blessing and a curse. (Devarim 11:26)[1] 

The Talmud, in Mesechet Ketubot, relates a tragic incident that occurred after the destruction of the Temple. Raban Yochanan ben Zakai and his students were traveling from Yerushalayim. The group came upon a poor woman. In order to sustain herself, she was searching the droppings of animals for undigested kernels of grain. Upon seeing Raban Yochanan ben Zakai, the woman rose and asked him for charity. The two entered into a conversation. It was soon discovered that this impoverished beggar was the daughter of Nakdimon ben Guryon. This man had been one of the most wealthy and respected citizens of Yerushalayim. With the destruction of Yerushalayim, the family had lost everything. The once indulged daughter was reduced to the most desperate poverty.

Raban Yochanan ben Zakai proclaimed, “Happy are you, Yisrael. When you fulfill the will of Hashem, no nation has power over you. And when you do not fulfill the will of Hashem, you are delivered into the hands of the lowest nation. You are even delivered to the animals of this nation.”[2]

Raban Yochanan ben Zakai was clearly contrasting the previous glory of the Jewish people with the remarkable ravages that followed the Churban – the destruction of the Temple. He also explained that the fate of the nation is determined by obedience to Hashem. If the Torah is observed, no nation, regardless of its power, can subjugate Bnai Yisrael. If the Torah is disregarded, we become the lowliest of nations. The difficulty with Raban Yochanan ben Zakai’s statement is that he introduces it as a happy tiding. He tells us we should be pleased to discover both the heights to which we can rise and the depths to which we can fall. It is encouraging to know that we can achieve remarkable success. But the assurance that our downfall will be equally remarkable seems less of a cause for happiness.

An understanding of Raban Yochanan ben Zakai’s attitude can emerge from a study of the opening of the parasha. Moshe tells the people that they will be subject to a blessing and curse. The blessing will be the result of observing the Torah. It will encompass every essential form of material wealth and well-being. The curse is a consequence of disregarding the commands. It will be a terrible curse of astounding proportions. Sforno points out that this blessing and curse have an important implication. Other nations may experience periods of moderate success and advancement. At other times, these nations may suffer disappointments and moderate decline. However, Bnai Yisrael is subject to extremes – extreme success or extreme persecution and suffering.[3] Jewish history reflects this pattern of ever-changing extremes.

Why does the condition of the Jewish people tend to these extremes? Other nations are subject to natural law.[4] Natural causes do not often produce extremes. As a result, unless confronted with a catastrophe, most nations experience gradual progress or decline. The condition of the Jewish people is controlled by Hashem. He determines our condition and well-being based upon our behavior. His control over nature is complete. When the Almighty rewards His people, there is no limit to the blessings He can bestow. His punishment can also be profound. The magnitude of our success and even our sufferings is indicative of Hashem’s influence.

Now, the meaning of Raban Yochanan ben Zakai’s statement is clear. The astonishing downfall of the Jewish people was a consequence of the special relationship enjoyed with the Creator. Punishment is not pleasant. However, it does reflect this important bond between Hashem and His people. Raban Yochanan ben Zakai is teaching that even in times of terrible national suffering we can receive comfort. The magnitude of the suffering reflects our special relationship with Hashem.

Before GPS[5]

This you should do only at the place that Hashem your G-d will choose from among all of you tribes to place His name there. His presence you should seek, and you should come there. (Devarim 12:5)

Moshe explains that once Bnai Yisrael occupies the land of Israel the Bait HaMikdash will be established. The worship of the nation will be centered on the Holy Temple. Moshe explains that the people will offer their sacrifices at the Bait HaMikdash.

Our passage tells us that we should seek Hashem at the Bait HaMikdash. The simple meaning of this statement is that the Temple should be a center of worship. Nachmanides understands this phrase in a more literal sense. Jews from distant communities will travel to Bait HaMikdash. As they travel, they will need directions. They will ask, “Where is to road to the Holy Temple?” They will invite others to join in their pilgrimage. This asking for guidance is the “seeking” to which the pasuk refers.[6]

If we understand the comments of Nachmanides in a literal sense an implication can be made. Apparently, no elaborate measures are taken to mark the road to the Bait HaMikdash. Instead, travelers are force to rely on the directions provided through encounters along the route. This seems odd. It would seem appropriate to carefully mark the roads leading to the Temple.

This contrasts with the requirement for Arei Miklat – cities of refuge. These cities are provided as safe havens for a person who accidentally takes a life. In the case of such a tragedy, the killer is required to take refuge in one of a group of specially designated cities. He must remain in one of these cities for an indefinite period of time. The relatives of the victim have the court’s authority to execute the murderer if he or she is found outside of the city. Therefore, the murderer must quickly travel to one of the Arei Miklat. In order to facilitate the killer’s escape, the roads to the Arei Miklat are carefully marked.[7] Why are the roads to the Arei Miklat carefully indicated but the route to the Temple neglected?

The comments of Nachmanides seem to provide a hint. As explained above, the simple meaning of our passage is that the Bait HaMikdash should be the center of worship.  It is there that the Divine presence should be sought. Nachmanides is not rejecting this interpretation of the passage. He is suggesting that the pasuk has an additional meaning. It is reasonable to assume that Nachmanides’ interpretation is somehow related to the simple meaning of the pasuk. What is this connection?

Perhaps, Nachmanides’ interpretation is an elaboration of the simple meaning of the pasuk. The pasuk tells us that the Bait HaMikdash must be established as the center for worship. Nachmanides suggests that the pasuk also provides a means for accomplishing this objective. No signs are to be posted marking the way. Travelers are forced to rely on those they encounter on their pilgrimage. Through asking directions, they publicize the purpose of their trip. They emphasize the importance of the Bait HaMikdash. Others are encouraged to accompany these pilgrims. This process accomplishes the objective outlined in the simple message of the pasuk. The centrality of the Temple is firmly established.

The Midrash supports this interpretation. The Navi explains, in Shmuel I, that Elkanah – the father of Shemuel – traveled to the Mishcan in Shiloh at regular times. Before the construction of the Bait HaMikdash the Mishcan in Shiloh was the central location for worship. The Midrash explains that Elkanah would take his entire family with him. He was careful to make himself and his family conspicuous. He invited questions regarding his destination. The questions would come. Elkanah would respond with a short discourse on the importance of the Mishcan as a central institution of Bnai Yisrael. He would invite these inquirers to accompany him. The Midrash further comments that each year Elkanah would travel by a different road. His purpose was to encourage a new group to join his pilgrimage.[8]

According to our interpretation of Nachmanides’ comments we can readily understand Elkanah’s behavior. He was fulfilling the directions of our pasuk. The passage essentially instructs us to use the journey to the Bait HaMikdash or Mishcan as an opportunity to promote the importance of these institutions. Our pasuk suggests that this be accomplished through requiring the pilgrims to seek directions. Elkanah devised additional means to effectively use his journey to emphasize the importance of the Mishcan.

This answers our question. There would be a practical benefit in marking the road to the Bait HaMikdash. However, an overriding consideration dictated that this not be done. The Torah wants the person traveling to the Bait HaMikdash to share with others the purpose of the journey. Through leaving the road unmarked the circumstances are created for interaction between the pilgrim and others. As a result, the importance of the Bait HaMikdash is emphasized.[9]

Response to a Missionary[10]

This is what you must do if your blood brother, your son, your daughter, your wife, or your closest friend secretly tries to convince you, and says: Let us go worship a new god, previously unknown to you or to your fathers. (Devarim 13:7)

This passage introduces the discussion of the Maysit – the missionary. This is an individual who attempts to convince others to worship idols of some other deity. The Torah explains that this person attempts to undermine the spiritual perfection of the Jewish nation. No mercy is shown the Maysit. This person is executed.

Throughout our history, we have been confronted with individuals, institutions, and governments that have attempted to convince us to abandon our Torah. We have been subjected to forced conversions, expulsions, and other forms of religious coercion. At other times, force was replaced by polemics and efforts to proselytize. Bnai Yisrael have consistently resisted all these various efforts. These many attempts to corrupt the Jewish people have generated a vast quantity of fascinating accounts and narratives. Many of these accounts retain their relevancy and timeliness. One of these involves Rav Chaim Soloveitchik Zt”l.

Rav Chaim was traveling on a train. A missionary entered his coach and sat next to two Jews. The missionary engaged these Jews in a conversation regarding religion. In the course of this conversation, the missionary acknowledged that the Sages of the Talmud rejected Jesus’ Messianic claims. However, the missionary insisted that this rejection is not credible. He claimed that one of the greatest Sages of the Talmud – Rebbe Akiva – believed that Bar Kochva was the Messiah. Rebbe Akiva was wrong. The missionary argued that this error proved that the Sages of the Talmud are fallible in their analysis of Messianic claims. Therefore, their rejection of Jesus’ claims is of little consequence.

At this point, Rav Chaim interrupted the conversation with an amazing claim. He exclaimed that Rebbe Akiva was not wrong. Bar Kochva was the Messiah! The missionary was astounded by this claim. He could not believe that Rav Chaim could make such a ridiculous assertion. The missionary eagerly explained that Bar Kochva could not have been the Messiah. Bar Kochva had died without saving the Jewish people! 

Rav Chaim had been waiting for this response. He countered immediately. If Bar Kochva’s death proves that he was not the Messiah, then death disqualifies any claimant from consideration as the Messiah![11]

[1]  Previously issued in Thoughts 5761.

[2]  Mesechet Ketubot 66b.

[3]  Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Devarim, 11:30.

[4]  Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Devarim 4:19.

[5] Previously issued in Thoughts 5763.

[6] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 12:5.

[7] Mesechet Makkot 10a.

[8] Rabbaynu Shimon HaDarshan of Frankfort, Yalkut Shimoni, Sefer Shemuel I, chapter 1.

[9] Thank you to Rav Binyamin Nadoff for providing most of this material. Rav Nadoff attributed the basic insight to the Chafetz Chayim.

[10]  Previously issued in Thoughts 5762.

[11] Rav Y. Hershkowitz, Torat Chaim, pp. 154-5.