“When such a one hears the words of these sanctions, he may fancy himself immune, thinking, ‘I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart’…the Lord will never forgive him…all its soil [will be] devastated by sulfur and salt, beyond sowing and producing, no grass growing in it, just like the upheaval of Sodom and Gomorrah” (Deuteronomy 29:18-22).
The portion of Nitzavim is the direct continuation of the portion of Ki Tavo, and therefore our portion, too, continues with the threats of what will happen to us if we do not listen to the commandments and the Torah. Therefore we too shall reinforce what we wrote in the portion of Ki Tavo, and we will see that the Scripture did not really mean this would happen, but only meant to scare us and warn us in the most general manner that evil awaits us if we do not behave as we have been commanded to.
The Scripture promises that the land of Israel will turn into sulfur and salt as in the upheaval of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is clear that this has never and will never happen, but the Scripture did not mean that it really would happen; it is only an exaggeration. The prophet Amos, in verse 4:11, prophesizes about Israel in the time of Uzziah, king of Judah: “I have wrought destruction among you as when G-d destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah,” and this, too, did not happen, of course. About this the Radak says: “Some of your land, while you are still upon it, will be desolate as were Sodom and Gomorrah.” That is, not exactly like Sodom and Gomorrah, but desolate as were Sodom and Gomorrah, and not all the land, but only part of the land. Thus we see that the Torah and the prophets spoke in exaggerated language, as do people who wish to preach or frighten the public.
Proof of this comes from Tractate Hulin 90b: “R’ Ami said that the Torah speaks in exaggerations: (Deuteronomy 1:28) ‘large cities with walls sky-high’ [that is, the Scripture spoke in general, that these cities were enclosed within walls]; and the prophets spoke in exaggerations (I Kings 1:40) “the earth was split open by the uproar” [the Scripture states that the earth was split open by the uproar of the nation playing on flutes, but that’s not how it really was; it only comes to say that the noise was loud],” and there are many other examples in the Scriptures of exaggerated language and parable.
The Prophet Ezekiel, in his vision of the dry bones (Chapter 37): “I prophesied as I had been commanded….and the bones came together, bone matching bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had grown, and skin had formed over them…The breath entered them, and they came to life and stood up on their feet, a vast multitude.” Rabbi Judah, in Tractate Sanhedrin 92b, says about this, “This is truly a parable.” Rashi says: “This hints to them about the exile, like a man who dies and is returned to life, so Israel will return from the exile.” Pay attention to this, the prophet Ezekiel speaks of a real situation and Rabbi Judah comes and says it is all a parable.
Come see what Nachmanides says about the blessings we will be given if we listen to G-d’s voice (Leviticus 26:12): “And know that Israel never fully obtained these blessings, neither the public nor individuals amongst them merited this, as is said, (Moed Katan 16b) about King David who would kill 800 and mourn 200, a Heavenly voice came and said ‘only on the matter of Uriah the Hittite.’ And therefore you will find our rabbis OBM saying that these verses refer to the future times…for it did not happen to us, but it will happen at the time of perfection.” We have already written in the portion of Ekev that this is the way of our rabbis: when the explicit words of the Scripture do not come to pass, they push those words off and say that they will be fulfilled in the future.
The Gemara in Gittin 88a explains that there is hint in the Scripture to the time of the first exile, from calculating the gematria of the word v’noshantem(Deuteronomy 4:25) which is 852, but the exile happened 850 years later. That is why they say, “Ula said that it came two years before v’noshantem.” And Rashi explains that it was an act of charity that He hurried and brought the evil…for has they stayed until v’noshantem, the words “you will be utterly lost” (Deuteronomy 4:26) would come to pass about them.
And see what Nachmanides said about this in his commentary on Deuteronomy 4:25, “The first exile is hinted at in the gematria of the wordv’noshantem. They had a tradition that there is a hint about the time of the exile in this portion; when it came upon them, they found the hint.” After the exile occurred they went and searched until they found the appropriate word in the portion (and even it is inexact and is two more than the required number). This is what we always say, that there is nothing real in the Torah’s hints, but only after things happen in reality do the rabbis hurry to find a hint about them. See for yourself: If the First Temple exile had been after 750 years Chazal would have certainly said that He brought the evil two years earlier than the gematriaof “ki tolid banim u’bnei banim” (“For you shall sire children and grandchildren,” which is also from Deuteronomy 4:25) which equals 752…
And more than that, in the above Gemara they feared that had we been exiled after 852 years, we would have had fulfilled against us what was written in Deuteronomy 4:26, “you will be utterly lost from the land,” while in Tractate Makot 24a, “Rav said, ‘I fear what is in this verse’ [“And you will be lost among the nations” — Leviticus 26:38]. Rav Papa attacked him: maybe it is like something which has been lost and is found some time later?” So sometimes to be lost is said to be like a sheep which is later found, and sometimes it is a true loss, all according to the opinion and outlook of the one interpreting.
Some see how far the matter goes and how much they will distort even clear things. In the essay on prophecy we wrote that Hulda’s prophecy about Josiah did not come true. And what do Chazal say about this? In Tractate Moed Katan 28b, “Rava said to Rabbah the son of Mari, ‘it says about Josiah (II Kings 2) “And you shall be gathered to your ancestors in peace” and it is written (II Chronicles 35) that the archers shot at King Josiah, and R’ Judah said in the name of Rav that they made him as a sieve.’ He answered: this is what R’ Jochanan said, that the Holy Temple was not destroyed in his days.” So the word ‘peace’ in Hulda’s prophecy is interpreted: Josiah will die painfully after being stabbed by 300 arrows and will become as a sieve, but this awful battlefield death will be considered “peaceful.” Why? Because the Holy Temple stands.
Similarly, in Jeremiah’s prophecy about Zedekiah: “Rava said to Rabbah the son of Mari, it is written about Zedekiah, ‘In peace will you die’ (Jeremiah 34:5) and it is written, ‘Then the eyes of Zedekiah were put out,” (Jeremiah 39:7). He answered: this is what R’ Jochanan said — that Nebuchadnezer died in his days.” This, too, is “peace.”
And what can we say? We can only hope that the verse with which thecohens bless us, “And [the Lord] will give you peace” will not, G-d forbid, come to pass. For how can we know that the cohens’ “peace” is not like the peace Jeremiah foretold for Zedekiah and not like the peace Hulda foretold for Josiah, G-d save us?
Another matter: The Gemara in Tractate Yoma 73b says that even though a prophet’s decree can be rescinded [such as Jonah’s about the city of Ninveh], the decree of the Urim V’Tumim cannot be rescinded [when the Urim V’Tumim are asked, through the High Priest, whether to go out to war or not].
And see something amazing, in the incident of the concubine at Gibeah (Judges chapter 20) the tribes of Israel asked the Urim V’Tumim whether they ought to go to war against the tribe of Benjamin. What did the Urim V’Tumim answer? “‘Who of us shall advance first to fight the Benjaminites?’ and the Lord replied, ‘Judah first.” And what were the results? “And that day they [the Benjaminites] struck down 22,000 men of Israel.” Again they asked, “‘Shall we again join battle with our kinsmen the Benjaminites?’ And the Lord had replied, ‘March against them’.” And what were the results? “[The Benjaminites] struck down 18,000 more of the Israelites.”
We find that not only a prophet’s decree can be rescinded and nullified, but even a decree of the Urim V’Tumim. The Children of Israel turn to G-d, fulfill his instructions with great loyalty, expect victory based on the Divine instructions, and what happens? They are horribly defeated. And all this happens not once, but twice. The Israelites listen to the voice of G-d and are massively slaughtered! And what do Chazal say about this? “They did not ask whether they would win or lose.” Rashi explains: “The Urim V’Turim did not tell them in the first two days ‘go and succeed,’ only ‘march against them’ — whether they win or lose.” This is an unparalleled distortion. Can we accept that the High Priest and the Urim V’Tumim would confuse the Sanhedrin? Tell them “March,” which any reasonable person would take to mean “March and you will succeed,” while it really means “March and either you will win or you will lose”? What is this like? Like a child who asks an adult whether he may cross the street. The adult allows him, and the child is hurt while crossing. Then the adult says, “I told you you may cross, but what I meant was that if you cross you might or might not get hurt.” What would we think of such a stupid answer?
It seems that according to Chazal the Urim V’Tumim had its own special language. And even Maimonides erred in understanding this special language, for he ruled halacha in The Laws of the Holy Temple Vessels, chapter 10, halacha 11: “And how do you ask [the Urim V’Turim]…The questioner asks ‘Should I march or should I not?’ and the High Priest answers and says to him ‘March’ or ‘Don’t march’.” But woe is to us if we listen to the words of the Urim V’Tumim, for we have already seen that even if the Urim V’Tumim said “March” the meaning is not “March and win,” but “March — and what happens, happens.” More than that, the Gemara in Tractate Sanhedrin 103b says, “This is why the people involved in the concubine at Gibeah were punished: The holy One, blessed be He, said to them, ‘My honor you did not defend’ [against the idol built by Micah] but the honor of flesh and blood [the rape and murder of the concubine in Gibeah] you will defend?'”
What does the Gemara admit to us? That the Urim V’Tumim deliberately mislead the people of Israel, that the holy One, blessed be He, wanted to punish the Children of Israel and therefore deliberately led them astray and said “March” so that they would be killed.
And from all these words of ours you see that there is no way to understand either the words of the prophet or of the Urim V’Tumim. Not only that, but neither the prophet nor the Torah means to or can actually predict the future. If you investigate and check the Scriptures you will find many such things, including contradictions between prophecies and reality. Do not wonder about this, for the prophets neither meant to nor could say what would really happen in the future. Any who tried to interpret their words by twisting their meaning or distorting the words or deforming reality did not helped at all, for truth arises from things themselves and it will not be silent or disappear, no matter how it is distorted.
Words of True Knowledge.