Ve'etchanan: The Response to Exile
As a critical part of preparing the people for entering the land of Israel. Moshe warns them that there will come a time of failure, or rebellion against Hashem, and exile. In a passage (Devarim 4:25-30) from the parasha of Ve’etchanan, which is also read on Tisha B’Av, this tragic fate is foretold.
But Jews never despair. There is always hope. No matter how terrible the exile, or how far the people have fallen, there remains in the Jewish heart the spark that seeks to re-connect to Hashem.
(כז) וְהֵפִיץ ה׳ אֶתְכֶם בָּעַמִּים וְנִשְׁאַרְתֶּם מְתֵי מִסְפָּר בַּגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר יְנַהֵג ה׳ אֶתְכֶם שָׁמָּה.
(כח) וַעֲבַדְתֶּם שָׁם אֱלֹהִים מַעֲשֵׂה יְדֵי אָדָם עֵץ וָאֶבֶן אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִרְאוּן וְלֹא יִשְׁמְעוּן וְלֹא יֹאכְלוּן וְלֹא יְרִיחֻן.
(כט) וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּם מִשָּׁם אֶת ה׳ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ וּמָצָאתָ כִּי תִדְרְשֶׁנּוּ בְּכׇל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכׇל נַפְשֶׁךָ.
(ל) בַּצַּר לְךָ וּמְצָאוּךָ כֹּל הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים וְשַׁבְתָּ עַד ה׳ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ וְשָׁמַעְתָּ בְּקֹלוֹ.
(27) Hashem will scatter you among the peoples, and you shall be left few in number among the nations, where Hashem shall lead you away.
(28) There you shall serve gods, the work of men’s hands, wood and stone, which neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell.
(29) From there you will seek Hashem your G-d, and you will find Him, when you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul.
(30) When you are in distress, and all these things have happened to you, you will finally return to Hashem your G-d, and listen to his voice: (Devarim 4:28-29)
The meaning of ובקשתם משם is debated by the commentators. In what way does one “seek (Hashem) from there”? Why is exile the trigger for such a seeking? And how does ובקשתם משם in verse 29 relate to ושבת עד ה' אלהיך - you will return to Hashem your G-d - in verse 30?
The Midrash (מדרש תנחומא פרשת בשלח), commenting on the crying out of the Israelites when confronted by the seemingly impassable Red Sea, states:
כאן ויצעקו בני ישראל אל ה' תפשו אומנות אבותיהן, וכשהן צועקין הקב"ה מצוי להם שנאמר ״ובקשתם משם את ה' אלהיך ומצאת״.
Here the Israelites cried out to Hashem. They took hold of the art of their fathers. And when they cry out, Hashem is found for them, as is said “you shall seek Hashem your God from there and you will find him” (Devarim 4:29).
By comparing the situation at the Red Sea with the future exile of the Jews, and by matching the crying out in the former with the “seeking” in the latter, the Midrash is teaching that prayer - in the form of crying out - is the natural Jewish response to distress. The Red Sea, the pain of exile and indeed any danger should automatically evoke the primeval response of seeking Hashem - as a saviour and a refuge in troubled times.
The Ran (14th century Spain) in Droshot HaRan Chapter 9, puts verse 29 in the context of verse 28. It refers to a time when the Jews, in exile, have left Judaism and have adopted the idolatrous practices of those around them. The message therefore of ובקשתם משם is that even people on such a low spiritual level can perform Teshuva and find their way back to Hashem.
The location (i.e. outside of Israel) of this outpouring of Teshuva is significant. As the Ran says,
וצריך לתת לב במלת משם, ופירושו כך שאע"פ שהשכינה שורה בארץ ואינה שורה בח"ל כפי דעתנו . . . אעפ"כ עם היות שעל דרך לשון בני אדם הש"י אינו נמצא בח"ל כאמור, גם שם תמצאוהו כי תבקשוהו.
The phrase "from there" calls for explanation. It is to be understood as follows: Though, in our view, the Shechinah resides only in the land of Israel and not outside it . . . even so, and even though people say Hashem is not found outside the land of Israel, you will find Him even there if you seek Him.
The Abarbanel (15th century Portugal) rejects the notion that verse 29 is describing the process of Teshuva. That must be implied in verse 30, with the words ושבת עד ה' אלהיך - you will return to Hashem your G-d. ובקשתם משם must therefore refer to something different.
The Abarbanel, himself an exile from Portugal at the time of the Inquisition, explains that this section talks of a time when Jews will be prevented from practicing Judaism and compelled to adopt other religions. Such people will not be able to perform complete Teshuva and return to the observance of mitzvot because of the oppressive regimes under which they live. But nevertheless they will be able to seek Hashem “with all their heart and with all their soul”. Thus ובקשתם משם is the emotional and spiritual yearning to connect to Hashem, and the essential first, incomplete, stage in the Teshuva process, which is completed by “finally returning to Hashem” (verse 30).
The Emek Dvar (19th century Lithuania) also sees ובקשתם משם as a lesser form of Teshuva than ושבת עד ה' אלהיך. Verse 29 describes Teshuva motivated by displacement alone, a proto-Zionist realisation that “the nature of lands outside of Israel are not good for them”. Verse 30, by contrast, refers to Teshuva inspired by a love of Hashem. Hence it is only that that mode of Teshuva that enables the penitent to return עד ה' אלהיך - all the way to Hashem your G-d.
The Ohr HaChaim (18th century Israel) sees the relationship between ובקשתם משם and ושבת עד ה' אלהיך very differently. He explains that there are two types of Teshuva; the first comes from within, from the recognition of one’s obligations to the Creator and the need to channel one’s inclinations towards mitzvot. The alternative is a response to external pressure, turning to Hashem as a redeemer from affliction.
Thus verse 29 and ובקשתם משם, which does not refer to any suffering associated with exile, tells of the first, self-motivated, type of Teshuva, whereas verse 30, opening with the words בצר לך - “when you are in distress” - describes the alternative version of Teshuva, which is the result of affliction.
One common theme underpins each of these interpretations. Exile is unnatural for the Jews. Our home is in Israel. The greatest benefit of exile is that it should bring us to prayer, to an emotional connection to Hashem or to complete teshuva. Conversely, the greatest tragedy would be for us to live outside of Israel, and yet not feel this lack, and not be moved to seek Hashem. A worthy message for Tisha B’Av and for always.