Yom Haatzmaut: Animals, rivers, exiles, and redemptions

The fourth exile, the longest and bitterest of them all, is the last exile.

Daniel Pinner,

Judaism להחזיר את האור הביתה
להחזיר את האור הביתה

Two and a half centuries ago, the Ohr ha-Chayim (Rabbi Chayim ben Atar, Morocco and Israel, 1696-1743) wrote, “…no Israelite can comfort his soul when he sees how long this exile is lasting. Can you see the comparison?! The Egyptian exile lasted 400 years, the Babylonian exile 70 years, both together 470 years – and see that this exile has already stretched on for 1,602 years – and how can we maintain our hopes?!” (commentary to Leviticus 6:2).

Since the Ohr ha-Chayim calculated the exile having “stretched on for 1,602 years”, and since he wrote his commentary on the Torah in 5500 (1740), he calibrated our current exile as having begun in 3898 (138 C.E.).

That was the year that the mighty city of Beitar was conquered by the Romans on the 9th of Av, finally crushing the Bar Kochba Revolt which had begun so hopefully, so determinedly, six years earlier. It was 68 years to the day since the Romans had destroyed the Holy Temple.

The year was 3898, and Judea lay in smoking ruins. And thus began the fourth and harshest and longest exile of them all.

1,727 years earlier, in the year 2171 (1589 B.C.E.), our father Jacob had fled from his parents’ house and from the Land of Israel, seeking refuge from the murderous jealous rage of his twin brother Esau. And on his way out of Israel heading northwards, as night fell, he lay down to sleep on what would one day become the site of the Holy Temple.

There, he dreamed his famous dream of the ladder linking earth with Heaven, “and angels of G-d ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28:12).

The Midrash interprets this as a vision of the four exiles which Jacob’s descendants would suffer: “G-d showed Jacob the angel of the Kingdom of Babylon ascends 70 rungs, then the angel of the Kingdom of Media ascends 52 rungs, then angel of the Kingdom of Greece ascend 180 rungs, then the angel of the Kingdom of Edom [Rome] ascends – and he did not know high. Then our father Jacob was frightened, and said: Maybe this one will never fall?!

G-d said to him: ‘As for you, fear not, My servant Jacob! (Jeremiah 30:10, 46:27). Even if he rises so high that he sits next to Me, from there I will yet bring him down! About this, [the prophet] says: ‘Though you raise yourself like the eagle, and though you place your nest among the stars – from there I will bring you down, says Hashem’ (Obadiah 1:4)” (Vayikra Rabbah 29:2 and Tanhuma, Vayeitze 2; compare also Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 35).

Babylon invaded Israel, exiled the Jews, and ruled the Land for 70 years – then that exile was over; Media ruled Israel for 52 years, then that exile was over; Greece invaded Israel and ruled the Land for 180 years – then that occupation was over; Rome defeated Israel and ruled the Land for more than half a millennium – and then for the next 1,816 years there would be a succession of foreign occupiers: Persians, Byzantines, Arabs, Omayyads, Abbassids, Egyptian Fatimids, Seljuk Turks, Crusaders, Kharezmians, Mongols, Ottoman Turks, and finally British.

The exile which only in our generations is drawing to its oh-so-painful close is the continuation of the Roman exile, which is why Jacob saw the angel of Edom (Rome) ascending higher and higher, as though into the very Heavens.

In the last two weeks, the Torah-readings have contained allusions to these four empires – Babylon, Medea, Greece, and Rome – which oppressed Israel.

Parashat Shmini details the rules of which animals are kosher and which are non-kosher: land animals are kosher if they have fully cloven hoofs and regurgitate their food (11:2-3).

The Torah then lists four animals which fulfil only one criterion and are therefore forbidden: the camel, the hyrax, and the hare all regurgitate food but do not have cloven hoofs; the pig has cloven hoofs but does not regurgitate food. As we noted in our D’var Torah on Parashat Shmini (/Articles/Article.aspx/16758#.VTaBrvBCm-0) these four animals represent these four empires: the camel represents Babylon, the hyrax represents Medea, the hare represents Greece, and the pig represents Rome.

And last Shabbat, Parashat Tazria-Metzora lists the signs of ritual uncleanness, leading to tzara’at (often inaccurately translated as “leprosy”, but actually a spiritual rather than physical malaise). As we noted there (/Articles/Article.aspx/16802#.VTaDcfBCm-0), se’eit (the first stage) represents Babylon, the sappachat (the second stage) represents Medea, the baheret (the third stage) represents Greece, and the actual tzara’at’ represents Rome.

We also noted that the river which flowed forth from Eden to water the Garden split into four headwaters – Pishon, Gihon, Tigris, and Euphrates (Genesis 2:10-14), which four represent the same four oppressors: The Pishon represents Babylon, the Gihon represents Medea, the Tigris represents Greece, and the Euphrates represents Edom (Rome).

The Midrash finds yet another allusion to these oppressors in the opening sentences of the Torah: “The earth was formless (tohu) and void (va-vohu), and darkness was on the face of the abyss; and the Spirit of G-d hovered on the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2-3).

The Midrash expounds: “‘The earth was formless (tohu)’ – this is the Babylonian exile, as it says ‘I [prophetically] saw the Land [of Israel under Babylonian occupation] and it was desolate (tohu)’ (Jeremiah 4:23). ‘And void’ (va-vohu) represents the Medean exile, following ‘they hastened (va-yavhilu) to bring Haman’ (Esther 6:14). ‘Darkness’ represents Greece, which darkened the eyes of Israel by their decrees, telling them: Inscribe on the horns of the ox that you have no portion in the G-d of Israel. ‘On the face of the abyss’ represents the exile of the evil kingdom, which like the abyss cannot be fathomed… ‘And the Spirit of G-d hovered’ represents the spirit of the King Mashiach” (Bereishit Rabbah 2:4).

Four allusions to the four oppressors: four non-kosher animals, four signs of bodily uncleanness, four rivers, and four stages in Creation.

The camel, the se’eit (the first stage of tzara’at), the River Pishon, and the formlessness (tohu) all represent Babylon.

The hyrax, the sappachat (the second stage of tzara’at), the River Gihon, and the void (va-vohu) all represent Medea.

The hare, the baheret (the third stage of tzara’at), the River Tigris, and the primordial darkness all represent Greece.

And the pig, the actual tzara’at, the River Euphrates, and the face of the abyss all represent Edom, the Roman exile.

As we noted in Parashat Sh’mini, the Midrash notes that Moshe put the camel, the hyrax, and the hare together in one verse, and the pig by itself in the next verse: “This is what you shall not eat of those which chew the cud and which split or divide the hoof: the camel, the hyrax, and the hare – because they chew the cud but do not split or divide the hoof, they are unclean for you. And the pig, because it splits the hoof but does not chew the cud, it is unclean to you” (Deuteronomy 14:7-8).

“Why did Moshe put three in one single verse, and the [pig] in a verse of its own? – Rabbi Yochanan said: Because it is equal to the other three, and Rabbi Shimon ben Levi said: It is even more” (Vayikra Rabbah 13:5).

That is to say, the Roman exile is equal to all the other three exiles according to Rabbi Yochanan, even worse than all the other three combined according to Rabbi Shimon ben Levi.

But though the Roman exile, in which we have been mired for 2,000 years and which began to draw to its finale with Jewish independence in the part of the Land of Israel 67 years ago, and though this accursed Roman exile is the harshest and bitterest of them all, the Midrash offers some comfort:

“The camel represents Babylon, ‘because it chews the cud (ma’ale gerah)’ – it brings up (garerah) another kingdom [to oppress Israel] after itself; the hyrax represents Greece, ‘because it chews the cud (ma’ale gerah)’ – it brings up (garerah) another kingdom [to oppress Israel] after itself; the hare represents Medea, ‘because it chews the cud (ma’ale gerah)’ – it brings up (garerah) another kingdom [to oppress Israel] after itself. And the pig represents Edom [Rome], ‘its cud (gerah) it does not bring up (yigar)’ – it will not bring up (garerah) another kingdom [to oppress Israel] after itself” (Vayikra Rabbah 13:5).

Similarly tzara’at is the harshest of all the stages of the spiritual malaise – and it is also the final stage before purification.

The River Euphrates is the mightiest of all four rivers; indeed, at 2,700 km (1,700 miles), it is the longest river in Western Asia. And it might be significant that the last time that the River Euphrates is ever mentioned in the Tanach is in Jeremiah’s final prophecy.

After several prophecies of the downfall of Israel’s enemies – the Philistines (Chapter 47), Moab (Chapter 48), Ammon (49:1-6), Edom (49:7-22), Damascus (49:23-27), Kedar and Hazor (49:28-33), and Elam (49:34-39) – Jeremiah then turns to Babylon. His prophecy of Babylon’s bitter fate covers 110 verses, all of Chapters 50 and 51.

“Jeremiah wrote all the evil that would come upon Babylon…and said…to Seraiah: Upon your coming to Babylon and seeing it, you will read all these things. And you shall say: Hashem, You said of this place that You will destroy it, so that no inhabitant would be in it, neither man nor beast, and it will be desolate forever. And when you finish reading this Book, tie a stone to it and cast it into the midst of the Euphrates, and say: Thus shall Babylon sink and not rise, because of the evil that I bring upon it; and they will be exhausted” (Jeremiah 51:60-64).

With these words, Jeremiah concluded all his prophecies.

The River Euphrates – the mighty river that symbolises Rome, the final exile – is the river into which Babylon – the first exile – symbolically sinks, to be destroyed forever.

(An intriguing prophecy, maybe, of the coming conflict between Rome, meaning Western civilisation, and Babylon, meaning Iraq and Islam? – But that is another subject for another D’var Torah.)

The fourth exile, the longest and bitterest of them all, is the last exile. This will be the final exile, after which we will never again be defeated or exiled from our Land. The pig, which represents Edom [Rome], will not bring up (garerah) another kingdom to oppress Israel after itself. After “the face of the abyss” is only “the Spirit of G-d hovering”: after the Roman exile is only the spirit of the King Mashiach, the final redemption.