Yael Shahar

The Torah of History: A victory inherent in defeat?

We live in a region that is falling apart. This is not news to anyone of course, but the general chaos of the Middle East is symptomatic of societal decay elsewhere, exacerbated by the inter-linkages between nations in the modern world.

Several months ago, Salon Magazine announced that according to a Global Rankings study, America is in warp-speed decline, while pundits repeatedly warn that everyone else is going down too.  

An insightful blog post discussed what one American expat sees as the underlying reasons for America’s decline:

Throughout history, every dominant civilization eventually collapsed because it became TOO successful. What made it powerful and unique grows out of proportion and consumes its society. I think this is true for American society. We’re complacent, entitled and unhealthy. My generation is the first generation of Americans who will be worse off than their parents, economically, physically and emotionally. And this is not due to a lack of resources, to a lack of education or to a lack of ingenuity. It’s corruption and complacency. The corruption from the massive industries that control our government’s policies, and the fat complacency of the people to sit around and let it happen.

Now clearly, this is not the first time someone has diagnosed success as one of the pitfalls of civilization, and a primary reason for the decline of any given civilization. David P. Goldman makes a similar case (and makes it brilliantly) in How Civilizations Die.

But there is something a bit surreal about this when looked at through the lens of the last parshiot in the Torah, which appear to offer a remedy, even if a drastic one, to this inevitable national decline. For these closing parshiot are all about history. Ki Tavo gives a hint at how we should look at history, before telling us in graphic detail what that history will entail. Nitzavim tells us that it will all be worth it, even if we may not see it at the time. Veyalech contains hints of the inevitability of our destiny. And lastly, Ha’azinu ties it all together in a teaching poem, in which we see ourselves in every generation.

Self-fulfilling prophecy or blueprint for survival?

One has to wonder whether the dire prophecies at the end of our Torah are actually a blessing in disguise. Yes, we are going to be successful, yes, we are going to become rich and powerful. And then, at height of our success, when we forget how we got there—the difficult years, the struggle and pain, and the miracles that brought us to where we are—when we are primed to believe it’s all the work of our own hands…. That is the moment when we will be defeated and scattered by an enemy that will rise up out of nowhere.

The difference in our case is that, contrary to the norm, we survived our defeat. The Babylonian exile was itself the forge in which the Kingdom of Yehuda became the Jewish People.

Could it be that we have been saved by these very prophecies of doom? After all, we are told that defeat is inevitable. Hester Panim (The hidden face of God) is presented not as a contingency but as a dire promise.  And yet—

And yet, that promise came with a promise of renewal and return. We knew that the worse things got, the closer we were to that promised return. And so it did indeed come about. Self-fulfilling prophecy? Or is it simply that having seen our history laid out, black fire on white fire, we grew into it as we lived it? We had no other blueprint to follow.

The blessing and the curse

A blessing in disguise… Is that why the phrase “the blessing and the curse” is repeated several times in these parshiot? Are they one and the same? And is that the secret of the repeated reference to Bilaam’s curse being turned into a blessing at the last moment?

We were promised that death would not end it for us. The death of our nation was but a little sleep. As individuals and communities, we survived by preserving the essence of nationhood amid the death of its outer accouterments.  And so we were able to begin again. Alone of all nations, death was not the end for the Jewish nation. T’hiat HaMetim—revival of the dead—was part of the initial design spec. It was built into us from the moment that our death was declared inevitable.

As a nation, we aren’t so much built to survive as to revive!

About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.
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