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Nitzavim | "Like the Upheaval of Sedom and Amora" Did This Really Happen?

Rav Gad Eldad
30.08.2021

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Moshe's oration concerning the commandments, which stretches over several entire parashot, reached its conclusion in the previous parasha

These are the words of the covenant which the Lord commanded Moshe to make with the children of Israel in the land of Moav, beside the covenant which He made with them in Chorev. (Devarim 28:69)[1]

The concluding verse relates to the opening verses of the oration, which dealt with the covenant in Chorev:

And Moshe called to all Israel and said to them: Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the ordinances which I speak in your ears this day, that you may learn them, and observe to do them. The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Chorev. The Lord made not this covenant with our fathers, but with us, even us, who are all of us here alive this day. The Lord spoke with you face to face in the mount out of the midst of the fire. I stood between the Lord and you at that time to declare to you the word of the Lord; for you were afraid because of the fire, and went not up into the mount, saying… (5:1-5)

In our parasha, Moshe returns to this issue, and once again informs the people that they are about to enter into a covenant with God. Despite the fact that we are used to descriptions of covenants, there are several points that catch our eyes in this setting:

You are standing this day all of you before the Lord your God: your heads, your tribes, your elders, and your officers, even all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and your stranger that is in the midst of your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water; that you should enter into the covenant of the Lord your God and into His curse, which the Lord your God makes with you this day; that He may establish you this day to Himself for a people and that He may be to you a God, as He spoke to you and as He swore to your fathers, to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov. Neither with you only do I make this covenant and this curse; but with him that stands here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with him that is not here with us this day, for you know how we dwelt in the land of Egypt; and how we came through the midst of the nations through which you passed; and you have seen their detestable things, and their idols, wood and stone, silver and gold, which were with them, lest there should be among you man, or woman, or family, or tribe whose heart turns away this day from the Lord our God, to go to serve the gods of those nations; lest there should be among you a root that bears gall and wormwood; and it come to pass, when he hears the words of this curse, that he bless himself in his heart, saying: I shall have peace, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart, that the watered be swept away with the dry; the Lord will not be willing to pardon him, but then the anger of the Lord and His jealousy shall be kindled against that man, and all the curse that is written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven; and the Lord shall separate him to evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that is written in this book of the law. And the generation to come, your children that shall rise up after you and the foreigner that shall come from a far land, shall say, when they see the plagues of that land, and the sicknesses with which the Lord has made it sick; and that the whole land thereof is brimstone, and salt, and a burning, that it is not sown, nor bears, nor any grass grows therein, like the overthrow of Sedom and Amora, Adma and Tzevo'im, which the Lord overthrew in His anger and in His wrath; even all the nations shall say: Why has the Lord done thus to this land? What means the heat of this great anger? Then men shall say: Because they forsook the covenant of the Lord, the God of their fathers, which He made with them when He brought them forth out of the land of Egypt; and went and served other gods and worshipped them, gods that they knew not, and that He had not allotted to them; therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against this land, to bring upon it all the curse that is written in this book; and the Lord rooted them out of their land in anger, and in wrath, and in great indignation, and cast them into another land, as it is this day. The secret things belong to the Lord our God; but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law. (29:9-28)

On the one hand, it seems that this assembly relates and adds to the words of the covenant that had already been made, and it is even mentioned here several times. If this is the case, it is not clear why an additional assembly was necessary. Moreover, we encounter several extraordinary phenomena in the course of Moshe's words to the people:  

1. Moshe explains the very need for this assembly. According to him, the assembly comes to deal with the fear that someone will try to serve the gods of the nations that neighbor upon the Land of Israel. Scripture even reports the mindset of the potential rebels in order to save them from the punishment that they would rightly deserve. However, this entire logical course seems unnecessary. The purpose of making a covenant is to formulate and define the "boundaries" of each side. If a party crosses those boundaries, he will be punished. Why does the Torah bother to cite the calculations of those who will violate the covenant? What interest do we have in one course of thought or another, when the covenant states that whoever breaches the agreement will be punished, and thus the covenant fulfills its objective?

2. If indeed this a "covenantal" assembly, where is the positive dimension characteristic of the covenant, in the course of which an account is given of the reward to be meted out in the event that the party to the covenant fulfills his obligation? Not only is no account of such reward given here, but the covenant is always mentioned together with "the curse that is written in this book."

3. In the continuation, the words of the nations who watch in amazement as the events unfold are cited.  Beyond the very interest in their response, the content of their remarks is surprising, in comparison to everything we know thus far. In previous cases, the response of the nations served as an incentive to prevent calamity from falling upon Israel, for fear of a desecration of God's name. The fear had always been that the nations would exploit the events to advance their own interpretation (Shemot 32:11-12; Bamidbar 14:13-16). Moshe himself repeated this argument in the course of his oration concerning the commandments:

And I prayed to the Lord, and said: O Lord God, destroy not Your people and Your inheritance, that You have redeemed through Your greatness, that You have brought forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand. Remember Your servants, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov; look not to the stubbornness of this people, nor to their wickedness, nor to their sin; lest the land from which You brought us out say: Because the Lord was not able to bring them into the land which He promised to them, and because He hated them, He has brought them out to slay them in the wilderness. Yet they are Your people and Your inheritance, that You did bring out by Your great power and by Your outstretched arm. (9:26-29)

In our parasha, on the other hand, Scripture states in passing that the nations will accept the explanation that the calamity befalling Israel results from their sins. Scripture even uses this fact to reinforce its claim to warn that the impending calamity will be striking and painful.

"Why Should the Nations Say?"

The Rashbam already drew our attention to this last point:  

"So I fell down before the Lord the forty days [that I fell down]… And I prayed to the Lord" – Who is the wise man who can understand why it was necessary to repeat the fall of forty days. Is it the way of Scripture to repeat a matter and say when I fell before the Lord forty days, such and such I prayed? He should have said this above, and he would not have had to repeat the matter in order to inform Israel the words with which he prayed. There is, however, great wisdom here, as he comes to rebuke Israel. Lest you say that surely in the matter of a great sin like the deed involving the calf, Moshe's prayer was effective and we were saved, and so too in Eretz Yisrael, if we sin, the prayers of the prophets will be effective, therefore Moshe said to them that prayer will not help them in Eretz Yisrael. For now they achieved atonement only that His name should not be desecrated, for thus he prayed: "Remember Your servants… lest the land from which You brought us out say: Because the Lord was not able to bring them into the land," and therefore you were not sentenced to death in the wilderness. But after He kills before you thirty-one kings and gives you possession of the land, He will send you out and expel you from the land, for there is no further desecration of God's name, with the nations saying: "Because the Lord was not able." Rather the nations will say that Israel sinned to Him, as is explicitly stated in Parashat Nitzavim: "All the nations shall say: Why has the Lord done thus to this land? What means the heat of this great anger? Then men shall say: Because they forsook the covenant of the Lord, the God of their fathers… and the Lord rooted them out of their land in anger, and in wrath, and in great indignation, and cast them into another land, as it is this day." (Rashbam, 9:25)

According to the Rashbam, after the conquest of the land, the fear referred to by Moshe will dissipate; the nations will recognize the powerful connection between God and His people, and from then on they will be able to interpret a calamity befalling Israel correctly – as due to their sins.

However, the impression that we get from Scripture itself does not accord with his interpretation. Even after the conquest of the land, the punishment of Israel directly impacted upon the nations' claim regarding the weakness or even non-existence of the God of Israel: 

Let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep between the hall and the altar, and let them say: Spare your people, O Lord, and give not Your heritage to reproach, that the nations should make them a byword: Why should they say among the peoples: Where is their God?[2] (Yoel 2:17)

"Like the Overthrow of Sedom and Amora, Adma and Tzevo'im, Which the Lord Overthrew in His Anger and in His Wrath"
 

The Seforno adopts a different approach (v. 22):

"Brimstone and salt… like the overthrow of Sedom… which the Lord overthrew" – They will recognize that it is not a coincidence, but rather the "finger of God," for He did to it as He had done in Sedom, where it was known that it was He who overthrew it.

According to the Seforno, the nations will be forced to interpret the punishment of Israel in a correct manner, because they will be left with no other choice. The calamity will take place in such a manner that leaves no doubt as to the identity of its executor. It is precisely for this reason that Scripture used as an example the overthrow of Sedom and Amora, which resulted from a heavenly process and not from a natural one.

We must consider the following point, however. Over the course of the Torah, an account is given of several covenants, together with the reward and punishment associated with their observance or violation. Suddenly, Scripture informs us that the breaching of the covenant will result in a punishment the very nature of which will attest to its Divine executor. Why was this detail missing up until now? Has a new dimension of the covenant been introduced here, one that we have not encountered previously?

"Whose Heart Turns Away this Day from the Lord our God"

Earlier we noted as exceptional the fact that Scripture bothers to spell out the self-justification offered by one who violates the covenant:

Whose heart turns away this day from the Lord our God, to go to serve the gods of those nations; lest there should be among you a root that bears gall and wormwood; and it come to pass, when he hears the words of this curse, that he bless himself in his heart, saying: I shall have peace, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart, that the watered be swept away with the dry. (29:17-18)

The common denominator for the various interpretations of this passage emerges from the wording of Scripture itself. The making of the covenant provides a remedy in advance for a future fear that cannot be dealt with at this time, since it is not yet evident to all. It is possible, however, that an additional element is found in the remarks of the Chizkuni: 

"Lest there should be among you a root that bears gall" – One who conceals a transgression in his heart like a root that is covered in the ground and afterwards grows, but if he commits the transgression openly we have the power to execute judgment against him.

Most commentators explain that a person's thoughts at this time are like a root, and the fear is that they will develop over time into wormwood that is visible to the eye and lead to action. Scripture wishes to contend with this danger at an early stage, before it becomes necessary to deal with its full-grown fruit.

However, it is possible that the Chizkuni understood the matter differently. He argues that we are not concerned about someone who will commit an offense openly, for he is like other sinners, who will be judged and punished. The difficulty is dealing with the "thought of sin/heresy" itself, which will always remain hidden from the public eye. The image of the root of gall focuses on the fact that it is hidden from public view; even though it seems not to exist, that is not the case. It is not inert, but rather active and fertile. According to this reading, Scripture focuses on the root, the heretical thought in itself, which is a hidden sin. The ability to grow testifies to the destructive activity of the root, which is concealed from outside observers. It is upon this that Scripture focuses and about it that it warns.

"I Shall Have Peace"

The thinking of the sinner described in the verse now becomes clear. According to the standard reading, it seems a bit unnecessary to offer a podium to a potential sinner to air his thoughts before implementing his plans in practice. But it is even more difficult to understand how this sinner thought he would succeed in evading punishment. After all, even if he manages to evade his obligation in the covenant by hiding his plans for the future, his guilt will testify against him when he worships a foreign god, and the punishment for idol worship is fixed from time immemorial!

It seems, then, that the sin about which Scripture is speaking will never come to light. We are dealing with a man who will continue to keep the commandments all his life, but his heart is not at one with his actions; inside, he worships other gods.[3]

For generations, Jews lived as crypto-Jews and kept their Judaism a secret. Here the Torah describes the opposite situation, in which the Jew practices his Judaism only on the outside. The hands are the hands of Yaakov, but the voice is the voice of Esav. This conduct transcends the ability of flesh and blood to see it, and so its treatment is handed over to God.

Such a lifestyle may be limited to an individual, but it also may expand to become the lifestyle of the community to one degree or another. There is superficial obedience to God's laws and teachings, but without real faith in the One who spoke and brought the world into being.[4] The question arises how such a community is to be punished, when outwardly "all your people are righteous."

It is precisely for this reason that a Heavenly punishment is required, one that no one can doubt came from God. Only such a blow can prove to all that the conduct of the punished community was only a matter of appearances; their hearts were not with God and they were not faithful to His covenant. It is clear now why the passage concentrates exclusively on the breach of the covenant and on the curses, since it complements the covenant described earlier at length, adding the very particular dimension of the covert breach of the covenant.

Now the need for the concluding verse of the passage is self-evident. The covenant ends with an allusion to its various dimensions:

The secret things belong to the Lord our God; but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.

"Why Has the Lord Done Thus to This Land?

The great weakness of this explanation is that it describes a situation that never happened. The people were in fact sent out to exile, but this was not accompanied by some extraordinary, supernatural event. This in itself does not contradict Scripture, since such an event would have been necessary only if the community as a whole conducted a double life,[5] as described here by Scripture. On the other hand, it should be noted that any attempt to match what is described in our parasha to a known historical event requires a forced interpretation of the verses, at the very least regarding the reference to the overthrowing of Sedom and Amora. An example of such an approach is found in the words of the Abravanel:

And the plagues are that the whole land of Israel "is brimstone, and salt, and a burning," in such a manner "that it is not sown, nor bears, nor any grass grows therein." And this was stated in an exaggerated way, to teach that Eretz Yisrael, which had been the beauty of all the lands, after the destruction of the Temple will be cursed with respect to its produce, to the point that it will be "like the overthrow of Sedom and Amora, which the Lord overthrew in His anger, and in His wrath." And because of the similarity that there will be between Eretz Yisrael and Sedom and Amora, they themselves will judge that Eretz Yisrael was destroyed as a result of God's anger and wrath, as was the case with Sedom. 

As we mentioned above, the comparison to the overthrow of Sedom and Amora focuses not only on the end results, but also on the course of action, which leaves no room for an alternative interpretation other than that the destruction is an expression of the wrath of God. Even if this was stated as an exaggeration, something like this never happened.[6]

When we review history, neither in the destruction of the First Temple nor in the destruction of the Second Temple can we find an event that satisfies these requirements. We are forced to say that the Torah threatens an event that ultimately did not materialize in the way it was described. Scripture also describes the nations' justification of the punishment meted out to the people of Israel as punishment for their sins, while it is clear from the verses cited above that this prediction did not come true; the nations continued to view the calamities befalling Israel as proof of the non-existence of the God of Israel.[7]

To sum up, it is difficult to incorporate what is described here in historical reality. But while this is a weak point, it is logically understandable. As we have attempted to suggest, this assembly relates to and continues the covenant described in Parashat Ki-Tavo, but it adds another layer to it. If the nation will violate the covenant openly, its punishment is stated there. This addition is needed only for the particular case of the secret breach of the covenant, which will stir up a need to act in a way that leaves no room for doubt. Since in the end the covenant was openly violated, God rooted them out of their land, as is described here, but there was no need to initiate an event similar to the "overthrow of Sedom and Amora."

"Why Is the Land Perished?

In contrast to the difficulties that we have mentioned, note should be taken of support from an unexpected source. In the book of Yirmeyahu we find a reference to the reason for the impending destruction:

Who is the wise man, that he may understand this? And who is he to whom the mouth of the Lord has spoken, that he may declare it? Why is the land perished and laid waste like a wilderness, so that none passes through? And the Lord says: Because they have forsaken My law which I set before them and have not hearkened to My voice, neither walked therein; but have walked after the stubbornness of their own heart and after the Baalim, which their fathers taught them. Therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Behold, I will feed them, even this people, with wormwood and give them water of gall to drink. I will scatter them also among the nations, whom neither they nor their fathers have known; and I will send the sword after them, till I have consumed them. (Yirmeyahu 9:11-15)

The prophet uses several expressions reminiscent of our parasha. The reason for the destruction, quoted in the name of God himself, occupied the gemara (Nedarim 81a):

For R. Yehuda said in the name of Rav: What is meant by: "Who is the wise man, that he may understand this?... [For what is the land destroyed?]" Now, this question was put to the Sages, the prophets, and the ministering angels, but they could not answer it, until the Holy One, blessed be He, Himself did so, as it is written: "And the Lord said: Because they have forsaken my law which I set before them, and have not obeyed my voice, neither walked therein." But is not "have not obeyed my voice" identical with "neither walked therein"? R. Yehuda said in the name of Rav: [It means] that they did not first recite a blessing over the Torah.

The gemara's determination that the cause of the destruction was unknown to all aroused attention among the commentators. The prophets rebuked the people from morning to night about their sins. How can the gemara claim that the reason for the destruction was not known by the prophets or by the sages? The Ran famously answers: 

Now, this question was put to the Sages… but they could not answer it… as it is written: “And the Lord said: Because they have forsaken My law.” This implies that nobody could offer an explanation except for the Holy One, blessed be He. And I found in a secret scroll of R. Yona that it was inferred from the verse that the land was destroyed because they did not first recite a blessing over the Torah, because if "because they have forsaken My law" should be understood literally, that they forsook the Torah and did not occupy themselves with it, then when the Sages and prophets were asked about the matter, why did they not explain it? Surely it is a manifest matter, and easy to explain! Rather, they were certainly always occupied with the Torah, and therefore the sages and prophets asked for what was the land destroyed. Until the Holy One, blessed be He, Himself explained that He knows the depths of their hearts – that they did not first recite a blessing over the Torah. That is to say, the Torah was not important enough in their eyes that it deserved that a blessing be recited over it, as they did not engage in Torah study for its own sake, and thus they treated the blessing with scorn. This is the meaning of: "Neither walked therein" – that is to say, for its own sake. These are the words of the pious Rabbi, and they are fitting for the one who said them.

We see then that according to the gemara the decree of destruction was issued because of secret conduct, invisible to human eyes. Only the Creator, who examines the innermost places of man, is able to discern the stubbornness of the people's hearts, as stated by the prophet who alludes here to a phrase found in our parasha.

(Translated by David Strauss)

 


[1] Unless indicated otherwise, biblical references are to the book of Devarim.

[2] Similarly in Tehillim 79 (5-10): "How long, O Lord, will You be angry forever? How long will Your jealousy burn like fire?… Help us, O God of our salvation, for the sake of the glory of Your name; and deliver us and forgive our sins, for Your name's sake. Why should the nations say: Where is their God? Let the avenging of Your servants' blood that is shed be made known among the nations in our sight." See also Meshekh Chokhma in his commentary to the haftara for Parashat Vayelekh.

[3]  One who outwardly worships an idol without accepting it as God is exempt (Shabbat 72b, Sanhedrin 61b). If so, perhaps the opposite is true as well. One who outwardly worships the God of Israel, when his heart is directed toward foreign gods, would be defined as having breached the covenant. According to our proposal, this is the meaning of the verse later in our parasha (29:25): "And they went and served other gods, and worshipped them, gods that they knew not, and that He had not allotted to them."

[4]  The description of the sinner's thinking includes a difficult phrase: "That the watered be swept away with the dry." The commentators, each in his own way, note that the phrase means that the sinner wishes to obscure his evil deeds by performing good deeds at the same time. This explanation fits in well with our interpretation as well.

[5]  We have focused on the community, to which the Torah relates when it threatens an overthrow of Sedom and Amora, whereas with regard to the individual who adopts such a lifestyle, the Torah contents itself with "the Lord separating him to evil." This may have taken place over time with respect to individuals, but the surrounding community did not recognize that it was the hand of God that pursued him, for even Scripture did not promise a supernatural punishment that would attest to its divine nature.

[6] The Abravanel himself accepts this reading: "And because of the similarity that there will be between Eretz Yisrael and Sedom and Amora, they themselves will judge that Eretz Yisrael was destroyed as a result of God's anger and wrath, as was the case with Sedom. And therefore the nations will say, that is, the stranger that was mentioned above: 'Why has the Lord done thus to this land? What means the heat of this great anger?' That is to say, we are not asking how this destruction was done, nor who brought it about, for we already know from the nature of the destruction that it was God who did this with His providence."

[7] This way of thinking can, however, be attributed to Christianity, which recognized the existence of the Creator and advanced this very claim that He has abandoned the people of Israel.  

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