Tag Archives: History

The Most Important Torah Reading

Two columns of parashat Ha’azinu in a Torah scroll

This Shabbat we will be reading Ha’azinu, a unique parasha written in two poetic columns. Ha’azinu is a song; the song that God instructed Moses to teach all of Israel: “And now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it into their mouths, in order that this song will be for Me as a witness for the children of Israel.” (Deut. 31:19) Of course, the entire Torah is a song, chanted with specific ta’amim, musical cantillations. In fact, the mitzvah for each Jew to write a Torah scroll of their own (one of the 613) is derived from the verse above, where God commands the Children of Israel to write this song for themselves. While the simple meaning is that God meant to write the song of Ha’azinu, our Sages interpreted it to refer to the entire Torah. (Since most people are unable to write an entire kosher Torah scroll by themselves, the mitzvah can be fulfilled by writing in a single letter, or by financially contributing to the production of a Torah scroll.)

Why is the song of Ha’azinu so special that God commanded Moses to ensure it will always remain in the mouths of Israel? A careful reading shows that Ha’azinu essentially incorporates all of the central themes of the Torah. We are first reminded that God is perfect, “and all His ways are just” (32:4). While it is common for people to become angry at God and wonder why He is seemingly making life so difficult for them, Ha’azinu reminds us that there is no injustice in God, and that all suffering is self-inflicted (32:5). The Talmud reminds us that hardships are issurim shel ahavah, “afflictions of love”, meant to inspire us to change, grow, repent, learn, and draw us closer to God. Isaac Newton said it well:

Trials are medicines which our gracious and wise Physician gives because we need them; and the proportions, the frequency, and weight of them, to what the case requires. Let us trust His skill and thank Him for the prescription.

History is the Greatest Proof

In the second aliyah, we are told to “remember the days of old and reflect upon the years of previous generations” (32:7). Is there any greater proof for God and the truth of the Torah than Jewish history? Despite all the hate, persecution, exile, and genocide, the Jewish people are still alive and well, prospering as much as ever.

Does it make sense that 0.2% of the world’s population wins over 20% of the world’s Nobel Prizes? (Out of 881 Nobels awarded thus far, 197 were awarded to Jews, who number just 14 million or so. Compare that to the 1.8 billion Muslims in the world—roughly 25% of the world’s population—who have a grand total of three Nobel Prizes in the sciences.) Does it make sense that a nation in exile for two millennia can return to its ancestral homeland, defeat five professional armies that invade it simultaneously (and outnumber it at least 10 to 1), and go on to establish a flourishing oasis in a barren desert in just a few short decades? Does it make sense that tiny Israel is a global military, scientific, democratic, and economic powerhouse? And yet, does it make any sense that the United Nations has passed more resolutions against Israel than all of the rest of the world combined?

There is no greater proof for God’s existence, for the truth of His Torah, and the distinctiveness of the Jewish people than history itself. It is said that King Louis XIV once asked the French polymath and Catholic theologian Blaise Pascal for proof of the supernatural, to which the latter simply replied: “the Jews”. Although Pascal—who was not a big fan of the Jews—probably meant it in a less than flattering way, he was totally correct.

The Consequences of Forgetting God

From the third aliyah onwards, Ha’azinu describes what the Jewish people have unfortunately experienced through the centuries: God gives tremendous blessings, which eventually leads to the Jews becoming “fat and rebellious”. They forget “the God who delivered” them (32:18). This is precisely when God hides His face (32:20), and just as the Jews provoked God with their foolishness and assimilation, God in turn “provokes [them] with a foolish nation”. God sends a wicked foreign nation to punish the Jews—whether Babylonians or Romans, Cossacks or Nazis—to remind the Jews who they are supposed to be: a righteous, Godly people; a light unto the nations. If the Jews will not be righteous and divine, God has no use for them.

Having said that, this does not exonerate those Cossacks and Nazis, for they, too, have been judged. They are a “foolish nation”, a “non-people”, who themselves merit destruction, and God “will avenge the blood of His servants” (32:43). The song ends with a promise: Israel will atone and fulfil its role, its enemies will be defeated, and God will restore His people to their land.

The Spiritual Power of Ha’azinu

The song of Ha’azinu beautifully summarizes the purpose and history of the Jewish people, and elegantly lays down the responsibilities, benefits, and consequences of being the nation tasked with God’s mission. Not surprisingly then, God wanted all of Israel to know Ha’azinu very well, and meditate upon this song at all times. This is why it was given in the format of a song, since songs are much easier to memorize and internalize then words alone. Music has the power to penetrate into the deepest cores of our souls.

In fact, the Zohar on this parasha writes that music is the central way to elevate spiritually, and can be used to attain Ruach HaKodesh, the prophetic Divine Spirit. Elsewhere, the Zohar goes so far as to say that Moses’ prophecy was unique in that all other prophets needed music to receive visions, while Moses alone could prophesy without the help of song!

Today, we have scientific evidence that music deeply affects the mind. It triggers the release of various neurotransmitters, and can rewire the brain. It has a profound impact on mood and wellbeing, and can be used to induce all sorts of mental and emotional states. Music is powerful.

And so, the Torah concludes with a song. After relaying Ha’azinu, the Torah says that “Moses finished speaking all of these words to Israel” (32:45). The lyrics were the last of the Torah’s instructions. Indeed, Ha’azinu is the last weekly Torah reading in the yearly cycle. (Although there is one more parasha, it is not read on its own Shabbat, but on the holiday of Simchat Torah, at which point we jump right ahead to Beresheet, the first parasha.)

So important is Ha’azinu that it is always read during the High Holiday period, usually on Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Repentance, or Return. So important is Ha’azinu that it is most often the first parasha read in the New Year. And so important is Ha’azinu that it was commonly believed the entire Torah is encoded within it. When our Sages derived the mitzvah of writing the Torah from the command of writing Ha’azinu, they literally meant that Ha’azinu encapsulates the whole Torah! The Ramban went so far as to teach that all of history, including the details of every individual, is somehow encrypted in Ha’azinu. This prompted one of the Ramban’s students, Rabbi Avner, to abandon Judaism and become an apostate. In a famous story, the Ramban later confronts Avner, and proves that Avner’s own name and fate is embedded in one of Ha’azinu’s verses.

In past generations, many people customarily memorized Ha’azinu. The Rambam (Hilkhot Tefillah 7:13) cites another custom to recite Ha’azinu every morning at the end of Shacharit, and the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 31a) states that in those days it was read every Shabbat. This Shabbat, take the time to read Ha’azinu diligently, and see why it was always considered the most important Torah reading. Perhaps you will even find your own life encoded in its enigmatic verses.

Wishing everyone a sweet and happy new year! Shana tova v’metuka! 

Tu b’Shevat: The Prime Ministers of Israel and the Coming of Mashiach

This Shabbat we celebrate the little-known though highly significant holiday of Tu b’Shevat. This special day is commonly referred to as Rosh Hashanah l’Ilanot, “the New Year for Trees”. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 2a) tells us that there are four “new years” on the Hebrew Calendar:

The first of Nisan is the New Year for kings and festivals; the first of Elul is the New Year for tithing of cattle… The first of Tishrei is the New Year for years, for sabbaticals, Jubilees, plantation, and tithing of vegetables; on the first of Shevat is the New Year for trees according to Beit Shammai, however, Beit Hillel places it on the fifteenth of that month.

The general rule is that we always follow Hillel’s opinion over Shammai’s, and so the New Year for Trees is commemorated on the 15th of Shevat. The Talmud doesn’t explain why Hillel and Shammai disagreed about the date. Perhaps because of this confusion, we are told that Rabbi Akiva would tithe his fruits on both the first and fifteenth of Shevat.

Nonetheless, by the 16th century, Tu b’Shevat had developed into an important mystical holiday, and the Arizal (Rabbi Itzchak Luria) introduced a Tu b’Shevat seder that mirrors the Passover seder. In addition to eating a variety of different fruits that are kabbalistically symbolic, the Tu b’Shevat seder includes drinking four cups of wine like on Passover. The connection is made very clear: Passover celebrates our First Redemption, and Tu b’Shevat celebrates our future redemption with the coming of Mashiach.

Indeed, Mashiach is often likened to a tree or sprouting plant. For example, Zechariah 6:2 tells us that Mashiach’s name is Tzemach, literally “plant”, while Psalms 92:13, in describing the End of Days, says “the righteous one will flourish like a palm tree.” Jewish tradition holds that a potential messiah lives in each generation, so that he may come immediately if the world is ready. Moses was the first redeemer, so his successor Joshua was the first possible mashiach.

Joshua was the first of the so-called “Judges”, the Shoftim that led Israel over the period of nearly five centuries before Israel had a king. It wasn’t just Joshua who was a potential messiah, but each and every one of the Judges. Each was a saviour in their generation, fighting off Israel’s enemies and bringing peace to the Holy Land. Each had the opportunity to reclaim Jerusalem and build the Holy Temple upon it, but failed. We read in Joshua 13:1 how God reprimands Joshua for growing old without completing his task, while the commentaries on Genesis 49:18 tell us how downtrodden Jacob was to prophetically foresee Samson fail to bring about the redemption.

The period of Judges would come to an end, and soon David would ascend the throne. It was he who acquired the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and brought the Ark of the Covenant there. David besought God to allow him to build the Temple, but God denied the request. However, he promised David that his dynasty would be everlasting, and that he would be the progenitor of the Messiah, who would complete David’s divine task.

It took a long and difficult, lawless period of Judges (where each person falsely did “what was right in their own eyes”, as we are told in Judges 17:6 and 21:25), full of warfare and oppression before the first footsteps of the Final Redemption were laid. This strongly resembles our present situation. “There is nothing new under the sun,” said King Solomon, and it appears we are reliving the past in our modern day.

Israel’s Prime Ministers

In 1948, a fully independent Jewish state in the Holy Land was finally re-established, under miraculous circumstances. Jews were returning en masse to their ancestral home, on a scale unseen since the time of Joshua. There was a chance to reclaim all of the ancient borders and even (though it would be astronomically difficult) rebuild the Temple. An even better opportunity presented itself in 1967, after the phenomenal Six-Day War. Yet time and again Israel failed to fulfil its Biblical mission. Alas, we must wait for Mashiach, the scion of David’s dynasty, to get the job done. The feeling among many Jews today is probably similar to that of the Jews in the period of Judges. And the similarities don’t end there.

The Israelite leaders in the period of Judges did some great things, but ultimately failed to realize their main task. A careful reading of the Book of Judges reveals that not all of the Judges were divinely appointed, and some weren’t even righteous! For the most part, the Judges were military leaders selected by the people. The Judge Avimelech was a powerful warrior, but such a wicked man that he was severely punished by God. Nonetheless, he is counted among the Judges because he was elected by the people. Sound familiar?

The situation in Israel today is much the same, with the people electing their leader – the prime minister – who is often a military hero and sometimes not so righteous. The parallels between the ancient Judges and the modern prime ministers of Israel are striking:

The fifth Judge was Deborah, the only female; the fifth prime minister was Golda Meir, also the only female. Prior to Deborah was Shamgar, who had such a brief stint that he is not included in the chronological record. Likewise, before Golda Meir was Yigal Allon, who served for just 19 days and is often excluded from the list of official prime ministers. Unfortunately, we don’t know very much about the Judges to make more detailed comparisons. Many are described in only one or two verses, and some just by name. (Did Prime Minister Ehud Barak appreciate the significance of his name, considering both Ehud and Barak were two central figures in the Book of Judges?)

What we do know is that there were a total of fifteen Judges, who reigned from the time the Jews returned to Israel after their calamity in Egypt. Three thousand years later, the Jews once again return to Israel after the Holocaust, and thus far there have been thirteen prime ministers. The era of Judges concluded with the start of the monarchy and the subsequent construction of the Temple. It took fifteen judges to get there. Will it take fifteen prime ministers to do it again?

The Secret of Tu b’Shevat

Although the School of Shammai taught that the “New Year for Trees” is the first of Shevat, the School of Hillel insisted that it was on the fifteenth. This is where the holiday gets its name: Tu b’Shevat literally means “fifteenth of Shevat”, where Tu is the traditional Hebrew designation for the number fifteen. (In Hebrew, Tu [ט”ו] is composed of the letters ט and ו, where the former has a value of 9 and the latter 6, totalling 15. It might seem more logical to use the letters yud [10] and hei [5] to represent 15, but that would inadvertently spell a name of God in vain!)

Perhaps the School of Hillel insisted on the fifteenth to remind us of the deeper meaning of the holiday: the Final Redemption that it symbolizes, the foundation of which was laid by the first fifteen Judges and which, perhaps, will be fulfilled by another set of fifteen modern “judges”.

The Kabbalists teach that the letters beit and pei are linked, and are sometimes interchangeable. In fact, within the shape of the letter pei is a hidden beit. With this in mind, the word Shevat (שבט) can be read Shofet (שפט), “Judge”. Thus, Tu b’Shevat may very well hint to the fifteen Judges.

When it comes to the modern-day “judges”, the Prime Minster of Israel is officially the leading member of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. And it is the Knesset that gives the necessary “vote of confidence” to elect a prime minister. Incredibly, Israel’s very first Knesset convened on February 14, 1949, which just happened to be Tu b’Shevat!

Prophecies and Miracles

The Tu b’Shevat seder instituted by the Kabbalists cites the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a) that “there is no greater sign of the Redemption than the fulfilment of the verse, ‘And you, mountains of Israel, you shall give forth your branches and you shall bear your fruit for my people Israel, for they shall soon come’ (Ezekiel 36:8).” The Sages state then when we see the land of Israel flourishing once more, and yielding great quantities of fruit, we should know that the Redemption is imminent. Indeed, the modern State of Israel has flourished, growing a whopping 95% of its own produce, and exporting over $1.3 billion in agricultural goods – despite having a land mass that is officially 50% desert!

Back in 1890, Rabbi Ze’ev Yavetz started a tradition by taking his students to plants trees on Tu b’Shevat. Soon after, the custom was adopted by the Jewish National Fund, which has since planted an astonishing 260 million trees in Israel, and played a central role in the nascent state’s success. Today, it is estimated that over a million Jews still participate yearly in JNF’s Tu b’Shevat tree-planting. As such, Tu b’Shevat has grown from an obscure, mystical holiday – a footnote on the Hebrew calendar – to an important holiday marked even by secular Jews, bringing the entire nation together, very much in the spirit of the coming Redemption.

‘The Mulberry Tree’ (1889) by Vincent Van Gogh

Did the Jews Build the Pyramids?

This week we begin reading the second book of the Torah, Shemot, which recounts the Israelite bondage in Egypt, and the Exodus that followed. Last year, we attempted to answer the big question of how long the Israelites were actually in Egypt, since different sources suggest 210, 400, and 430 years. This year’s question is: when did all of this happen, anyway? The Torah itself never gives any years or specific dates for its events. The accepted Jewish tradition is that the Exodus took place in the Hebrew year 2448, which corresponds to roughly 1312 BCE. What might archaeology and the historical record reveal?

City of Ramses

The Torah tells us that one of the major cities that the Israelites built was Ramses (Exodus 1:11). The historical record shows that this city was, not surprisingly, built by the pharaoh Ramses II (the Great). However, his reign spanned 1279-1213 BCE, too late for the Jewish dating of the Exodus. Perhaps it was Ramses’ grandfather, Ramses I – the founder of Egypt’s famous 19th dynasty – that began building a new capital city to be named after him. Ramses I reigned 1292-1290 BCE; still too late to coincide with Jewish tradition.

The Torah never identifies the names of any pharaohs it mentions. It describes at least three different ones: the pharaoh that dealt with Abraham, and the one that appointed Joseph many decades later, as well as the “new pharaoh” that forgot about Joseph’s contributions (Exodus 1:8). The pharaoh at the time of the Exodus was likely a different pharaoh altogether, too. The description we have of Ramses II actually parallels the Torah’s Exodus pharaoh quite well.

Ramses II was Egypt’s longest-reigning monarch (66 years!) and had over 100 children. He vastly expanded Egypt’s wealth, and stretched its territory and influence as far as the lands of Canaan and Syria. We see that he was a prolific builder, commissioning – among many other projects – a massive temple complex known as the Ramesseum, which still stood over 1000 years later when it marvelled the Greek historian Diodorus. His city of Ramses (or Pi-Ramses) was located in northeastern Egypt, in the land of Goshen, precisely where the Torah says the Israelites dwelled.

The Hyksos

Images of Semites in Egypt, discovered in a Twelvth Dynasty tomb, dated to c. 1900 BCE

The historical record shows that a few centuries before Ramses, a mysterious Semitic tribe migrated to Egypt en masse and ended up taking over the kingdom. They were called heqa khaseshet, “foreign rulers”, which gave rise to the term “Hyksos”. Eventually, the Egyptians fought back and regained control from the foreigners. Most were expelled, many were killed, and it is likely that some were enslaved.

The ancient Jewish historian Josephus wrote that “Hyksos” comes from hekw shasu, “shepherd kings”. Of course, the Torah describes in detail how the Hebrews came down to Egypt and made sure everyone knew they were shepherds, a trade frowned upon in Egypt. Josephus cites historical sources suggesting that 480,000 Hyksos were ultimately expelled, and he concludes that these were the ancient Israelites!

The city of Ramses was discovered 30 kilometres south of Tanis, which is right by Avaris!

It is interesting to point out that the Hyksos’s capital city was also in the northeastern region of Goshen. The city was named Avaris, or Hawara. These sound quite similar to the way the Egyptians refer to the Hebrews in the Torah: ivri.

Historians date the Hyksos period from 1638 to 1530 BCE, totally just about 110 years. Amazingly, the Zohar (I, 212a-b) states that the Israelites ruled over Egypt for 110 years, then spent the remaining 290 years of their time in Egypt as slaves. This would mean that the Exodus happened 290 years after the end of the Hyksos period. Doing the math, 290 years after 1530 BCE takes us to 1240 BCE – right in the heart of the reign of Ramses II!

Solar Eclipse

‘Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon’ by John Martin

All of the above suggests that the Exodus happened closer to the middle of the 13th century BCE. Earlier this week, Israeli scientists discovered what may have been Joshua’s famous “stopping of the Sun” at the Battle of Gibeon (as described in the Book of Joshua, chapter 10). Interpreting this event as a solar eclipse, scientists at Ben Gurion University used NASA data to find any solar eclipses that may have been seen in the area between 1500 and 1000 BCE. They found exactly one, which took place on October 30, 1207 BCE.

This is incredible because the Battle of Gibeon would have happened roughly 40 years after the Exodus (since the Israelites spent 40 years in the Wilderness before Joshua led them to the Promised Land). If the Exodus took place around 1240 BCE, as we suggested above, then the dating of Joshua’s battle and the solar eclipse is right on target!

Reconciliation

The major issue now is that 1240 BCE seems to contradict the traditional Jewish dating of 1312 BCE. The truth is that Ancient Egyptian chronology is notoriously inaccurate. Scholars admit that discrepancies do exist, and are off by anywhere from 30 to 300 years. The discrepancy in our case is only about 70 years, well within the margins of errors.

Compared to the many foggy lists that scholars use to put together Egyptian chronology, the Torah’s chronology is fairly consistent and straight-forward. The years are added up based on peoples’ lifespans and the ages at which they had children, which are explicitly recorded. Historians might therefore want to take another look at Jewish chronology (as brought down in Seder Olam) if they wish to resolve some of their own conflicts.

And did the Jews build the pyramids? They may have built some pyramids (although by that time, pyramids had gone out of style). However, the famous Great Pyramid of Giza was completed by the middle of the third millennium BCE, long before any Israelites were on the scene.

Sphinx and the Great Pyramid

How Jacob Prophesied All of Jewish History

This week’s parasha, the last of the Book of Genesis, is Vayechi, which focuses on the last years and days of Jacob’s life. A large section of the parasha recounts Jacob’s final words to his sons. We read that “Jacob called for his sons and said, ‘Gather and I will tell you what will happen to you at the End of Days.’” (Genesis 49:1) And yet, as we read on, we seemingly see little about the End of Days. Instead, we are presented with a challenging passage that mixes blessings and prophecies, and is full of code words and puzzling metaphors. Rashi comments that Jacob “attempted to reveal the End, but the Shekhinah withdrew from him. So he began to say other things.” More mystical commentaries suggest that he did indeed say what will happen at the End of Days, but in cryptic fashion.

jacob-blessing-his-twelve-sons-dalzielOver the centuries, much meaning has been drawn from Jacob’s enigmatic words, and they have been interpreted in a wide variety of ways. A careful reading will reveal a great deal of insight from each “blessing” that Jacob gave to each child. While each blessing seems to stand on its own and have no relation to the next, a closer look suggests that the blessings are actually all part of one logical and chronological sequence. In fact, in one relatively brief passage, the Torah secretly embeds all of Jewish history!

Reuben and the Exodus

The first blessing was given to Jacob’s firstborn, Reuben:

Reuben, you are my firstborn, my strength and the first-fruits of my might. Superior in rank and superior in power, [but] restless like water; [therefore] you shall not have superiority, for you ascended upon your father’s couch; then you profaned Him Who ascended upon my bed.

Jacob calls Reuben his reshit and bekhori. In his commentary on the first words of Genesis, Rashi proves that the word reshit always refers to the Jewish people. Similarly, God often calls Israel his “firstborn” nation. In fact, we first see this in the narrative of the Exodus (4:22), where God instructs Moses to relate to Pharaoh: “Thus says Hashem: Israel is My son, My firstborn [bekhori].” The first verse of Jacob’s blessing suggests that his words will describe the future of the Jewish people.

The next verse states that “you ascended upon your father’s couch” and profaned Hashem. While the simple meaning refers to Reuben’s sin in “mounting his father’s bed” (Genesis 35:22), the deeper reference is to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai, who profaned Hashem by worshipping the Golden Calf. Following the Exodus and the Revelation at Sinai, God had given Israel complete superiority and the highest rank among the nations, all of which they lost (at least temporarily) when they sinned with the Calf – as Jacob quite clearly alludes.

Shimon, Levi, and the Era of Judges

Following Sinai, the Israelites travelled to the borders of the Holy Land. Instead of eagerly conquering and settling it, the nation sent a group of spies who returned with a negative report, convincing the nation to stay put. Because of this, God decreed forty years of wandering in the wilderness, after which the people were ready to enter the land of Israel.

The Borders of the Twelve Tribes and Locations of Some Major Judges

The Borders of the Twelve Tribes and Locations of Some Major Judges

When they did, they were unsuccessful in settling the land as God had directed, and failed to rid the Holy Land of idolatry and immorality. This brought about perhaps the most difficult period of Jewish history – the era of Shoftim, Judges – where Israel was constantly under the tyrannical rule of some warlord, and where the Israelites tribes often fought bitterly amongst themselves. As the Tanakh often repeats in describing this time period (see for example, Judges 17:6 and 21:25): “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes.”

All of the above is prophesized by Jacob’s next blessing, to Shimon and Levi:

Shimon and Levi are brothers; weapons of violence is their kinship. Let my soul not come into their council; unto their assembly let my glory not be united; for in their anger they slew men, and in their will they hamstrung oxen. Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce, and their wrath, for it was cruel; I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.

Jacob clearly references this period when the nation will divide up the Holy Land and settle across it. He reprimands them for the anger and brotherly hatred they will show one another, and rebukes them for their violence and civil war. Not surprisingly, Jacob wants nothing to do with this difficult period of Jewish history.

Judah’s Dynasty

The cruel period of Judges finally ended with the establishment of the monarchy. After a very brief period of rule by King Saul, David took over and established a new, everlasting dynasty. God promised to David – who is from the tribe of Judah – that his descendants will forever be the rightful kings of Israel, until the time of Mashiach, who himself will be a descendent of David. This is precisely what Jacob prophesies in his next blessing:

Judah: you, your brothers will acknowledge. Your hand will be at the nape of your enemies; your father’s sons will prostrate themselves to you… The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the scholar from between his feet, until Shiloh comes, and to him will be a gathering of peoples…

Jacob makes clear that Judah is destined for royalty, and to him the other tribes will prostrate. This will be an eternal dynasty – from whom the scepter shall not depart. “Shiloh” is one of the titles of Mashiach. Rashi explains the term comes from shelo, “his”, since the renewed kingdom will belong to him, following the “gathering of peoples”, ie. kibbutz galuyot, the end of the exile and return of all Jews to Israel.

The Kingdom of Israel

Map of Israel in the 9th Century BCE, showing the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel

Map of Israel in the 9th Century BCE, showing the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel

Unfortunately, David’s dynasty didn’t hold onto its rule as planned. After King Solomon, the nation divided once again, this time into two kingdoms. In the south was the Kingdom of Judah, ruled by the Davidic dynasty, while in the north was the Kingdom of Israel, ruled by leaders from the tribe of Ephraim. This is described by Jacob in the next blessing:

Zebulun will dwell on the coast of the seas; he [will be] at the harbor of the ships, and his boundary will be at Zidon.

Looking at a map of ancient Israel, one sees how the northern Kingdom of Israel was situated right along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, all around the coasts of the Sea of Galilee, and by the shores of the Jordan. Its territories stretched as far north as Zidon (or Sidon) in Phoenicia. This is precisely the description given by Jacob.

Assyria and Babylon

Ultimately, both kingdoms would collapse: the northern at the hands of the Assyrians, and the southern at the hands of the Babylonians shortly after. The nation was dispersed all across Assyrian and Babylonian lands. In the latter case, they were taken in chains, as indentured servants. Again, Jacob prophesies this in perfect detail in his next blessing:

Issachar is a large-boned donkey, lying between the boundaries. He saw a resting place, that it was good, and the land, that it was pleasant, and he bent his shoulder to bear [burdens], and he became an indentured labourer.

Jacob says how Issachar is “between the boundaries” – no longer in his own land, and exiled from place to place. He has become a mas oved, an “indentured labourer”. Unfortunately, most of the exiled Israelites eventually grew accustomed to their new lands, which they saw as “good” and “pleasant”. For this reason, when the door to return to the Holy Land was reopened, most chose to stay abroad, and only small numbers returned to rebuild Israel.

Returning to Israel & the Second Temple

Cyrus the Great

Cyrus the Great

It was the Persian King Cyrus that brought down the Babylonian Empire and allowed the Jews to return to Israel and rebuild the Temple. For his role in the salvation of the nation, the Tanakh (Isaiah 45:1) calls him “Mashiach”! This salvation is what Jacob hopes for in his next blessing:

Dan will avenge his people; like one, the tribes of Israel. Dan will be a serpent on the road, a viper on the path, which bites the horse’s heels, so its rider falls backwards. For Your salvation, I hope, O Lord!

Jacob states how Dan will be k’echad shivtei Israel. This literally means that the tribes of Israel will become one. This is precisely what happened in the Second Temple era, when tribal affiliation was lost and forgotten, and all Israel simply became “Jewish” (because of the dominant tribe – Judah). In this era, the Jews no longer enjoyed independence, and were subject to a sequence of powerful empires: the Persian, then the Greek, and finally the Roman. To avoid destruction at the hands of these empires, the underdog Israel had to become like a “serpent”, deceptively “biting the horse’s heel” to make its rider fall back.

Purim & Chanukah

Two monumental events happened during this time period, each of which we commemorate with its own holiday. Purim recalls how Haman prepared a genocide against the Jews, yet in miraculous fashion, lost all of his power and prestige. His forces fell into disarray, and the Jews were able to fight them off quickly. Jacob’s next blessing says the same:

Gad: a troop shall troop upon him; but he shall troop upon their heel.

A troop marches against Gad, but he is ultimately able to overpower them, making them retreat on their heels. Interestingly, the word gad means “luck” or “fortune”. This is related to Purim, which means “lotteries” and deals with the theme of luck, since Haman picked the date of the genocide by casting lots, and the Jews were seemingly “lucky” in their salvation. God is never explicitly mentioned in the Purim story; everything seems to happen by chance. Yet, each part of the story screams out God’s miraculous presence.

A few centuries later, it is the Syrian-Greeks who are trying to extinguish Judaism, but the Jews miraculously fight off their oppressors yet again. The Maccabees recapture the Holy Temple, and relight the Menorah with just one cruse of oil that ends up lasting eight days. The Maccabees go on to re-establish a semi-independent Jewish kingdom, controversially appointing themselves the new kings under the banner of the Hasmonean dynasty. This is described by Jacob precisely:

As for Asher, his bread shall be fat, and he shall yield royal delicacies.

Jacob says shmenah lachmo, which literally means “his bread will be oily”, but can also mean “his warriors will be oily”! (The word for bread – lechem – and the word for warrior – lochem – share a root and are nearly identical.) This is a clear reference to the Maccabee warriors and their miracle of oil. The second part of the blessing says that Asher will give ma’adanei melekh, “royal delicacies”, a reference to Hasmonean royalty.

Exile and Mashiach

The Hasmonean period came to a close with the arrival of the Romans. At first living in relative harmony, the Romans would eventually destroy the Second Temple, and exile the Jews from the Holy Land. This would usher in the last and longest exile of Israel.

sanhedrinHowever, it also led to the necessity of the Sages to record the Oral Tradition, thus producing the Mishnah. This Mishnah was then discussed, analyzed, and debated by the following generations, which brought the Talmud. Of course, it is the Talmud that makes up the major corpus of Judaism, and preserves the authentic interpretation of the Torah. It was also in this period that the texts of Jewish prayers and blessings were finalized, and in this period that the Tanakh was formally sealed. In lieu of a Temple, synagogues and study halls began popping up in all Jewish communities. It was therefore in this time period – following the Temple’s destruction by Rome – that Judaism as we know it was born. Jacob says:

Naphtali is a hind let loose, who gives beautiful words.

Naphtali is described as an ayalah sheluchah, which literally means a hind (or gazelle, or deer) that has been sent forth, like the Jews who were sent out of their land by the Romans. The second part says Naphtali speaks imrei shafer, “beautiful” or “improved sayings”. This may well be a reference to the beautiful sayings and teachings of the Mishnah and Gemara, which resulted directly from exile.

The bitter Roman exile is one in which we still find ourselves in. Over the past two thousand years, Jews have been despised, expelled, slaughtered, and suffered every kind of atrocity. Nonetheless, we have survived and prospered, and continued to make a huge impact on the world. This is what Jacob says to Joseph:

Joseph is a fruitful vine, a fruitful vine by a fountain; its branches run over the wall. The archers have dealt bitterly with him, and shot at him, and hated him. But his bow remained firm, and the arms of his hands were made supple, by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob, from there, from the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel. The God of your father will help you, and the Almighty shall bless you, with blessings of Heaven above…

While ben porat Yosef, ben porat alei ayin is often translated as “Joseph is a charming son; a charming son to the eye,” it has also been translated in the above way, as Joseph being a fruitful vine (which makes more sense when the whole verse is taken together). We see Jacob describing the bitter exile, with all of the hate and suffering heaped upon Israel. But the nation survives with God’s help and blessing.

It is interesting to note how Jacob mentions a wall in the first verse. The Romans left but one relic of the Holy Temple – its western retaining wall. This is the Wall that Jews still flock to, and to which they direct their prayers.

The exile will finally end with the coming of Mashiach, who will defeat Israel’s enemies once and for all, put an end to evil, and restore the Jews to their original borders. This is Jacob’s final blessing:

Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; in the morning he will devour, and in the evening he will divide the spoils.

Ben-yamin is literally the “righteous son”, Mashiach, who will cause evil “to be devoured”, and will divide Israel back along its original tribal borders. Here, Rashi quotes Onkelos as saying “the spoils” refer to the Temple and its sacred vessels. The Temple will finally be rebuilt for the Jews, who all return to their Promised Land. With this closing chapter of history, Jacob concludes his blessings.

The Zohar comments on the first word of the parasha, Vayechi, that this final prophecy of Jacob was on the very highest level, equal to the unique prophetic ability of Moses. Indeed, Jacob saw thousands of years into the future, and beheld the entirety of Jewish history, which he then poetically summarized to his children in one short, incredible monologue.

Courtesy: Temple Institute

Courtesy: Temple Institute

How Jewish History Confirms God’s Promise to Abraham

Abraham's Journey to Canaan, by Jozsef Molnar (1850)

Abraham’s Journey to Canaan, by Jozsef Molnar (1850)

This week’s parasha is Lech Lecha, which begins with God’s famous command to Abraham to leave the comforts of his home and journey forth to a new beginning in the Holy Land. God promises Abraham (at that point still known as “Abram”) that he will become a great nation, and that God will “bless those who bless you, and the ones who curse you I will curse” (Genesis 12:3). God’s covenant with Abraham passed down to his son Isaac, and then to Isaac’s son Jacob, who fathered twelve sons that became the twelve tribes of Israel. God confirmed his promise to the twelve tribes through the prophet Bilaam, who saw “Israel dwelling tribe by tribe, and the spirit of God came upon him” and he famously remarked, “how goodly are your tents, oh Jacob, your dwellings, oh Israel!” before prophesying that “blessed be those who bless you, and cursed be those who curse you.” (Numbers 24:2-9)

Over three millennia have passed since that time, and as we look back though history, we can see how accurately this prediction has been realized. It began with the twelve sons of Jacob, whom the Ancient Egyptians welcomed to their land and initially treated exceedingly well – thanks to Joseph, who saved Egypt from seven years of extreme famine, and then made the empire very rich. As time went on, the Israelites multiplied and prospered in Egypt. In a pattern that would repeat itself countless times throughout history, the natives started to become a little weary (and jealous) of the foreigners. Israel was soon subjugated and enslaved. This brought God’s plagues upon Egypt, and the empire was destroyed. Ancient Egypt’s decline steadily continued from that point, and it would never restore its former glory.

Historians recognize three great ages within Ancient Egypt’s past; the last “golden age” was in the New Kingdom period (1549-1069 BCE), approximately when the Israelites would have been dwelling there. Once Israel left, Egypt’s greatness would soon evaporate, and it would be nothing more than a vassal for the rest of its history – to Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and Rome.

Cyrus the Great

Cyrus the Great

The next major oppressors of Israel were the Assyrians, who destroyed the northern Israelite Kingdom and exiled its tribes. It wasn’t long before the Babylonians overtook the Assyrians. Once the Babylonians themselves destroyed the southern Kingdom of Judah (and the Holy Temple), their own fate was sealed, and it was just 70 years before the Persians took over. The Persian emperor Cyrus treated the Jews very well, allowing them to return to Israel and rebuild the Temple. He was so good that he is described in the Tanakh as God’s anointed – mashiach! (Isaiah 45:1)

When Persian attitudes towards Israel started to turn sour, the Greeks under Alexander the Great quickly became the new rulers. Jews and Hellenists enjoyed very good relations for some two centuries. In the 2nd century BCE, the Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks) attempted to totally assimilate the Jews into their culture. They failed miserably – as celebrated during Chanukah – and soon disappeared from history, being overtaken by the Romans from the West and the Parthians from the East.

Ancient Empires, clockwise from top left: Assyrian Empire (with deportations of Israelites), Babylonian Empire at its height, the Persian Empire under Cyrus and his Achaemenid dynasty, empire of Alexander the Macedonian (Alexander the Great)

Ancient Empires, clockwise from top left: Assyrian Empire (with deportations of Israelites); Babylonian Empire at its height; the Persian Empire under Cyrus and his Achaemenid dynasty; empire of Alexander the Macedonian (Alexander the Great)

Relations with Rome were good, too, at first. During this time, Rome experienced its own golden age, beginning with the emperor Augustus. Unfortunately, Rome was soon busy quelling the province of Judea and destroying the Second Temple in Jerusalem. At the very same time, Rome was thrust into a difficult period of civil war. In the same year that the Temple was destroyed, Rome had its “Year of Four Emperors”.

Coins minted by Bar Kochva

Coins minted by Bar Kochva

In 132-135 CE, Rome and Israel were at war again, with the latter lead by Shimon Bar Kochva. After mounting an impressive resistance, Bar Kochva’s rebellion was put down. Just 45 years later, Rome enjoyed the last of its “Five Good Emperors” (Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, who some identify with the Talmud’s “Antoninus”, the close friend of Rabbi Yehuda haNasi). Marcus Aurelius’ successor, Commodus, was a madman who ushered in Rome’s slow decline (as depicted pseudo-historically in the film Gladiator). The ancient historian Dio Cassius marked the year 180 CE – when Commodus took power – as the point at which the Roman Empire began to change “from a kingdom of gold to one of rust and iron.”

Silver coins minted by Bahram V

Silver coins minted by Bahram V

Many of the Jews who fled the Roman Empire moved to the Sasanian (or Sassanid) Persian Empire. The Sasanians treated Jews remarkably well, and were in turn blessed with prosperity and riches. It was during this time, in the “Babylon” of the Sasanians, that the Talmud was compiled. Jews were granted semi-autonomy within the empire and had their own representative to the government, known as the Reish Galuta, or exilarch. Sasanian kings even married Jewish women, and one of the most famous of Sasanian kings, the legendary Bahram V (r. 421-438 CE), was the son of the Jewish princess Shushandukht. Unfortunately, his successor, Yazdegerd II (r. 438-457), started persecuting religious minorities within the empire and pushed the state religion of Zoroastrianism. (Some say he was motivated to persecute Jews because of a prophecy that Mashiach would come on the 400th anniversary of the Temple’s destruction.)

Sasanian and Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empires before the rise of Islam

Sasanian and Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empires before the rise of Islam

At the beginning of the sixth century, a Zoroastrian priest named Mazdak gained a large following and created a new religious sect that even attracted the king, Kavadh I. This thrust the empire into all sorts of religious turmoil, within which the Reish Galuta, Mar Zutra II, led his own rebellion and managed to establish an independent Jewish city-state in Mahoza. This did not last long, as the king captured Mar Zutra and had him crucified. The office of the Reish Galuta was disbanded at this point. Not surprisingly, the Sasanian Empire wouldn’t last very long after this. The office of the Reish Galuta would soon be re-established by the invading Muslim Arabs, who completely overran the Sasanian Empire.

The same pattern then occurred with the Muslims themselves, who initially treated the Jews of their domain quite well. Jews welcomed the Arab conquerors and saw them as “liberators”. Over time, persecution of Jews became more common. In 1040, the last Reish Galuta (and last of the Gaonim, “geniuses”) Hezekiah, was tortured and killed, and the position of the exilarch was abolished permanently. Hezekiah’s sons fled to Spain, where the Muslim rulers were more tolerant.

As is well known, Jews in Spain experienced a “golden age” of their own during this time. But here, too, they would be victimized by the Muslim rulers. The Muslims were soon driven out of the peninsula by the Christian kingdoms. The expulsion of the Jews by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella followed shortly after.

Sultan Bayezid II

Sultan Bayezid II

A large majority of the Jews settled in the Ottoman Empire, where the Sultan Bayezid II welcomed them. In fact, with regards to this the Sultan said, “They tell me that Ferdinand of Spain is a wise man but he is a fool. For he takes his treasure and sends it all to me.” Assisted by the influx of Jews, the Ottoman Empire flourished. Meanwhile in Spain, Isabella died and Ferdinand was unable to hold onto the kingdom. It was soon taken over by the Austrian Habsburgs.

In 1656, Jews were permitted to return to England, and it wasn’t long before the British Empire became the greatest the world has ever known. A similar fate awaited the United States, where many Jews found refuge. (And were instrumental in its founding and success. In fact, one of the main financiers of the American Revolution was a Jew named Haym Solomon.) It isn’t difficult to understand why the Soviet Union lost the Cold War against the U.S. so quickly and so dramatically, as Russia and the USSR never had much tolerance for its Jews, while the United States was just about always a safe place for them.

fuguOf course, history is far more complex than the simple narrative presented above, and there are many factors in the rise and fall of empires. However, there is indeed a clear pattern: Where Jews are treated well, the state flourishes and prospers; when Jews are persecuted and expelled, the very same state rapidly declines. This pattern is so obvious that in the 1930s, the Japanese came up with their “Fugu Plan” to strengthen their empire by settling Jews within its lands!

In analyzing the pattern, some scholars see it in simply practical terms, as Jews would bring their wisdom and wealth, skills, expertise, and business acumen wherever they would go, and thus contribute immensely to the success of the places where they lived. Others see far more powerful spiritual reasons, propelled by Biblical prophecy. Whatever the case, history undeniably confirms God’s promise to Abraham and Israel: “I will bless those who bless you, and the ones who curse you I will curse.”