This dvar Torah, translated from this week’s issue of Shabbat Shalom , the weekly Shabbat pamphlet of the religious peace group Oz Veshalom is dedicated to the memory of my father and teacher Sanford “Whitey” Watzman, who left us four years ago on 2 Av.
Can there be two more contradictory statements describing God attending to the voice of his people than the one at the Burning Bush and the one at the Plains of Moab? At the first, God tells Moses: “I have marked well the plight of my people in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I am mindful of their sufferings” (Exodus 3:7). In contrast, in this week’s portion, Devarim, when Moses recounts the story of the spies and the Ma’apilim (those who sought to disregard God’s decree that the members generation that left Egypt would not enter the Land of Israel), he declares: “Again you wept before the Lord; but the Lord would not heed your cry or give ear to you” (Deuteronomy 1:45). The first statement prepares Moses for the Exodus from Egypt. The second prepares the Children of Israel for the ultimate destruction of their commonwealth and the Exile.
But the contradiction actually goes well beyond that. On a simple reading of Exodus, the redemption from Egypt seems not to be the result of any good deeds or merits of the Children of Israel. When we left Egypt, we left because the term of the Exile, pronounced to Abraham at the time of the Covenant between the Parts (Genesis 15), had come to an end. Presumably the Israelites were crying out to God throughout their enslavement, and did not begin doing so only when Moses reached the Burning Bush. The same pattern appears later, at the time of the Return to Zion (Shivat Tzion) from the Babylonian Exile. This second redemption begins after the seventy-year term prophesized by Jeremiah comes to an end, not because the Exiled Jews have been righteous: “In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, when the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah was fulfilled, the Lord roused the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia to issue a proclamation throughout his realm” (Ezra 1:1).
But things were quite different when we left Jerusalem, at the time of the destruction of both the First and Second Temples. The Jews go into exile not because the prearranged date for it has arrived, not because a term of years was set in advance for their sojourn in the Land of Israel. The Torah and prophets stress that the Land vomited the people out because of their evil actions.