In the middle of Devarim Chapter 4, in this week’s parsha Vaeschanan, Moshe describes a future when the people abandon G-d in pursuit of idols: “G-d will spread you among the nations, and you’ll remain small in numbers among the peoples where you will have been directed. Then you will serve gods, things which are man-made, wood and stones which do not see, do not hear, do not eat, and cannot smell. And from there you will seek out G-d, and you will find Him, when you seek Him with all your heart and soul.” (4:27-29)
The next verse says that when the time comes, “you will return to Hashem your God and you will listen to His voice.” (4:30) Moshe does not say “you will return to the land,” he says “you will return to G-d.” The prediction that “you will remain small in numbers among the peoples where you will have been directed” is a curse, but the assurance of your long-term survival is a blessing.
A literal reading of this might take a dark leap off the page and suggest that the persecution Jews have experienced over the millennia is a fulfillment of this process. An opposing view would shout down such a horrible sentiment. How dare we suggest rationale for our persecution? Perhaps we should blame evil people for the evil they commit.
Even if their ancient form of proselytizing is not as common today, the two major religions credited with spreading themselves by the sword owe their “success” worldwide to the original efforts of globalization through violence, and those efforts continue today through missionary work in different forms.
The Jewish people never really engaged in this practice. So our growth has been by and large more organic— constrained in many generations by oppression and genocide — and reduced in recent times on account of assimilation and the ignorance-of-Judaism by many Jews who identify as Jews culturally, but certainly not religiously or nationally.
The appeal of being part of the Jewish people, sharing in our triumphs and also in our miseries, is something only a select few would join in, were they not born into our people.
So, again, is the idea of being spread among the nations, only to return to G-d (and not the land) a blessing or a curse?
Alshikh actually says, “In that you will not be completely destroyed, the exile is good for you.” Why? R Yosef B’chor Shor suggests that if Jews are going to worship idols, they are better off doing it outside of the land of Israel. (Not that it’s a good practice!)
In his Panim Yafot, Rabbi Pinchas HaLevi Horowitz gives us a different perspective on how we are to view the exile of the Jewish people, and why the first step is to return to G-d, rather than to the land.
Based on a passage in Yoma 22b, he says that the Jewish people are a countable number when they do not fulfill the will of G-d, but when they fulfill G-d’s will they are not countable, because each individual’s value and worth becomes multiplied in a manner that is priceless.
In answer to the question of the blessing versus the curse, however, Malbim explains that the Jewish people being spread across the globe is a blessing of not having the destiny of our people’s eggs all in one basket, such that even if there are decrees, and exile, and destruction heaved upon us in one land, there is salvation and a place of refuge someplace else.
While we are certainly blessed to live in a time when the State of Israel can be that refuge for Jews around the world, we dare not be complacent in thinking we have arrived.As we observed Tisha B’Av once again this year, we know very well that while we may be significant in the world, we will remain few in number. And even though we will remain, as promised by G-d, it is only the complete return to G-d — which must happen outside of the Land of Israel (and is a tremendous challenge as evidenced by the facts on the ground) — that will help us merit the complete return to the land from which we were exiled so long ago.
We have a lot of work to do.