I dedicate this Devar Torah to the memory of my dear father, Reb Gershon Yosef ben Shlomo, whose fifteenth Yahrzeit was last week. Much of this material comes from an essay by Rabbi Sabato from the Har Etzion Yeshiva.
The central section of parashat Ki Tavo comprises the blessings and curses of chapter 28. This section concludes the unit begun in parashat Re'eh, where Moshe already mentions the blessing and the curse: "Behold, I place before you today a blessing and a curse." In our parasha, the blessings and the curses are given in detail.
In this Devar Torah I would like to focus on a single verse - the conclusion of the list of curses:
“And God shall return you to Egypt in boats, on the way that I told you that you shall never see again, and you shall be sold there to your enemies, but there will be no purchaser.” (28:68)
This verse is not a natural continuation of the verses that precede it. The previous section describes the dispersal of the Jews among all the nations and the dangerous fate that will befall them there:
“And God will scatter you among all the peoples, from one end of the earth to the other; and there you shall serve other gods, which neither you nor your fathers have known, wood and stone. And among these nations you shall find no ease, neither shall the sole of your foot have rest; but the Lord shall give you there a trembling heart, and failing of eyes, and despair of heart; and your life shall hang in doubt before you; and you shall fear day and night, and have no assurance of your life: in the morning you shall say, "Would that it were evening!" and in the evening you shall say, "Would that it were morning!" for the fear of your heart with which you shall fear, and for the sight of your eyes which you shall see.” (28:64-67)
Our verse, on the other hand, speaks only of exile in Egypt, and this is a different punishment from that described in the previous section. It is clear that verse 68 begins a new punishment from the style in which it opens - "And God will return you" - which parallels the opening style of the previous section - "and God will scatter you."
Verses 64-67 of Chapter 28 have parallels and resonances in other parts of Devarim. But nowhere else do we find even a hint of the curse contained in verse 68. For example, if we compare the language of the verses at the end of chapter 28 with the threat of exile contained in Devarim Chapter 4, we find many of the same phrases. This is no coincidence. Chapter 4 concludes the first speech of Moshe in Sefer Devarim. Chapter 28 concludes the second speech. Both speeches close with the basic principle that the inheritance of the land is not guaranteed unconditionally. Sin will lead to exile even though the people have been living in the land for many years. But against the background of the similarity between chapter 4 and chapter 28, the anomaly of verse 68 which concludes chapter 28 is all the more apparent - for it is completely absent from chapter 4. Similarly, in the chapter of rebuke in Sefer Vayikra (parashat Bechukkotai), the threat of exile is mentioned: "And I shall disperse you among the nations" (Vayikra 26:33), but there is no parallel to verse 68 of our chapter, which warns of exile to Egypt.
So if this element of exile described in verse 68 is unparalleled and unconnected to what precedes it and what follows it, what does the Torah wish to tell us by concluding chapter 28 specifically with the threat of exile to Egypt?
If we examine the language of the verse and notice the points which distinguish this threat from the more general description of exile in the previous section, four points stand out.
- In the previous section, the threat is of dispersal among all the nations, and the Torah accordingly uses the language "I shall scatter you" (ve-hefitzekha). In verse 68, the threat is of the RETURN to Egypt of the entire people as a unit, and therefore the Torah uses the language "I shall return you" (ve-heshivkha).
- In the previous section, the Torah describes the danger and the fear which will afflict the Jews among the nations: "And among these nations you shall find no ease ... the Lord shall give you there a trembling heart." In verse 68, the Torah emphasizes specifically the sale into slavery.
- In the previous section, the Torah did not describe how God would disperse the Jews among the nations. In verse 68, the Torah mentions that they will return to Egypt "in boats" - a detail that might at first sight seem to be insignificant.
- In verse 68, the Torah added that the return would be "on the way that I told you shall not see again."
Taken together, these four points teach us that the threat of return to Egypt is not a threat merely of exile. It goes much further than that. The threat here expresses, as it were, the cancellation of G-d’s selection of the Jewish people. The Jews belong to God by virtue of the exodus from Egypt, "for the children of Israel are My servants, My servants are they, for I have taken them out of the land of Egypt." God's returning the Jews to Egypt cancels, it would seem, their being taken out of it by Him. Therefore the Torah emphasizes in this verse the aspect of slavery: "and you shall be sold there to your enemies for slaves." Slavery in Egypt totally contradicts service of God. The return to Egypt represents the return to the state of the Jews before they were redeemed by God from the house of bondage, whereby He acquired them as His people. That is why the Torah uses the language "and God will return you" - which is in contradistinction to the language of being taken out from there.
This point is emphasized if we examine the conclusion of the curses: "These are the words of the covenant which God commanded Moshe to enact with the Jews in the land of Moab, aside from the covenant which He enacted with them in Horeb" (verse 69). The covenant in the land of Moab completes the covenant at Sinai. The covenant in Sinai begins with the words of the first commandment, "I am the Lord your God who has taken you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage" (Shemot 20:2, Devarim 5:6). The covenant of Moab ends with the words, "and God will return you to Egypt in boats... and you shall be sold there to your enemies as slaves." The two verses are a counterpoint to each other. The covenant is based on the exodus of the people from Egypt, the house of bondage, via God's salvation. Non-compliance with the conditions of the covenant will lead to their being returned by God to slavery in Egypt.
Reading our verse against the background of the exodus from Egypt can explain the purpose of the word "in boats" in our verse. In the limited context of the verse, the word refers to boats which carry slaves. However, viewing it in the wider context of the verse this word should be seen as a contrast to the splitting of the sea. The exodus from Egypt took place against the background of the great miracle of the splitting of the sea, which allowed the Jews to flee Egypt by crossing the sea on dry land. Our verse emphasizes that their return to Egypt will not be accompanied by another miracle of the splitting of the sea, but rather will be accomplished by the boats of slavery. While the exodus was accomplished by the miraculous state of walking on dry land through the sea with the waters as a wall on their right and on their left, their return to Egypt will be on boats - and this contrast expresses the distinction between redemption and bondage.
Now, we may ask, isn’t there a contradiction here? How can G-d say that the people will return to Egypt by the route that He had previously said they would never see again? In a literal sense this is true, because a return in boats could not possibly take the same route to Israel as that which they had walked for forty years in the desert. But there is a deeper significance here. The Mechilta, which is the early Midrashic commentary on the book of Shemot, comments as follows:
In three places, the Torah commands Israel not to return to Egypt, as is written, "For as you have seen Egypt today, you shall not see them again for eternity" (Shemot 14:13). And it is written, "And God said to you, Do not return upon this way again" (Devarim 17:16). And it is written, "And God shall return you to Egypt by boat on the way that I said to you that you shall never see again" (Devarim 28:68).
The Sages apparently saw these three verses as expressing a prohibition of returning to Egypt. Leaving aside for the moment the verse in our parasha, let us look at the two others.
At the crossing of the Red Sea, Moshe said to the people: Fear not; stand and witness salvation of God which He shall do for you today, for as you have seen Egypt today, you shall not see them again for eternity" (Shemot 14:13). In the context of the story of the exodus of Egypt, there can be no question that the literal meaning of the verse is a promise and not a prohibition.
On the other hand, the verse in Devarim 17:16 appears clearly to express a prohibition: "But he [i.e. the king] shall not accumulate horses, nor return the people to Egypt, in order to accumulate horses, for God has said to you, 'Do not return upon this way again.'" The verse appears to claim that this prohibition had been given to the Jews previously. Where was this prohibition given? And why does Devarim 28:68, a verse whose content is clearly a promise, contain language drawn from Devarim 17:16, whose subject is a prohibition?
In order to understand this, we have to first understand the reason for the prohibition to return to Egypt. As the Rambam (Sefer Ha-mitzvot, prohibition #46) writes, "We were forbidden to dwell in the land of Egypt forever, so that we shall not learn from their heresy and not follow their evil actions." It would seem that the reason for the prohibition is similar to the reason for the promise. Just as God has promised the Jews that they will not return to Egypt on this way as an expression of the eternal nature of the selection of Israel as the nation of God, so too God prohibited the people from returning to Egypt by the same road in order that they do not express a rebellion against God and a return to the patronage of Egypt.
The relationship between God and His people is mutual. God grants His protection to the people, and the people accept upon themselves God's sovereignty. God promises not to remove His patronage from His people and not to return them to slavery in Egypt, and the people commit themselves not to remove themselves from the patronage of God and not to return themselves to the patronage of Egypt. The non-return to Egypt by the same path expresses these two aspects - both the promise of God and the prohibition that applies to the people. Both of them have a common source.
This, it seems, is what the Torah wishes to teach in our verse. In the context of chapter 28, it expresses a promise (more exactly, the cancellation of a promise). But its language is combined from the verses of the previous sections in Devarim and in Shemot, one of which is a prohibition and one of which is a promise. The Torah wishes to express that God's promise not to return the people on this way to Egypt is the flip side of the people's prohibition not to return by this path to Egypt.
One question remains. If, indeed, the return to Egypt and the sale there into slavery signify the cancellation of the selection of Israel and the return to the state before the exodus, then this verse contradicts the promise of the eternity of the selection of Israel and the immutability of God's kingship over the Jews. This promise is found in many places in the Torah and is a basic principle in the faith of Israel.
One answer to this question is found in the last words of our verse: "And you shall be sold there to your enemies as slaves BUT THERE WILL BE NO PURCHASER." In the restricted context of this verse, these words serve to deepen the severity of the punishment. The status of the Jews will be so bad that even when they wish to be sold in order to find sustenance, no purchaser will be found. However, within the wider context of the verse, a deeper understanding arises. The verse hints at a promise. Once God has acquired the people through the exodus from Egypt, no other purchaser will be found, even if the people wish to be sold. The depths of the punishment contain the depths of the consolation. Although our chapter ends with punishment, it contains within itself the hint of a great consolation.