Thursday, February 16, 2012

Out of Egypt: Lot, Michah & the Ten Lost Tribes

This is the final installation of a three-part series on the Biblical roots of Jewish assimilation in exile - and the long-term consequences thereof. Begin the series here

In the previous post we cited the Talmudic tradition that the Jews brought "Michah's Idol" with them across the Red Sea (Sanhedrin 103b). Who was Michah?

The Book of Judges tells the story. Generations after the Exodus, a man named Michah established a pagan temple in Northern Israel after his mother commissioned a silversmith to forge an idol (Shoftim 17:1-5). Although Michah's idol obviously did not literally cross the Red Sea, nonetheless, the Vilna Gaon believes that the Talmud is referring to this very same idol. When the Talmud says that Michah's idol crossed the sea, it means the pagan theology of Egypt crossed the sea. And many years later, this imported Egyptian paganism found expression in Michah's idol. 

This, says the Vilna Gaon, is what Moshe was referring to when he questioned the nation just before they entered Israel. 
"You know how we lived in the Land of Egypt and how we passed through the midst of the nations that you crossed. You saw their disgusting things, their idols of wood, stone, silver and gold that they had. Perhaps there is a man, a woman, a family or a tribe amongst you whose heart is turning away from Hashem our God today to go and serve the gods of those nations? Perhaps there is amongst you a root growing gall and wormwood?"  (Devarim 29:15-17) 
Moshe's concerns were well-founded. A poisonous root was growing among the Jews - the idolatry of Michah (Aderes Eliyahu ad loc.).

The temple founded around Michah's idol was located in the territory of the tribe of Dan and it stood there for centuries. It was a pagan house of worship until גלות הארץ, "the exile of the land" (Shoftim 18:30), when the Assyrian king Sancheriv invaded Northern Israel and exiled the Ten Tribes (Rashi ad loc.). 

The implication is clear. The exile and ultimate disappearance of the Ten Lost Tribes was due to paganism. But not just any paganism. This paganism was foreign and ancient. The Jews picked it up during their long stay in Egypt and then they transported it from Egypt to Israel. "Michah's Idol crossed the Sea." Unwilling to cleanse themselves of Egyptian culture, the Jewish return to Israel was flawed from the get-go, and the seeds of a future exile were planted even before they returned to their homeland.

All of this tragic history was foreshadowed by the character of Lot. Like Yaakov and his sons, Lot was forced by famine to leave Israel and move to Egypt. As we saw in part-one, Lot was seduced there by Egyptian materialism and he carried his new-found desires back with him to Israel. His longing for the Egyptian lifestyle draws him to Sodom and ultimately proves to be his undoing. Despite Avraham's best efforts to save his nephew, Lot is lost forever. Such was the cost of Lot's visit to Egypt and such was the cost of the Ten Tribes' visit to Egypt. This gives us a new appreciation for the prophets' comparison of the Jews to the people of Sodom (cf. Yeshaya 1:9-10; Yechezkel 16:48-49).

This parallel between Lot and the Ten Tribes is all the more compelling in light of the fact that Lot was in the running to be one of the forefathers of the Chosen Nation. It wasn't just Lot's shepherds who thought so (cf. Rashi to 13:7). Lot's descendants, the nation of Moab, thought the same. That is why they, more than other nations, were so frustrated with the selection of the Jews as the Chosen Nation at the Exodus. אילי מואב יאחזמו רעד - "Moab's heroes were seized with trembling" (Shemos 15:15; Gur Aryeh ad loc.). The truth of this notion is further indicated by Lot's granddaughter Ruth who converted to Judaism and became the matriarch of King David. (For more on Moab's claim, see this post.) Lot was supposed to be part of our people, just like the Ten Tribes. But he, like they, was lost.

When Sodom is conquered by the armies of the four kings and Lot is taken captive, Avraham goes to war, quickly overrunning the enemy. וירדף עד דן - "He pursued [them] until Dan" (Bereishis 14:14). "There [at Dan] his strength was drained, for he foresaw that in the future his descendants would set up an [idol in the form of a] calf there" (Rashi ad loc.). Here the forces arranged against Lot are related to the future idolatry of Dan! This is no coincidence, for Lot is indeed the predecessor of both Michah and the Ten Tribes. Both were guilty of importing Egyptian ideology to Israel, both were taken captive by invading armies, both could not be saved by their brethren, and both are ultimately doomed to disappear from the pages of Jewish history. 

Lot and those who follow in his footsteps, surrendering to the natural forces of assimilation, are doomed to fall before the natural forces of attrition. Like all peoples and all societies of the earth, it is only natural that they will be erased by the winds of time. But those who follow the footsteps of Avraham and Yosef, transcending nature and maintaining their identity in the face of foreign influence, such people merit the blessing of historical transcendence - membership in the eternal nation of Israel.

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