Parashat Ki Tavo
“But if you do not obey the Lord your G-d…all these curses shall come upon you and take effect” (Deuteronomy 28:15)
In this portion we shall see and clarify that the curses and blessings written in the Torah do not honestly mean to prophesize the future, but only to warn the people of Israel in general, to promise them that all manner of evil awaits them if they are not scrupulous in fulfilling the commandments. In the essay on prophecy we have already quoted the words of the Tosfot in Yevamot 50a, “Anyway, you find a prophet foretells naught but things which would happen were there no sin.” Also see what we wrote on the portion of Vayechi about the words of Jacob to his sons (about what would happen to them at the end of days) which never occurred or are not clear at all.
It is explicitly written: “The Lord will make pestilence cling to you until He has put an end to you in the land you are entering to possess” (Deuteronomy 28:21). So pestilence will kill off the entire nation? It seems, despite what it is written, that it is not so, for immediately there follows a description of other illnesses: “The Lord will strike you with consumption, fever, and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, with blight and mildew” (28:22). G-d was not satisfied with this list of illnesses and but continues to list a few more diseases: “The Lord will strike you with the Egyptian inflammation, with hemorrhoids, boil-scars, and itch from which you shall never recover” (28:27). And if all these diseases and afflictions were not enough, later on in the chapter there are more of the general illnesses: “The Lord will inflict extraordinary plagues upon you and your offspring, strange and lasting plagues, malignant and chronic diseases” (28:59).
And so that there is no mistake about the future, that if some completely unknown disease (like AIDS) descends upon us which is not found in the list of diseases, the Scripture takes pains to conclude: “Moreover, the Lord will bring upon you all the other diseases and plagues that are not mentioned in this Scripture until you are wiped out” (28:61). This is a sign that the Scripture did not mean to be a real prophecy of what would happen, but just a list of medical curses in the most general sense, and what strikes some future truth, good.
Even more apparent is the fact that the Scriptures did not know precisely what disaster would befall the people. Would the nation be hit with a disease as noted above or would it be defeated by the enemy? In another place it says “The Lord will drive you and the king you have set over you to a nation unknown to you” (28:36) and after the Scripture promises us we will be sent as a whole nation (“you and the king you have set over you”) to a land we do not know, it adds a contradictory note: “The Lord will scatter you among all the peoples from one end of the earth to the other” (28:64). This is all-purpose prophecy: if we go as a group, there is a verse. If we are scattered, there is a verse. Then the Scripture mentions another country, and this time even gives its name: “The Lord will send you back to Egypt in galleys, by a route which I told you you should not see again.” Egypt for the exile? Why not mention the Assyrians or the Babylonians or the Romans, to whose lands a large part of the nation was indeed exiled? And when the Scripture says: “The Lord will bring a nation against you from afar, from the end of the earth” (28:49) we do not understand what end of the earth is meant, for neither Babylon nor Rome, the destroying nations, are at the ends of the earth.
From all this you see that all sorts of diseases and all kinds of exiles exist in the Scriptures and how can one ascribe to these words the precision of prophecy? These curses, you must conclude, are naught but a general statement which lists illnesses, troubles, exiles, and decrees without the Scripture knowing which would indeed come true.
Come see: The Scripture says that G-d will return us to Egypt: “There you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, buy none will buy.” If the Scripture means the destruction of the First Temple, then they were exiled to Babylon and the remainder fled to Egypt to save themselves from the Babylonians, so in this first exile the Egyptians actually saved the Jews. And if the Scripture meant the destruction of the Second Temple, as Nachmanides wrote on Leviticus 26:15, “And it is said, ‘The Lord will send you back to Egypt in galleys,’ and in this our exile Titus filled boats with them,” then if you look in the Encyclopedia Hebraica, entry “Egypt,” pg. 235 you will see that there was a Jewish community in lower Egypt even before the destruction of the Second Temple, and that it was large and flourishing. The Gemara in Menachot 109b explains that Onias the son of Simeon the Righteous built an altar in Alexandria, Egypt, and this some 200 years before the destruction of the Second Temple, as written there, “He (Onias) went to Alexandria in Egypt and built there an altar and sacrificed there in Heaven’s name, as is written in Isaiah 19:19, ‘In that day there shall be an altar to the Lord inside the land of Egypt and a pillar to the Lord at its border.” We find that at the time of the Second Temple Egypt was a good place and a shelter for the Jews and as the prophet Isaiah continues in verse 21: “For the Lord will make himself known to the Egyptians, and the Egyptians shall acknowledge the Lord in that day.” (We will note, incidentally, that the words of Chazal which attribute Isaiah’s words to the Second Temple period are puzzling, for Isaiah clearly spoke about the kingdom of Assyria, and this kingdom only existed only during the First Temple period: “In that day, there shall be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians shall join with the Egyptians” [Isaiah 19:23].) This is a perfect example of how our rabbis mix earlier and later as long as it settles contradictions in the Scriptures; it is clear to any who looks honestly that this is really not what the Scripture meant.
More than that, come see how they build and pull apart prophecies and how there is a ready excuse for any prophecy which does not come true. Chazal say in Tractate Makot 24a: “”Rabbi Yossi the son of Chanina said: four edicts made Moses over Israel, four prophets came and abolished them. Moses said, ‘So Israel will dwell in security, the spring of Jacob alone’ (That is, when will Israel dwell in security? When they are as righteous as the spring of Jacob—Rashi) – Amos came and abolished it, as is written, ‘How will Jacob arise?’ (Who can be as righteous as Jacob?–Rashi [that is, Amos does not require us to be as righteous as Jacob]), and it is written, ‘The Lord has repented for this…’ Moses said, ‘And among these nations you will find no calm’ (Deuteronomy 28:65) – Jeremiah came and said, ‘Go calm Israel’ (that they will find calm in their exile)… Moses said, ‘And you will be lost among the nations’ (Leviticus 26:38) – Isaiah came and said: ‘And it will come to pass in that day that the great trumpet shall be blown…’ (which teaches that they will not be lost among idolaters).”
We learn that Moses, whose prophecies came from the Divine, was supplanted by other prophets who abolished them. We have already said that this is the way of the Torah, generations come and go, G-d decrees and the prophets abolish. The Torah prophesizes that the people of Israel will be lost and Isaiah abolishing that and says “And it will come to pass in that day that the great trumpet shall be blown,” and Rav, who obviously did not interpret Isaiah’s prophecy as his predecessor did, said in the Gemara there: “I am afraid of the verse, ‘And you will be lost among the nations’.”
This Gemara contradicts Nachmanides’s words on Leviticus 26:15 which say that the curses in Leviticus refer to the destruction of the First Temple, while Rav was in an exile after the Second Temple’s destruction, and he fears a future in which Israel will be lost amongst the nations. In general, Nachmanides’s words are puzzling, for he wrote: “But the covenant which is in Deuteronomy hints at our exile…and it did not mention transgressions of making idols or that they would worship idols at all.” We do not understand his words, for the Scripture refers to the curses in our portion and writes there explicitly, “Cursed be anyone who makes a sculptured or molten image” (Deuteronomy 27:15) and more than that, it is written: “where you shall serve other gods, of wood and stone” (28:36). It is also written, “and there you shall serve other gods, wood and stone, which neither you nor your ancestors have experienced” (28:64), but we do not know of any instance in the second exile in which the people of Israel worshiped things of stone and wood. Another proof is that Nachmanides, in his commentary which ascribes the verses in Leviticus to the First Temple’s destruction alone, contradicts Chazal’s opinion in Tractate Megillah 11a, “‘I will not reject them or spurn them to destroy them’ (Leviticus 26:44). In the Beraita it is written: ‘I will not reject them’–in the days of the Chaldeans, when I gave them Daniel, Chananyah, Mishael, and Azariyah, ‘or spurn them’–in the days of the Greeks, when I gave them Simeon the Righteous…’to destroy them’–in the days of Haman, when I gave them Mordechai and Esther, ‘to violate My covenant’–in the time of the Persians, when I gave them the House of Rabbi and the sages of the generations.” Chazal interpreted the verse in Leviticus explicitly as also referring to the Second Temple period! We have brought these things to show you that the words of the Torah are interpreted as the commentator sees fit, this one says this and that one says that, and the Torah and its words are as putty in the hand of the sculptor.
Not only the Torah and the Prophets, when they spoke of the future, did not really mean that things would occur, but even Chazal themselves prophesized prophecies which never did occur. Even though it is said about them in Baba Batra 12a, “Rav Avdimi of Haifa said: From the day the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been taken from the prophets and given to the sages” when they prophesized about the future they were dealing with guesses only. We find in the Gemara, Yoma 10a, “R’ Joshua the son of Levi quoted Rabbi: Rome is destined to fall to Persia, as said (Jeremiah 49:20): ‘Hear, then, the plan which the Lord has devised…’ Rabbah the son of Bar Hana said…Rome is destined to fall at the hands of Persia based on reasoning from a minor premise to a major one. The First Temple was build by Semites and destroyed by Chaldeans and the Chaldeans fell to the Persians, so the Second Temple, built by Persians and destroyed by Romans–is it not the rule that they should fall to the Persians?” Not only will any who read this sort of reasoning laugh, their words did not come to pass, and Persia never did conquer Rome.
And in conclusion we will quote the words of Maimonides in The Laws of Kings, chapter 12, halacha two, which reinforce our words: The sages said that there is nothing between our world and the Messianic times but the enslavement of the nations…there are those among the sages who say that the coming of the Messiah will be preceded by the arrival of Elijah, and all these sorts of things no one will know until they actually happen, for they are opaque things by the prophets, the sages even do not have a tradition about these things except through interpreting the verses, and therefore they are divided about these things.”
And since there is no tradition about these things, they are like legends and fables which pass along viewpoints, knowledge, moral lessons, reasons for living, and experience, but real truth and factual validity or foresight they do not possess.
Words of True Knowledge