BY RABBI MOSHE LICHTMAN
Imagine you are living at the time of the Exodus from Egypt. You see amazing miracles: the ten plagues, the splitting of the sea, the revelation at Mount Sinai. Now imagine that in the middle of it all, there are people all around you who are simply uninterested, who want nothing to do with this redemption.
What would you think of such people? What would you say to them? I am sure that some of these sentiments would pass through your mind: “What is wrong with them? Do they not see what G-d is doing for us? How can they pass up such an opportunity?”
But more importantly, how do you think G-d would react? Well, at least regarding this question, we know the answer. You see, this is not just a theoretical scenario. It actually happened, at least twice, and our Father in Heaven was not very happy.
We all know the famous statement of Chazal that only one-fifth of the Jewish people left Egypt, while the vast majority, 80%, died during the plague of darkness. But why? What was their sin? Midrash Tanchuma (Vaera 14) states, “There were wicked Jews who had Egyptian friends and who enjoyed honor and fortune in Egypt. They did not want to leave.” Yes, even though they were enslaved, many Jews became comfortable in exile, to the point where they did not want to leave, even though they already witnessed eight fearsome plagues and numerous other miracles!
But there is another explanation for why they did not want to leave. If the first explanation paints a picture of assimilated Jews wanting to just be left alone, this one depicts very traditional, even deeply religious, Jews utilizing theological arguments to prevent the redemption from happening.
Rav Ya’akov Kaminetzky argues, in his Emet LeYa’akov (Shemot 10:22), that “these evildoers wanted to prevent the others from leaving Egypt, for they felt that the time of redemption had not yet arrived, since they had a tradition that the bondage would last four hundred years, [while only 210 years had passed so far].”
G-d’s reaction was swift and harsh: close to eight million Jews(!) perished.
A few months later, another group of Jews rejected G-d’s geulah. This group did not only witness the plagues, but also the Exodus, the splitting of the sea, and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Nonetheless, when G-d wanted to finally complete the process of geulah and bring His people into the Promised Land, ten of the generation’s greatest leaders said, in effect, “No thanks!” and dragged a large portion of the nation along with them.
A simple reading of the verses in Parashat Shelach indicates that the spies and their followers were afraid of the obstacles that awaited them, such as giants, fortified cities, abnormal fruit, and so on. The Zohar (3:158a), however, states that their motives were very “frum”: they felt that they could concentrate better on Torah and Divine service in the desert, where they received manna and were not busy making a living, which would all change once they entered the Land.
What was G-d’s reaction to all this? The ten evil spies died a horrible death, and the entire generation had to wander in the desert for forty years while all the men between the ages of twenty and sixty died out. But that’s not all, for the ramifications of this sin are felt until this very day. The Gemara (Ta’anit 29a) tells us that the night the spies returned and caused the people to cry was none other than Tisha B’Av. Hashem said, “You wept in vain; I will establish for you weeping for all generations.” The sin of rejecting Eretz Yisrael and G-d’s redemption is the root cause of all of our suffering throughout Jewish history – and another example of the tragic consequences of ignoring G-d’s overtures of redemption.
After 40 years of wandering, we finally entered the Holy Land. 440 years later, King Shlomo built the First Temple, but due to our sins, it was destroyed after 410 years, and we were exiled to Babylonia.
The prophets of the time told us clearly that this exile would last only 70 years. Right on cue, King Cyrus of Persia received a Divine message instructing him to tell the Jews to return to their Land and rebuild the Temple. Furthermore, Ezra HaSofer, one of the greatest spiritual leaders of all time, called upon his fellow Jews to go home.
Let’s play the “Imagine” game once again. Imagine you are living during that time, and all around you are people who are uninterested and unimpressed, who want nothing to do with this redemption. What would you say to such people?
More importantly, how do you think G-d would react? You see, this is not just a theoretical scenario. It actually happened. The vast majority of Jews chose to remain in Babylonia. Less than 43,000 Jews answered Cyrus’ call, and they were not exactly the cream of the crop. Many were intermarried, desecrated the Shabbat, and committed other grievous sins.
What was G-d’s reaction? He destroyed the Second Temple! No more and no less. The Talmud (Yoma 9b) derives from a verse in Shir HaShirim (8:9) that had the Jews of Ezra’s time ascended to Eretz Yisrael en masse, the Temple would never have been destroyed. Thus, the last 2,000 years of exile, persecution, pogroms, and even the Holocaust could have been avoided. But since we failed, once again, to accept G-d’s overtures of redemption, we suffered 2,000 years of exile.
But why did the Jews of Babylonia stay behind? Some sources indicate that it was because they became comfortable in Babylonia, as their ancestors had in Egypt. If, seventy years prior, they sat by the rivers of Babylon and lamented, “How can we sing the song of Hashem on foreign soil?” (Tehillim 137:1–4), now they found it too hard to part with their beautiful homes, vibrant communities, and prestigious positions.
Other sources, however, indicate that they utilized theological (“frum”) arguments to explain why this could not possibly be the redemption foreseen by the prophets. “What, a gentile king is going to give us a message from G-d?! A band of Sabbath-desecrators is going to initiate the redemption?! We think not!”
Now let’s play the “Imagine” game one last time. Imagine you are living at the time of the third, and final, redemption. The Cause of All Causes is moving heaven and earth to make sure that the promises He made to His beloved Nation are fulfilled before time runs out. And imagine that all around you are Jews who are simply uninterested, who seemingly want nothing to do with this redemption. What would you think of such people? How do you think G-d would react?
Wait! This time, you really do not need to use your imagination, because, unfortunately, this is not just a theoretical scenario; it is happening before our very eyes.
It would take countless pages to prove that we are living through the ultimate redemption, but suffice it to say that, as Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan writes: “Other generations have expected the Messiah’s imminent appearance on the basis of the forced interpretation of one or two prophecies, whereas we are living through the entire range of Messianic tradition, often coming to pass with uncanny literalness. If you keep your eyes open, you can almost see every headline bringing us a step closer to this goal” (The Real Messiah, p. 96).
Around 100 years ago, towards the end of the sixth millennia, when we would expect it to happen, a gentile leader representing the British Empire declared that his government “viewed with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” Since then, the Land of Israel has awoken from its 2,000-year slumber (in fulfillment of the clearest sign of geulah – Sanhedrin 98b), and millions of its children (almost 50%) have returned home, fulfilling nearly 40 prophecies regarding the ingathering of the exiles. How can anybody deny that the geulah is underway?
But as in the past, a large number of Jews are ignoring the facts – either because of the temptations of exile or for “frum” reasons (after all, how could it be that secular Jews initiated the redemption?). Gg
As in years past, I am sure that this Tisha B’Av some of our nation’s greatest orators and rabbinic leaders will encourage us, using the tools of modern media, to improve our ways, especially in the areas of lashon hara and sinat chinam (baseless hatred) so that next Tisha B’Av can be a joyous holiday. These speeches are extremely important, and there is no doubt that we need to work on our ahavat chinam. But when is someone going to finally get up and address the real reason we are still in exile?
Rabbi Moshe Lichtman is the author of Eretz Yisrael in the Parashah and A Drop in the Ocean, and has translated several classic works of Religious Zionism into English, including Eim HaBanim Semeichah, An Angel Among Men (a biography on Rav Kook), A Question of Redemption, and Rise from the Dust. He teaches in several gap-year yeshiva and seminary programs.