In this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20), Moses enumerates the curses that will befall those who stubbornly refuse to obey the terms of the covenant between God and Israel.
He describes what will happen to the Promised Land and its inhabitants through the eyes of outsiders – namely, the gentiles – who will witness God’s actions and will ask, “Wherefore hath the Lord done thus unto this land?” (Deut. 29:23). The explanation they receive will be the following: The Children of Israel abandoned God and turned to idol worship; therefore, God brought upon them all the curses referred to in the text, and cast them out of their ancestral land: “And the Lord rooted them out of their land in anger, and in wrath, and in great indignation, and cast them into another land, as it is this day” (Deut. 29:27).
According to an ancient tradition described in the sages’ writings and in the apocalyptic, apocryphal book of 4 Esdras, which is attributed to Ezra, this verse prophesies the fate of the Ten Tribes exiled from the Kingdom of Israel during the reign of Shalmaneser, king of Assyria.
In the fourth year of the reign of Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, king of Judah – which was also the seventh year of the reign of Hoshea, son of Elah, king of Israel – Shalmaneser exiled all the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Israel. This exile was the punishment meted out to them “because they hearkened not to the voice of the Lord their God, but transgressed his covenant, even all that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded, and would not hear it, nor do it” (2 Kings 18:12).
The myth of the Ten Lost Tribes developed over the years and became a means to serve the nationalist aspirations of the Children of Israel. The belief was that these tribes would reappear when a generation emerged that would be prepared for such an event; in rejoining the residents of the Kingdom of Judah who were not exiled, the tribes would help bring about Israel’s complete redemption.
The Book of 4 Esdras describes the period of the End of Days in a passionate manner. In the vision of Esdras, a man emerges from the sea and a multitude assembles in order to do battle with him. It soon becomes apparent that this multitude consists of the tribes “which were carried away as prisoners from their own land in the time of Hoshea the king, whom Salmanasar the king of Assyria led away as a captive, and he carried them over the waters, and so came they into another land … For through that country there was a great way to go, namely, of a year and a half. And the same region is called Arsareth” (4 Esdras13: 40-45).
That description is constructed like a midrash, explicating the verses in this week’s Torah reading. Esdras continues: “Then dwelt they there until the latter time; and now when they shall begin to come” (4 Esdras 13:46). The Ten Tribes will thus remain in “another land,” in exile, until the End of Days, when the final redemption will take place, and they will return to their ancestral homeland.
Although the sages concur that the exile of tribes by Shalmaneser is a de facto embodiment of the curse described in Parashat Nitzavim, they are divided over the meaning of the words, “as it is this day,” as can be seen in the following passage from the Talmud: “The Ten Lost Tribes will never return, as it is written, ‘and [the Lord] cast them into another land, as it is this day.’ Just as the day wanes, never to return, similarly, the Ten Tribes have departed and will never return. That was the position of Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Eliezer said: Just as the day grows dark when evening comes, but becomes full of light once more, when the sun rises, similarly, the Ten Tribes, which are now in darkness, will one day see bright light [i.e., will one day reappear]’” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, Mishnah 10:3).
All the Tannaim, represented metonymically here by Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer, agree that this verse from Parashat Nitzavim describes the Ten Lost Tribes’ fate, and that the phrase “as it is this day” does not simply mean “at the present moment,” but rather refers to their exile and their ultimate fate.
The dispute over their fate and the End of Days is not just a dispute over an exegetical issue but rather is directly connected with the day-to-day life of the Jews remaining in Roman-dominated Palestine – namely, the sages themselves. Rabbi Akiva argues that the transient nature of a day – which vanishes, never to return – is an image that reflects the fate of the tribes.
According to Rabbi Akiva, the Ten Tribes “have departed and will never return.” This is the fate God has decreed for them, as spelled out in this week’s Torah reading: It makes no sense to await their reappearance and ultimate return to Palestine, to the Land of Israel.
In contrast, Rabbi Eliezer maintains that the cyclical nature of the sun’s appearance in the sky is a fitting image for the Ten Tribes: Just as the day grows dark when evening comes but becomes full of light once more when the sun rises, he believes, similarly, the Ten Tribes will experience a reversal of their fate – their new dawn will come and they will return to their ancestral homeland.
The messianic vision appearing in Esdras teaches us that the debate over the fate of the Ten Lost Tribes is not an academic historical discussion per se, but rather one concerned with daily events and one of a clearly political nature since it is about the very essence of Israel’s ultimate redemption. In the Books of Esdras, it is obvious to the author that the tribes will return at the End of Days.
The approach expressed here is also the one advocated by Rabbi Eliezer, who sees the Ten Tribes’ exile as a cyclical event that will soon end, just as the night always ends with daybreak; in his view, they will ultimately return, bringing the redemption with them.
An innovative approach, iconoclastic in nature, is expressed by Rabbi Akiva, who differs with Rabbi Eliezer. According to the former, the Ten Tribes have vanished, never to return, just as each day ends, never to return. Reality constantly renews itself and is not cyclical; thus, redemption will be something entirely new, not a reconstruction of a mythic past.
Ironically, it is the decidedly messianic, political way of thinking articulated by Rabbi Akiva, who supported the revolt led by Bar-Kochba and who sought to bring about Israel’s redemption through the force of arms, that actually invalidates the messianic myth and the traditional approach to Israel’s redemption. The cancellation of that traditional narrative of Israel’s redemption is also the harbinger of a new path leading to the reinvention of the Messiah.