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Dedicated to the memory of my grandmother, Frances Pinner (nee Tropp), who passed away 31 years ago Friday, 20th Ellul 5751 (30th August 1991).

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, ha gave the תּוֹכֵחָה – the admonition and warning of what lay ahead if we would stray from the Torah.

It is significant that this admonition occurs twice in the Torah, once in Parashat Bechukotay (Leviticus 26), and again in our Parashah (Deuteronomy 28). These two admonitions 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 admonition in Bechukotay is in the plural, addressed to the nation as a whole, whereas the admonition 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 (commentary to Leviticus 26:16) interprets the admonition in Parashat Bechukotay to refer to the first exile, the Babylonian exile, and the admonition 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 admonition in Parashat Ki Tavo in detail.

The first stage (vs. 15-31) describes all our undertakings in the Land as being 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 Agrippas (Herod Agrippa I, who ruled Judæa from 37 to 44 C.E.) to the Roman emperors Vespasian and Titus who conquered the Land militarily, destroyed the cities, and exiled the people, to the continuation of 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 that 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 (per Abarbanel), or to ten successor-kingdoms which would inherit the remains of the Roman Empire (per Rabi Sa’adiya Gaon).

In any event, this fourth beast, which the Ramban mentions, represents Rome – the mighty empire that subjugated Israel and much of the rest of the world, which devoured and destroyed, trampling everything with its feet. It was the empire that was different from all empires that 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 admonition in Parashat Bechukotay is in the plural:

“I will do this לָכֶם, to you [plural]” – to all of you together – “I will visit panic עֲלֵיכֶם, upon you [plural]” – upon all of you together… “וְנִגַּפְתֶּם, you [plural] will be smitten before your enemies” – all of you together, 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 not be isolated from your fellow-Jews. You will remain united.

The Babylonian exile lasted just seventy years, and the Jews who were exiled there remained unified.

But the admonition in Parashat Ki Tavo is in the singular: אַתָּה (you singular) – you by yourself, isolated even from other Jews – “will be accursed in the city”. Even in the city you will be alone and isolated. “Hashem will attach the plague לְךָ, to you” – to you by yourself, without even the cold comfort of being together with your fellow-Jews when you suffer.

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, an “אַתֶּם”, a plural “you”, in Roman exile even that was taken from us.

One of the curses of the admonition is, “You will grope around in the noontime as a blind person gropes around in the darkness…” (Deuteronomy 28:29).

The Talmud (Megillah 24b) records Rabbi Yossi’s observation:

“Throughout my life I was puzzled by the verse ‘you will grope around in the noontime as a blind person gropes around in the darkness’ – because what difference does it make to a blind person if it is dark or light? Until I encountered an actual event. Once I was walking in the deep darkness of night, and I saw a blind man who was walking along the road with a lantern in his hand. I said to him: My son, why do you hold a lantern? He said to me: As long as this lantern is in my hand, people see me and save me from the holes and from the thorns and from the briars”.

That is to say, as long as there are other people around, our fellow-Jews, we can help each other along the way. But being doomed to “grope around in the noontime as a blind person gropes around in the darkness” suggests complete isolation. In the Roman exile, we do not even have each other to rely on. We indeed grope around in the noontime as a blind person gropes around in the darkness – alone on a dark, lonely road, with no one to help, vulnerable to every pot-hole and every thorn.

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 admonition in Parashat Bechukotay alludes to Babylonian exile whereas the second admonition in Parashat Ki Tavo alludes to Roman exile) to Deuteronomy 28:42; and specifically in this verse, out of the 54 verses of admonition, I find a tiny measure of comfort, just the tiniest hint that עוֹד לֹא אָבְדָה תִקְוָתֵנוּ, our hope is not yet lost.

כָּל עֵצְךָ וּפְרִי אַדְמָתֶךָ יְיָרֵשׁ הַצְּלָצַל:

“All your trees and the fruits of your ground the tzlatzal will take possession of”.

Due to grammatical peculiarities (which we won’t go into in detail here), the verb יְיָרֵשׁ is highly ambiguous. Our translation “take possession of” follows Targum Onkelos. Targum Yonatan renders “will destroy”: “All your trees and the fruits of your ground the tzlatzal will destroy”. Ibn Ezra understands it to mean “will drive out”. Rashi explains it to mean “will impoverish”.

There are also different opinions as to what the word צְלָצַל, tzlatzal, means; this is the sole time that the word appears in the Tanach, hence the uncertainty.

The Targum Onkelos, the Talmud (Bava Kamma 116b), Rashi (both here and in his commentary to 1 Chronicles 13:8 and Ta’anit 6a), Rabbeinu Bechayye, and the Radak (Sefer ha-Shorashim) all understand it to mean “locust”.

Targum Yonatan understands it to mean “snail” or “slug”.

The Ramban explains logically why he disagrees, and understands צְלָצַל to mean “a hostile army”; the word, he suggests, is onomatopoeic, recalling the clash of metal upon metal.

Rabbi Meir Kahane Hy”d (Peirush Ha-Macabbee, Deuteronomy 28:42) suggests that צְלָצַל is a generic term for the entire collection of punishments which come to plunder Israel’s property. According to his interpretation, the Aramaic word סַקָאָה, saka’ah (“locust”, the word which Targum Onkelos uses to translate צְלָצַל) is a cognate of מַסִּיק, massik (“Roman tax-collector”, hence any oppressor and by extension a robber). 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”.

But whatever the word צְלָצַל means, there is a grammatical peculiarity in its vowelisation. The final stressed 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 word should be vowelised צְלָצָל, with a kamatz (a long vowel) under the second tzaddi; instead it is vowelised צְלָצַל, with a patach (a short vowel) under the second tzaddi.

An exquisitely subtle hint, but one which, in the midst of the admonition, we can seize desperately. It is as though the Torah is telling us: Yes, the צְלָצַל will take possession of your trees and produce, it will impoverish you, it will drive you into exile. But even though the צְלָצַל is the final word of the sentence, the vowelisation intimates that this צְלָצַל does not really 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! This is not the end of your story, not the end of your history in the Land of Israel! This is a צְלָצַל, not a צְלָצָל! There will yet be a continuation! עוֹד לֹא אָבְדָה תִקְוָתֵנוּ, our hope is not yet lost!

That tiny grammatical peculiarity – צְלָצַל instead of צְלָצָל, the patach instead of the kamatz – promises, ever so subtly: Your story in your Land does not finish with this צְלָצַל. Horrific though the תּוֹכֵחָה is, it will one day come to an end, and then your story in the Land of Israel will continue. As the Ramban said, “after this He guarantees the redemption from it”.