Judaism: The Ultimate Punishment
In Moshe’s final days in this world, in that charged time when he was preparing to part from his beloved nation and the nation was preparing to enter the Land of Israel, part of Moshe’s farewell message was the tochachah – the admonition and warning of what lay ahead if we would stray from the Torah.
It is significant that this tochachah occurs twice in the Torah, once in Parashat Bechukotay (Leviticus 26), and again in our Parashah (Deuteronomy 28). These two tochachot have much in common:
-both are given just before our planned entry into the Land of Israel (though the first time round it went horribly wrong because of the sin of the spies);
-both begin with a brief overview of the blessings for keeping the Torah (13 verses in Bechukotay, 14 in Ki Tavo), followed by a far longer and more detailed depiction of the curses (30 verses in Bechukotay, 54 in Ki Tavo);
-both follow the general development of individuals as well as society being cursed on the Land of Israel, followed by foreign domination of the Land, followed by ever-increasingly harsh persecution in the Land, followed by exile from the Land.
Historically, this was precisely how events developed at the end of both the first Jewish Commonwealth (the Babylon invasion) and the second Jewish Commonwealth (the Roman invasion).
However, there is a very striking difference between the two: the tochachah in Bechukotay is in the plural, addressed to the nation as a whole, whereas the tochachah in our Parashah is almost entirely in the singular, addressed to individuals. (This is very hard to carry across in English translation; in Hebrew the difference is very obvious).
Why this difference?
The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain and Israel, 1195-c.1270), in his commentary to Leviticus 26:16, interprets the tochachah in Parashat Bechukotay to refer to the first exile, the Babylonian exile, and the tochachah in Parashat Ki Tavo to refer to the second exile, the Roman exile, the exile which has lasted until our generation, and which only now is beginning to draw to its oh-so-painful end.
In his commentary to Deuteronomy 28:42 he analyses the development of the tochachah in Parashat Ki Tavo in detail.
In the first stage (vs. 15-31) G-d admonishes us that all our undertakings in the Land will be doomed. The second stage (vs. 31-35) describes a foreign nation occupying and controlling our Land. The third stage (vs. 36-63) depicts the king and part of the nation being exiled, and life in Israel becoming progressively harsher and the occupation becoming progressively crueller. The fourth and final stage (vs. 64-68) describes the majority of the nation dragged into exile, with life in exile becoming increasingly bitter.
The Ramban relates these stages to specific events in the Roman invasion, occupation, and eventual complete destruction of the Second Jewish Commonwealth, from Rome’s original subjugation of King Agrippa to the Roman emperors Vespasian and Titus who conquered the Land militarily, destroyed the cities, and exiled the people, to the continuation the exile.
And the Ramban concludes, “I have already explained in Parashat Bechukotay the secret of this covenant – that it applies to our present time of exile at the hands of the fourth beast, and after this He guarantees the redemption from it”.
The “fourth beast” is a reference to the prophecy in Daniel Chapter 7. While in Babylonian exile, Daniel saw a vision in which four immense beasts arose from the sea. These four beasts represented the four great empires which would subjugate Israel – Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome.
Daniel describes the fourth beast as “frightening, terrifying, and overwhelmingly powerful, with huge iron teeth; it was devouring and destroying, trampling everything remaining with its feet. And it was different from all the beasts that had preceded it, having ten horns. As I was watching the horns, behold! – another small horn arose among them and three of the previous horns were uprooted from before it” (Daniel 7:7-8).
An angel revealed to Daniel that this fourth beast, the Roman Empire, was to be different from all the others, and would conquer the entire world; the ten horns represent ten kings who would arise from it (vs. 23-24). The general trend of interpretations understands this to allude either to the ten Roman emperors from Julius Caesar to Vespasian who would subjugate Israel from the conquest until the destruction the Holy Temple (Abarbanel), or to ten successor-kingdoms which would inherit the remains of the Roman Empire (Rabbi Sa’adiya Gaon).
In any event, this fourth beast which the Ramban mentions represents Rome – the mighty empire which subjugated Israel and much of the rest of the world, which devoured and destroyed, trampled everything with its feet. It was the empire that was different from all empires which preceded it, unparalleled in its power and extent. It was the empire whose tyranny and exile and dispersal we have endured for well-nigh two millennia.
I suggest that this explains why the first tochachah in Parashat Bechukotay is in the plural: “I will do this to you” – to all of you together – “I will visit panic upon you” – upon all of you together… “you” – all of you together – “will be smitten before your enemies” and so forth. There is a certain measure of comfort: though you will suffer conquest, degradation, humiliation, torture, exile, starvation – nevertheless, you will suffer these horrors together. You will remain united.
The Babylonian exile lasted just seventy years, and the Jews who were exiled there remained unified.
But the tochachah in Parashat Ki Tavo is in the singular: “You” – you by yourself, isolated even from other Jews – “will be accursed in the city”. Even in the city you will be isolated. “HaShem will attach the plague to you” – to you by yourself, without even the cold comfort of suffering together with your fellow-Jews.
Such has been the Roman exile. Jews have been not merely exiled, we have been scattered over the globe, isolated, cut off not only from our Land but even from each other. If in the Babylonian exile we remained a community, a nation, a plural “you”, in Roman exile even that was taken from us.
This isolation, not only from our Land but even from each other, is the ultimate punishment. It is the punishment which only Rome could inflict upon us. No previous hostile power – not Egypt, not Persia-Media, not Greece – could do this to us.
The Ramban attaches his explanation (that the first tochachah in Parashat Bechukotay alludes to Babylonian exile whereas the second tochachah in Parashat Ki Tavo alludes to Roman exile) to Deuteronomy 28:42; and specifically in this verse, out of the 54 verses of tochachah, I find a tiny measure of comfort, just the tiniest hint that not all is lost.
“All your trees and the fruits of your ground the tzlatzal will take possession of”. Due to grammatical peculiarities (which are too complex to detail here), the verb “yeyaresh” is highly ambiguous: our translation “take possession of” follows Targum Onkelos. Targum Yonatan renders “will destroy”, Rashi explains it to mean “will impoverish”, Ibn Ezra understands it to mean “will drive out”
There are also different opinions as to what the word “tzlatzal” means. The Targum Onkelos, the Talmud (Bava Kama 116b), Rashi (here and in his commentary to 1 Chronicles 13:8 and Ta’anit 6a), Rabbeinu Bechayye, and the Radak (Sefer ha-Shorashim) understand it to mean “locust”. Targum Yonatan understands it to mean “snail” or “slug”. The Ramban explains logically why he disagrees, and understands “tzlatzal” to mean “a hostile army”; the word, he suggests, is onomatopoeic, recalling the clash of metal upon metal.
Rabbi Meir Kahane Hy”d (USA and Israel, 1932-1991) suggests that “tzlatzal” is a generic term for the entire collection of punishments which come to plunder Israel’s property. According to his interpretation, the Aramaic word “saka’ah” (“locust”, the word which Targum Onkelos uses to translate “tzlatzal”) is a cognate of “mesikin” (“robbers”). He concludes: “This verse comes to say that all robbers of all kinds – the locusts, the slugs, nature, and foreign armies – will plunder all your property” (Peirush ha-Macabbee, Deuteronomy 28:42).
But whatever the word “tzlatzal” means, there is a peculiarity in its vowelisation. The final vowel of a verse should be elongated from a short vowel to a long vowel, so coming as it does at the end of a sentence, the vowel under the second tzaddi should grammatically be a kamatz (a long vowel); instead it remains a patach (a short vowel).
An exquisitely subtle hint, but one we can seize desperately. It is as though the Torah is telling us: Yes, the “tzlatzal” will take possession of your trees and produce. But even though the “tzlatzal” is the final word of the sentence, it is vowelised as though it is not the end. The vowelisation suggests that this “tzlatzal” does not mark the end. Though it will take possession of your property, will impoverish and destroy and drive out all that you have planted – do not despair!
That tiny grammatical peculiarity – the patach instead of the kamatz – promises, ever so subtly: Your story in your Land does not finish with this “tzlatzal”. Horrific though the tochachah is, it will one day come to an end. As the Ramban said, “after this He guarantees the redemption from it”.