Behar-Bechukotai 5769

The Eternal People

The book of Vayikra ends with one of the most terrifying passages in literature. It describes what will happen to the Israelites if, having made their covenant with G-d, they break its terms:

If in spite of this you still do not listen to me but continue to be hostile toward me, then in my anger I will be hostile toward you, and I myself will punish you for your sins seven times over… I will turn your cities into ruins and lay waste your sanctuaries, and I will take no delight in the pleasing aroma of your offerings. I will lay waste the land, so that your enemies who live there will be appalled. I will scatter you among the nations and will draw out my sword and pursue you. Your land will be laid waste, and your cities will lie in ruins… As for those of you who are left, I will make their hearts so fearful in the lands of their enemies that the sound of a windblown leaf will put them to flight. They will run as though fleeing from the sword, and they will fall, even though no one is pursuing them. (Leviticus 26:28-36)

To this day we read the passage – traditionally known as the Tochachah, “the admonition” – sotto voce, so fearful is it and so difficult to internalize and imagine. It is all the more fearful given what we know of later Jewish history.

Tragically, more than once, it came true. The Jewish people has had more than its share of sufferings and persecutions. Its commitment to the terms of the covenant – to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” – was and still is anything but safe, an easy option, a low-risk strategy. Of the people He claimed as His own, G-d is demanding. When Israel does His will, they are lifted to great heights. When they do not, they are plunged into great depths. The way of holiness is supremely challenging.

Yet at the very climax of this long list of curses, there comes a passage surpassing in its assurance:

… but when the time finally comes that their stubborn spirit is humbled, I will forgive their sin. I will remember my covenant with Jacob, as well as my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land… Thus, even when they are in their enemy’s land, I will not reject them or spurn them, bringing them to an end and breaking My covenant with them, because I am the Lord their G-d. (Leviticus 26:41-44)

The people of the eternal G-d will itself be eternal. There is, in the Mosaic books, no greater promise than this.

It is repeated in the prophetic literature by the man often thought of as the most pessimistic of the prophets, Jeremiah. Jeremiah spent much of his career as a prophet warning the people of impending disaster. It was an unpopular message, and he was imprisoned and nearly killed for it. Yet he too, in the midst of his gloom, told the people that they would never be destroyed:

This is what the Lord says,

He who appoints the sun to shine by day,

who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night,

who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar-

the Lord Almighty is His name:

“Only if these decrees vanish from My sight,” declares the Lord,

“will the descendants of Israel ever cease to be a nation before Me.” (Jeremiah 31:35-36)

In the Cairo Museum stands a giant slab of black granite known as the Merneptah stele. Originally installed by Pharaoh Amenhotep III in his temple in western Thebes, it was removed by a later ruler of Egypt, Merneptah, who reigned in the thirteenth century BCE. Inscribed with hieroglyphics, it contains a record of Merneptah’s military victories. Its interest might have been confined to students of ancient civilizations, were it not for one fact, the stele contains the first reference outside the Bible to the people of Israel. The inscription lists the various powers crushed by Merneptah and his army. It concludes:

All lands together, they are pacified;

Everyone who was restless, he has been bound

By the king of Upper and Lower Egypt…

Among those who were restless were a small people otherwise not mentioned in the early Egyptian texts. Merneptah or his chroniclers believed that they were now a mere footnote to history. They had not simply been defeated. They had been obliterated. This is what the stele says:

Israel is laid waste, his seed is not.

The first reference to Israel outside the Bible is an obituary notice.

Ironically, so is the second. This is contained in a basalt slab dating from the 9th century BCE which today stands in the Louvre. Known as the Mesha stele, it records the triumphs of Mesha, king of Moab. The king thanks his deity Chemosh for handing victory to the Moabites in their wars, and speaks thus, “As for Omri, king of Israel, he humbled Moab for many years, for Chemosh was angry with his land. And his son followed him, and he also said, ‘I will humble Moab’. In my time he spoke thus, but I have triumphed over him and over his house, while Israel has perished for ever.”

The great mathematician and later Christian theologian Blaise Pascal wrote this:

It is certain that in certain parts of the world we can see a peculiar people, separated from the other peoples of the world, and this is called the Jewish people… This people is not only of remarkable antiquity but has also lasted for a singularly long time… For whereas the peoples of Greece and Italy, of Sparta, Athens and Rome, and others who came so much later have perished so long ago, these still exist, despite the efforts of so many powerful kings who have tried a hundred times to wipe them out, as their historians testify, and as can easily be judged by the natural order of things over such a long spell of years. They have always been preserved, however, and their preservation was foretold… My encounter with this people amazes me.

Many attempts have been made, over the course of the centuries, to prove the existence of G-d. Theologians have argued on the basis of philosophy, and in some cases the natural sciences (the “argument from design”). Yet the Torah speaks of a different kind of proof altogether, the history of Israel.

There is pain in this history. At times it was written in tears. Yet it remains astonishing. The curses of the Tokhachah came true – but so did the consolation. No nation was attacked as often. None attracted so much irrational hostility. Empire after empire pronounced its destruction. Yet they have vanished into oblivion while the people Israel still lives, small, vulnerable, sometimes fractious and rebellious, yet still there, defying all the natural laws that govern the history of nations. There is a mystery here, as Pascal so clearly saw. Yet its basic formulation is clear, and despite all the odds it came true; the people of the eternal G-d became the people of eternity.

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