Community > Jewish Life > Ki Tavo: Tribulations of Exile — Blessing in Disguise

Ki Tavo: Tribulations of Exile — Blessing in Disguise

Nechama Leibowitz
reprinted courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel Education Department

The chapter of Retribution (Tokheha), as it is termed, outlining the evils in store for a backsliding Israel which takes up the greater past of our sidra proceeds in ascending order from more usual upheavals and catastrophes to sickness and plague, drought and famine, war and persecution until the Climax of exile and expulsion from the homeland is reached:

And the Lord shall scatter thee among all peoples, from the one end of the earth unto the other end of the earth; and there thou shalt serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou nor thy fathers, even wood and stone. And among these nations shalt thou have no repose, and there shall be no rest for the sole of thy foot; but the Lord shall give thee there a trembling heart, and failing of eyes, and languishing of soul. (28:64-65)

The second half of verse 64 stating that they would serve other gods of wood and stone seems to run counter to the sequence of the passage and not to fit in with the crescendo of catastrophes awaiting a disobedient Israel. Is this statement regarding their ultimate acceptance of idolatry a reference to the sin on account of which they would forfeit their homeland? This explanation does not suit the context where it is distinctly stated that they would serve idols “there”- whilst in exile. Moreover all the verses ‘beginning from 59 onwards dwell on their exile and the attendant sufferings, the subject of the sin which would cause it having already been alluded to. As Rashi observes sufferings do not evoke iniquities but blot them out. The reference here therefore to their serving idols must allude, in keeping with the context, to a part of their retribution. In accordance with this explanation Rashi, following the Targum Onkelos, states:

“And there thou shalt serve other gods” – In accordance with the Targum (Aramaic version) not the literal serving of idols but rather the paying of dues to heathen priests.

However, Rashi’s explanation does not take account of the explicit use of the phrase “and there thou shalt serve other gods“. Abravanel’s suggestion which is coloured by the religious persecutions of his times is more suited to the wording of the text:

As a result of their desperate situation in the lands of their dispersion, hounded by unspeakable persecution, many of them would succumb, against their will. to the demands of their persecutors and embrace alien faiths and idolatrous worship, in which they did not really believe. Knowing them to be of wood and stone that could neither see nor hear, they would worship them only in order to escape death. The idolatry referred to here is thus not in the sense of sin, but rather as part of the punishment inflicted on them, that they would be brought to such a state or being forced, against their will to serve idols, although inwardly believing in God.

Jews would thus be forced to serve idols not out of conviction but against their will knowing it to be false and foolish. This is indeed a terrible fate and punishment for having worshipped idols of their own free will in their ancestral homeland.

Isaac Arama, a contemporary of the Abravanel who likewise lived during the time of the Spanish expulsion, finds an allusion in the text to his own troubled times:

We may possibly find an allusion in this verse to the time when thousands of Jews would change their religion as a result of suffering and persecution. Regarding this the Torah states “and among the nations they would not have no repose.” For although they would assimilate the among nations they would not find thereby relief since the nations would still constantly revile them and denounce them as we indeed seen in our day when a part have perished in the flames of the inquisition, a part have fled and yet others continue to live in fear of their lives. Indeed as is foretold in Scriptures we have no rest among the nations and our lives stand in doubt before us. We have not been so fortunate as the ten tribes who when they were exiled were not scattered but were subject to a foreign yoke as one people in Assyria and Babylon; whereas we are dispersed in all parts of the world, persecuted on all sides and we have no ease or rest in all our habitations until there is no city or state where we do not suffer repressive measures.

Thus the forcible conversion to idolatry and acceptance of alien creeds against their will do not constitute the worst punishment yet in store for them. Even assimilation and acceptance of the dominant faith would not solve their problems and give them relief. The nations of the world would still not accept the Jewish people as part of their community and their barriers would still not be removed. But this inassimilable quality of the Jewish people may be considered a special dispensation of the Almighty intended for the good of his people. This is indeed how the Abravanel understands it:

Scripture states: “And among these nations shalt thou have no repose and there shall be no rest for the sole of thy foot.” This alludes to what the prophet Ezekiel elaborated on more explicitly when he stated (20:32), “And that which cometh into thy mind shall not be at all, in that way, We will be as the nations, as the families other countries to serve wood and stone. As I live, saith the Lord God, surely with a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm, and with fury poured out, will I be King over you.”

We are thus left no alternative but to accept the yoke of heaven and be servants of God. Our Sages however found a message of consolation in this very same verse:

“But the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot, and she returned unto the ark” (Genesis 8:9). R. Judah ben R. Nahman in the name of R. Shimon stated: If it had found a resting place it would not have returned. Parallel to this we find (Lamentations 1) “She dwelleth among the heathen, she findeth no rest” – if she would have found rest she would not have returned. Parallel to this we find: And among these nations shalt thou have no repose and there shall be no rest for the sole of thy foot” – thus if they would have found rest they would not have returned. (Bereshit Rabba 33:8)