It’s a question that has bothered me for years and I have never found a satisfactory answer.
What in the world happened to the Ten Lost Tribes? How could we lose ten out of twelve tribes, 83% of our peoplehood? The Torah emphasizes that we, Klal Yisrael, are comprised of twelve unique groups, each one being a vital component to our identity as a nation. The blessings by Yaakov Avinu in Parshas Vayechi, the blessings by Moshe Rabbeinu in Parshas VeZos HaBeracha, the twelve unique and individual stones which appeared on the breastplate of the Kohen Gadol, the twelve distinct portions of the Land of Israel divided up in very specific and important ways – all are indications of how significant having Twelve Tribes is to the Jewish People.
Yet, somewhere along the way, we lost ten of our tribes. How could this be?
What does this have to do with the haftarah? The following are some of the pesukim read this week, some of them by Sefardim, some by Ashkenazim; all are from Hoshea (11-14).
“How can I give you over, Ephraim? How can I surrender you, Israel?” (11:8)
“Ephraim surrounded Me with lies, and the House of Israel with treachery, but Yehuda imposes the dominion of G-d and is faithful to the Holy One.” (12:1)
“The transgression of Ephraim is bound up; his sin is stored away.” (13:12)
“Shomron [where the Ten Tribes lived] will be forsaken because she rebelled against her G-d.” (14:1)
Originally, all Twelve Tribes were united under the rule of David HaMelech and then under his son Shlomo. However, during the kingdom of Shlomo’s son Rechavom, there were decisions made that were not in line with the will of Hashem and which caused Hashem to remove ten of the tribes from Rechavom’s control and that of Malchus Bais David.
These ten tribes were now following Yeravam, who was from the tribe of Ephraim. Thus, the reality of the two kingdoms was established, the Malchus Yisrael, (ten tribes) and Malchus Yehuda (tribes of Yehuda and Binyamin). The Ten Tribes are often referred to as the Northern Kingdom since they lived in Northern Israel; Yehuda and Binyamin were in the South, in areas which included Yerushalayim and Chevron.
The Northern Kingdom lasted for a few hundred years but the shevatim were repeatedly warned (see this week’s haftarah) that if they would not repent they would be exiled. And indeed, when Sancheriv of Ashur conquered the kingdom in the year 3205, corresponding to the sixth year of the reign of King Chizkiyah (Malchus Yehuda), the ten tribes were fully exiled.
Unlike the exiles of Yehudah at the times of the First and Second Batei Mikdash, not only have the Ten Tribes not returned to Eretz Yisrael, they have never been heard from. Seemingly, they were swallowed up and assimilated among the nations of the world.
Will they ever return? This is a dispute among the Tan’aim (Sanhedrin 110b):
Rabi Akiva says, “The ten tribes will not return, as the verse says (Devarim 29:27), ‘And Hashem uprooted them from upon their land, with rage, anger and great ire, and He brought them to another land, as this day.’ Just as a day passes and will never return, so too, they will be exiled never to return.”
Rabi Eliezer says, “Just as a day is followed by darkness, and the light returns tomorrow, so too, it will become ‘dark’ for the ten tribes, [but] G‑d will ultimately take them out of their darkness.”
The Gemara mentions a third opinion that of Rabi Shimon ben Yehudah from Acco, says: “If their deeds are as this day’s, they will not return; otherwise they will,” meaning they will return if they repent.
Interestingly, and actually frighteningly, Rav Tzadok HaKohein of Lublin (Takanas Hh HaShavin, page 163) writes that what happened to the ten tribes is a fulfillment of what Hashem told Hoshea at the beginning of the sefer, that He, Hashem, wanted to exchange the Jewish People for a new nation “lehachlifam b’umah acheres.” This does not mean, says Rav Tzadok, that Hashem can or will ever change the status and holiness of the Jewish People, after choosing us and making an eternal covenant with us at Har Sinai. But it does mean that groups of Jews, and certainly individual Jews, can become sinners to the point where Hashem may choose to give up on them and allow them and their descendants to become assimilated and lost to Klal Yisrael forever.