When I Left Egypt—When I Left Jerusalem / Dvar Torah, Parshat Devarim

This dvar Torah, translated from this week’s issue of Shabbat Shalom , the weekly Shabbat pamphlet of the religious peace group Oz Veshalom is dedicated to the memory of my father and teacher Sanford “Whitey” Watzman, who left us four years ago on 2 Av.

Can there be two more contradictory statements describing God attending to the voice of his people than the one at the Burning Bush and the one at the Plains of Moab? At the first, God tells Moses: “I have marked well the plight of my people in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I am mindful of their sufferings” (Exodus 3:7). In contrast, in this week’s portion, Devarim, when Moses recounts the story of the spies and the Ma’apilim (those who sought to disregard God’s decree that the members generation that left Egypt would not enter the Land of Israel), he declares: “Again you wept before the Lord; but the Lord would not heed your cry or give ear to you” (Deuteronomy 1:45). The first statement prepares Moses for the Exodus from Egypt. The second prepares the Children of Israel for the ultimate destruction of their commonwealth and the Exile.

But the contradiction actually goes well beyond that. On a simple reading of Exodus, the redemption from Egypt seems not to be the result of any good deeds or merits of the Children of Israel. When we left Egypt, we left because the term of the Exile, pronounced to Abraham at the time of the Covenant between the Parts (Genesis 15), had come to an end. Presumably the Israelites were crying out to God throughout their enslavement, and did not begin doing so only when Moses reached the Burning Bush. The same pattern appears later, at the time of the Return to Zion (Shivat Tzion) from the Babylonian Exile. This second redemption begins after the seventy-year term prophesized by Jeremiah comes to an end, not because the Exiled Jews have been righteous: “In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, when the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah was fulfilled, the Lord roused the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia to issue a proclamation throughout his realm” (Ezra 1:1).

But things were quite different when we left Jerusalem, at the time of the destruction of both the First and Second Temples. The Jews go into exile not because the prearranged date for it has arrived, not because a term of years was set in advance for their sojourn in the Land of Israel. The Torah and prophets stress that the Land vomited the people out because of their evil actions.

The inverse relation between the meta-narrative of Redemption and that of Exile, between the story of Pesach and the story of the Ninth of Av, is reinforced by the Jewish calendar. The first day of Pesach and the fast of the Ninth of Av always fall on the same day of the week. While this is coincidental and not required by the content and observances of these days, the connection offers a lesson on proper behavior. The inverse relation can also be seen in a well-known kinah (lament) recited on the Ninth of Av, “A Fire Will Burn Within Me” (“Esh Tukad Bekirbi”), with its “When I left Egypt” strophes and “When I left Jerusalem” antistrophes. For example, “When I left Egypt, my House [the Temple] was built, and the cloud [of the divine presence] resided there; When I left Jerusalem, God’s wrath resided there, on me like a pall.” The cloud of the divine presence resided with us when we left Egypt; it is God’s wrath that accompanies us.

Today, we live in the time of the second Return to Zion. The Zionist movement as a whole and religious Zionism in particular chose the Exodus from Egypt and the conquest of the Land that followed it as the template according to which they fashioned the narrative of the return to Zion in our time. But why did they choose that, rather than the narrative of the first Return to Zion? The answer is obvious. The first Return to Zion, as portrayed by the latter prophets and the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, is much more prosaic and less dramatic than the Exodus from Egypt. There are no obvious miracles, there are no great battles, and in the end the Jews did not even obtain sovereignty in their land. Rather, it is a story of one step forward, another back, and more of the same, a story of frustration, difficulties (droughts, conflicts with neighbors, the need to lobby the Persian king). It was a drab time when the words of the prophets, who had promised a “new heart and a new spirit” (Ezekiel 36:26) and “Let every valley be raised, every hill and mount made low. Let the rugged ground become level and the ridges become a plain!” (Isaiah 40:4), sounded hollow.

Consider the context of the verse in this week’s portion, in which Moshes says that God did not hear the voice of his people. Moses gives this warning after recalling the sin of the Ma’apilim, who declared to him and the entire people that the time of the final redemption had arrived. “We sinned before God,” they shout, but the word “sin” is ambiguous here. Is the sin they are ostensibly confessing to that of the spies, or their own sin, which was their refusal to accept the punishment for the sin of the spies? In fact, the Hebrew word for sin, “het,” can also mean to go off in a different direction, the wrong direction. It is after they rose up and shouted and went the wrong way that they sit down and weep, and God does not hear them.

When does God hear? When the weeping and shouting are not the product of hubris, but come from the heart, from the soul, from real pain. That was the case at the time of the first Return to Zion. The last prophet said: “In this vein have those who revere the Lord been talking to one another. The Lord has heard and noted it” (Malachi 3:16). When does God not listen? When we shout that we deserve Redemption. When does he hear? When people speak to each other softly, pleasantly, and with patience. He does not listen when we shout “we deserve it,” even if we really do. Redemption indeed depends on doing good, but also on listening to others and humility. As King Solomon wrote, “Let the mouth of another praise you, not yours, the lips of a stranger, no your own” (Proverbs 27:2).