Towards the end of Parshat Nitzivim, we encounter the particularly interesting phrase (29:28), “The hidden things are the Lord, our God’s; but the revealed things are for us and for our children…”
Coming at the end of a discussion about idol worship and the resulting exile caused by it, most commentators simply understand the phrase as limiting communal punishment for individuals’ idolatry to that which we are aware about. The rationale is that God cannot justifiably blame us for something we don’t know.
Netziv however presents a much broader explanation of the phrase, hinting to the seriousness with which he views the Jewish mission to the rest of humanity – a seriousness that he apparently passed on to many of his students, including Rav Kook:
He points out that idol worship was clearly not the only determinant of exile. After all, there were times in Jewish history when idol worship was rampant and the Jews were not exiled until much later. Hence he concludes that the timing and purpose of exile are the hidden things being referred to here. As part of a larger historical tapestry, it is something that we cannot fully master, any more than we can fully understand why God created everything He did.
While Netziv essentially leaves it at that here, some guiding principles about the purpose of Jewish exile can be found in some of his other writings. In a number of places, he explains that the exile is actually God’s “Plan B,” as to how enable His chosen people to properly influence the rest of the world. Plan A was for the Jews to properly keep the Torah in Israel and thereby be such a radiant light to the nations that it would be effective even from afar. Though most gentiles would have never meet a Jew, they would have heard about their model nation and be duly impressed. As we know, the Jews of antiquity were not able to fully implement this plan.
That is when God decided upon Plan B. If the great light of the Jewish nation had become too dim to be seen across the world, many smaller Jewish lights would have to be brought closer to all those parts of the world that nevertheless required it – in short, the Jews would have to go into exile. Though Netziv does not say it, it appears that the Jews would not actually need to go to every part of the world, even though they were meant to impact upon all human beings. Apparently, it was enough for them to show their light to certain influential parts of the world, such that gentiles living there could then carry the message further.
It is true that in exile too, the Jews would not always be on their best behavior, and there would be ups and downs. Still, there would be enough superior behavior – both by Jewish communities and by individual Jews – seen at close range that the local gentiles would be appropriately influenced. Of course, sometimes being impressed turned into resentment that the Jews were “spoiling the party,” something that would usually result in added Jewish suffering. Presumably, however, this is also not accidental. Let us not forget that the Jews would have avoided the suffering that goes with Plan B had they not sinned. In effect, it is a perfectly natural consequence for the dimming of their own lights.
At the same time, Netziv makes us understand that the main purpose of exile is not punishment. Hence part of the exile’s timing depended on the gentiles’ potential appreciation for the light of the Jews at any given time. From such a perspective, we can easily understand the Jews being exiled at a period of great religious and cultural flux in the Roman Empire (something which obviously also allowed emergent Christianity to be so successful at that very same time).
Such an understanding can only be appreciated in view of Netziv’s strong conviction that one of the Jews’ main functions is to teach mankind how to live properly. Carrying out this function is apparently so important that it determines major currents in Jewish history. What seems to follow is that it should also be a major determinant in how we act as individuals, as communities and once again as a nation. For our hope to continue gathering all of the exiles and permanently live in our ancestral homeland seems to be predicated upon shining the type of light that will be seen across the world.
And don’t forget to listen to the associated podcast, Why Jews Need to be Missionaries!