Latest update: November 10th, 2013
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.
This is what happened with the Ten Tribes. Klal Yisrael since the loss of the ten shevatim is a different nation, and in a way, Hashem exchanged the old nation for a new one.
The mystery of the Ten Tribes has spawned many legends and stories over the centuries – people have “discovered” them, explorers have searched for them – and to this day there are many who attempt to find them, usually looking in the Far East, and have come into contact with societies and cultures with customs that resemble ours.
Be that as it may, and even with the dispute among the Tana’im as to whether the Ten Tribes will return when Moshiach comes, the fact is Klal Yisrael as a nation has lived without them for the vast majority of our history.
And that is the question that has bothered me for years. How could it be? Why didn’t Hashem bring them back from exile like He brought us, Yehudah and Binyomin, back? Were the sins of the Ten Tribes so much more horrendous than the sins of the Kingdom of Yehudah? How could Hashem allow 83% of the Jewish people to assimilate?
I’m sure that one day, when Moshiach comes, all of this will become clear, but until then the questions continue.
It is very, very important to close with the following Maharal (Netzach Yisrael, Chapter 34). He is bothered by our questions as well and writes, “G-d forbid that we should understand that when it says that the Ten Tribes will not return that it means we have lost even one tribe from the Jewish People! Rather, as the Gemara in Megillah 14b says, the prophet Yirmiyah went to the exiled lands and brought groups from each one of the Ten Tribes back to the Jewish People. The dispute in the mishna is only regarding the [vast majority] of the Ten Tribes who did indeed become assimilated.”
Thus, we do indeed have descendants from all of the Twelve Tribes among us. All of the Torah’s references to the importance of the Twelve Tribes remain. Perhaps I’m from the tribe of Gad and you are from Asher. We don’t know. But all Twelve Tribes are here.
Still and all, the fact that we have lost our identities as the individual Twelve Tribes cannot be debated. Why is that? Why did Hashem allow that? I would love to hear your thoughts or those of the sources you have learned. I look forward to continuing the discussion.
And these are some of the happenings in this week’s haftarah.
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