Towards the end of this week’s Torah portion, we find one of the darkest passages in the entire Bible. Fifty-four consecutive verses, Deuteronomy 28:15-69, detailing the harsh punishments that will befall the people of Israel should they turn their backs on God in disobedience. Plague, famine, defeat in war, exile, and all manner of sufferings are listed. Among the many frightening and disturbing punishments, there is one that is difficult to understand.
You will be a source of astonishment, a proverb, and a conversation piece among all the peoples where God will lead you. – Deuteronomy 28:37
What does it mean to be “a proverb,” a mashal in Hebrew?
The great commentator Rashi (11th century France) comments:
A proverb: When a terrible affliction smites a person, they will say, ‘This is like the affliction of so-and-so.’
In other words, to be a proverb is to be a paradigm or figure of speech for the purposes of exaggeration. Our suffering will be so severe that it will become a metaphor, i.e., “Like the suffering of the Jews.” Jewish suffering will become the paradigm of all suffering. We have seen an example of this in our day when it seems that every evil perpetrated on an ethnic group is compared to the Holocaust – often inappropriately due to exaggeration.
While this interpretation of the punishment fits with the plain meaning of the word mashal – “proverb,” I find it unsatisfying for two reasons.
The first problem is that it is a strange punishment. After all, should we really care if other people use our suffering as a metaphor? It’s true that it means that our suffering will be severe. On the other hand, if the suffering of the Jewish people becomes a common metaphor for suffering, this also means that awareness of the severity of our suffering will be well-known. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Furthermore, how is our suffering any worse due to other people using it as a proverb?
The second problem relates to context. Here is our verse and the verse immediately preceding it.
The Lord will lead you and your king, whom you set over you, to a nation you do not know, neither you nor your fathers, and there you shall serve other gods, wood and stone. You will be a source of astonishment, a proverb, and a conversation piece among all the peoples where God will lead you. – Deuteronomy 28:36-37
Verse 36 is about going into exile. And the punishment in our verse will happen, “among all the peoples where God will lead you.” Clearly, the punishment of becoming “a source of astonishment, a proverb, and a conversation piece,” is connected to Israel’s exile among the nations of the world. Why? We should note that most of the horrific punishments in the list are described as happening in the land of Israel. Why is this one, specifically, linked to exile among the nations?
To answer these questions, I’d like to suggest a different interpretation of this punishment.
The Hebrew word mashal implies not only a proverb in the sense mentioned above, i.e., a metaphor or figure of speech. Mashal also means “parable.” For example, in Ezekiel 17, God tells Ezekiel to “speak a parable to the House of Israel.” (Ez. 17:2). What follows is a parable of two eagles and a vine (v. 3-10). After the conclusion of the parable, God tells Ezekiel that it is meant to convey the rebellion of King Zedekiah and the consequences that will follow. The word for “parable” in this passage in Ezekiel is mashal.
A parable is an allegorical story meant to teach a lesson. When we say that a story is a parable, what we mean is that the story is not factually true. It didn’t happen. It’s a fable, a myth. I’d like to suggest that this is the meaning of mashal in Deuteronomy 28:37 as well.
The Jewish people have a unique relationship to history. Most peoples in the world today – certainly in the modern Western world – do not see themselves as the direct descendants of any ancient people. For example, when people study the history of ancient Mesopotamia or the ancient Greeks, there is nobody alive today who identifies with these peoples. When Italian children study the history of the Roman Empire, they don’t identify it as their own personal story. While it is an obvious point that everyone in the world today is a descendant of somebody from the ancient world, most people do not think that way.
The Jewish people know themselves to be direct descendants of an ancient people. We are aware that Abraham is our great-grandfather, our ancestors left Egypt, and David and Solomon were once our kings. More to the point, we know that Israel is our ancestral homeland, and we have always stated that as a clear and open fact.
The history of Jewish continuity is a matter of record. Other than a few very short gaps, there are continuous written records of Jewish communal life from every century and every generation of Jews going back 2000 years.
Despite the empirical evidence, there are many who claim that the Jewish people of today are not the same Jewish people from Biblical times. Beyond the question of historical evidence, most people today just do not take Jewish claims of continuity seriously. To illustrate the point, if a leader of the State of Israel were to point out in the international media that our claim to Israel is based on the fact that our grandparents were exiled by the Romans over 1900 years ago, how many skeptics would laugh at that claim? Jewish continuity over thousands of years does not seem realistic to people because they see no connection between themselves and their own ancestors from ancient times.
A few years ago, I was invited by a Presbyterian pastor from the United States to speak to her church after she had met me on a visit to Israel. As a member of the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America (PCUSA), she requested permission from the General Presbyter of her state to host the event. The PCUSA has had an obsessive antagonism to Israel for many years. For example, at their 2018 General Assembly, they passed resolutions referring to Israel as “a colonial project” and as “an apartheid state”. Just Googling “PCUSA and Israel” will provide easy access to these and other similar positions.
The response of the General Presbyter was lukewarm. Unsurprisingly, he was not happy with her request. But what caught me off guard was a particular statement in his email response to the pastor.
“I don’t think the Old Testament nation of Israel and the present-day nation of Israel are equivalent. Nor should they be in my estimation.”
Think about that. This Presbyterian leader, certainly well-versed in the Bible, had no problem dismissing the record of Jewish continuity over thousands of years. For him and many others who think like him, the Exodus from Egypt, the Torah, the People of Israel in Temple times are not the actual history of our people. They see Jewish history as a fable, “a parable.”
This way of thinking about the Jews has its Christian origins in the tradition of allegorical interpretation of the Bible popularized by Origen in the 3rd Century. Once the stories and prophecies in the Bible are understood only as allegories, it is easy to dismiss Jewish identity as irrelevant. If the Biblical stories are not meant to be taken literally, there is really no legitimacy to any claim that the Jewish people today are the same people described as Israel in the Bible.
Now we can understand why the Torah states that this punishment only occurs in the exile. Had we never gone into exile, would anyone doubt our claims to the land? Would anyone brazenly assert that the Jewish people of today are not the same as Biblical Israel? The very fact of the exile and dispersion made possible the false perception that we lack a genealogical connection to ancient Israel.
And this is a terrible punishment. When the nations of the world dismiss Jewish history as a quaint fable, the Jewish people cease to have a legitimate identity. This is the meaning of the words, “You shall be a parable.”
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki serves as Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation and is cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast