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The Riddle of the Wandering Jew

Rav Moshe Grylak

If historians have been baffled by the continued existence of the Jew through thousands of years of persecution and torture, they have only to look into the Torah to see that all those promises, forebodings and prophecies are coming together

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

This week’s parshah has much to say about the age-old riddle of the Wandering Jew, which still characterizes our existence today.

“If you walk in My statutes and you keep My commandments and do them, I shall give your rains in their season, and the land shall give its produce… and you shall eat your bread to satiety and dwell securely in your land. And I shall give peace in the land… and no sword shall pass through your land, and you shall chase your enemies” (Vayikra 26:3-7).

This entire passage says not a word about reward in the Next World, not even a hint of future spiritual recompense for faithful performance of the mitzvos. All its promises relate to a comfortable life here in This World.

This seems strange, and certainly different from other religions, which promise their faithful adherents blissful life after death in the heavenly realms, in an unseen world from which no one returns to tell the living about the reward that’s been bestowed on him.

Instead, it’s a promise of a tangible, here-and-now reward for adhering to the mitzvos, that can even be tested and verified: try keeping the mitzvos faithfully and see what happens. Moshe, in transmitting the Divine word, wasn’t afraid to offer this guarantee. He gave over a promise of rain, satiety, peace, and power, fully confident that if the Jewish People indeed walked in Hashem’s statutes, all this would be the reality of their lives in Eretz Yisrael.

But there is another side to the coin, equally compelling:

“And if you do not listen… and you despise My statutes… I shall set My face against you will be stricken before your enemies, and those who hate you shall dominate you, and you shall flee, and no one will be pursuing you… and your land shall not give its produce, and the tree of the land shall not give its fruit” (ibid 14-20).

We can extrapolate from these two passages to learn that every nation’s success depends on its particular morality. While this text relates specifically to the Jewish Nation and its obligation to observe Torah, Tanach is full of references to G‑d’s ethical expectations of the other nations as well, and the bitter consequences of rebellion. The Mabul and the fates of Sedom,Assyria andBabylonia are milestones of history. In fact, modern-day historians have also come to accept the principle that a nation’s morality is a major determinant of its fate, more than military might or economic prosperity achieved through oppression.

“[History],” writes J.A. Froude, “is a voice forever sounding across the centuries the laws of right and wrong. Opinions alter, manners change, creeds rise and fall, but the moral law is written on the tablets of eternity. For every false word or unrighteous deed, for cruelty and oppression, for lust or vanity, the price has to be paid at last: not always by the chief offenders, but paid by someone. Justice and truth alone endure and live. Injustice and falsehood may be long-lived, but doomsday comes at last to them, in French revolutions and other terrible ways” (James Anthony Froude, Short Studies in Great Subjects).

A similar conclusion was reached by the famous British historian Arnold Toynbee, author of the monumental Study of History, in which he summarizes the rise and fall of twenty-one civilizations of the ancient world. He points out the reasons for their downfall, which in his opinion lie in the fact that they became blinded by self-interest, anti-social and anti-spiritual tendencies, so that eventually they were shaken and destroyed by lack of inner harmony.

Yet for Am Yisrael, lack of inner harmony will not destroy the Jewish People, as it has destroyed other nations and their civilizations with them, but it will bring another punishment upon them — the punishment of galus.

The parshah continues:

“And you, I shall scatter among the nations, and I shall unsheathe the sword after you… and I shall bring fear in their hearts in the land of their enemies” (ibid 33-36).

Not only the people, but their land, too, will be in exile:

“And I shall make your cities ruins… and I shall make your land desolate, and it will become desolate of your enemies who dwell in it” (ibid 31-32).

This has been the historic reality. The galus of the people and the galus of the land converge. As long as the Jewish People remain in exile, the Land will not host the gentiles either. 

This is actually good news, as the Land retains its exclusive relationship with us. When the appointed time comes and the People returns to Zion, it will re-inherit it easily, because no foreign nation will succeed in settling there permanently.

This Torah promise has been validated by historical fact.

And there is yet another promise, so different from how the nations are treated: 

“But despite all this, when they are in the land of their enemies I shall not despise them nor shall I reject them, to destroy them, breaking My covenant with them, for I am Hashem, their G‑d” (ibid, 44).

A people afflicted, tormented, and oppressed like no other nation in the world; ganged up on by powerful nations seeking to annihilate it; a people persecuted in every corner of the globed for two thousand years, has not been destroyed. It is alive and thriving, against all odds, in defiance of the natural laws of history.

Our survival, unlike the fate of other nations, has amazed scholars throughout the generations. The Russian historian and philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev wrote:

 “I remember how the materialist interpretation of history, when I attempted in my youth to verify it by applying it to the destinies of peoples, broke down in the case of the Jew, where destiny seemed absolutely inexplicable from the materialistic standpoint.  And, indeed, according to the materialistic and positivist criterion, this people ought long ago to have perished.  Its survival is a mysterious and wonderful phenomenon demonstrating that the life of this people is governed by a special predetermination, transcending the processes of adaptation expounded by the materialistic interpretation of history” (The Meaning of History).

This “special predetermination” is the secret of the above verse. And it’s no wonder, then, that this awesome historical play, in which we’re cast in the starring roles, is the fulfillment of Moshe Rabenu’s instruction and prophecy. The unfurling of events across the timeline of millennia is the test of the veracity of the Torah’s words as Divine truth.

“The eternal Wandering Jew is an awesome riddle,” writes Dr. Isaac Breuer in The New Kuzari. “And here, ‘someone’ is telling us about it in advance. Not in hints, not in allegories, and not in symbols with multiple meanings, but “someone,” as ruler and commander, is saying these words as a matter of fact, as a decision that must be carried out, and which, once it has been decreed, is subject to no criticism or questioning. This “someone” introduces himself as the executor of this decision, who decrees thousands of years of unparalleled suffering on an entire nation. The pasuk does not say, ‘You will be dispersed among the nations,’ but ‘I will scatter you among the nations.’ ‘Someone’ is speaking, ‘someone’ is decreeing, and ‘someone’ is fulfilling the decree.”  




"Torah that is unaccompanied by labor will ultimately cease" (Ethics of the Fathers 2:2). The "labor" of which the Mishnah speaks is the labor of loving one's fellow Jew.

(Baal Shem Tov)



Yet for Am Yisrael, lack of inner harmony will not destroy the Jewish People, as it has destroyed other nations and their civilizations with them, but it will bring another punishment upon them — the punishment of galus





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