Bitter Almonds: One Can Sweeten Them in the Fire!
“Why are large [bitter] almonds fit for [tithing]? Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Because one can sweeten them in the fire!” (BT Ḥullin 25b).
“You are stationed here today [all of you before YHWH your God, your heads, your tribes, your elders, and your overseers, every man of Israel] (Deuteronomy 29:9:) This is what is said in the verse: הָפוֹךְ (Hafokh), overturn, the wicked and they are gone, but the house of the righteous will stand (Proverbs 12:7)—every time that the blessed Holy One looks at the works of the wicked and מְהַפֵּךְ (mehapek), turns [them] over, they do not remain standing [cf. Zohar 3:136a (IR): ‘Scrutinizing providence, not revealed except when the wicked must be called to account and their deeds examined’]. He looked over the works of the generation of the Flood, and there was no withstanding [it] for them, as is said: And He wiped out all existing things [from the face of the earth, from humans to cattle to crawling things to the fowl of the heavens, they were wiped out from the earth] (Genesis 7:23).
He looked over the works of the Sodomites, and there was no withstanding [it] for them, as is said: And He overthrew all those cities [and all the plain and all the inhabitants of the cities and what grew in the soil] (ibid. 19:25).
He looked over the works of the Egyptians, and there was no withstanding [it] for them, as said, not a single one of them remained (Exodus 14:28).
He looked over the works of Babylon, and there was no withstanding [it] for them, as is said: [And I will rise against them, says YHWH of Armies,] and I will cut off from Babylon name and remnant, kith and kin (Isaiah 14:22).
Of them all David said, There did the doers of mischief fall. They were toppled and could not rise (Psalms 36:13). But Israel falls and stands, as is said: Rejoice not, O my enemy. Though I fall, I will arise. [Though I sit in darkness, YHWH is a light for me] (Micah 7:8)—For I am YHWH, I have not changed [and you, sons of Jacob, have not come to an end] (Malachi 3:6).
Rabbi Ḥanina son of Pappa said: The blessed Holy One said, ‘I have never struck a people repeatedly [i.e., never have a people fallen and risen again], but you, sons of Jacob, have not כְלִיתֶם (kelitem), come to an end, as is said: [I will sweep down evils upon them,] My arrows אֲכַלֶּה (akhalleh), spending, against them [wasted with famine, withered by blight and bitter scourge, and the fang of beasts will I send against them, with the venom of creepers in the dust] (Deuteronomy 32:23–24). My arrows כָּלִין (kalin), are spent, yet [Israel] does not כָּלִים (kalim), come to an end. And so Assembly of Israel said: He bent His bow and stood me up as a target for the arrow. [He drove into my innards the shafts of His quiver] (Lamentations 3:12–13).
A parable: To what can the matter be compared? A man who stood a beam up and shot his arrows at it. The arrows are spent, but the beam stands. Thus with Israel: any time that sufferings overtook them the sufferings ended, and they were [left] standing in their place. As is said, Overturn the wicked and they are gone, [but the house of the righteous will stand].
Hezekiah the son of Rabbi Ḥiyya said, ‘Why is this portion [Nitsavim (Deuteronomy 29:9–30:20)] next to the portion about curses [i.e., Ki Tavo (ibid. 27:11–28:69)]? Because Israel heard a hundred curses less two in this portion, apart from the forty-nine which are mentioned in the priestly Torah [Leviticus]. Immediately their faces turned pale and they said, ‘Who is able to withstand these [curses]?’ Immediately Moses called to them and pacified them: What is written above? And Moses called to all Israel [and said to them, ‘You have seen all that YHWH did before your own eyes in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land….] The great trials [that your own eyes have seen, those great signs and portents….] And you came to this place, [and Sihon king of Heshbon and Og king of the Bashan sallied forth to meet us in battle, and we struck them down] (Deuteronomy 29:1–2, 6). And you did not heed My voice, and you spoke words before Me for which you deserved destruction. Still I did not wreak destruction upon you, when it is said: Our fathers in Egypt did not grasp Your wonders. [They did not call to mind Your many kindnesses and rebelled by the sea, at the Sea of Reeds] (Psalms 106:7). And not only that, but they said of the calf, These are your gods, O Israel, [who brought you up from the land of Egypt] (Exodus 32:4).
Now if you should say, ‘Why did the nations deserve destruction, while we remain standing?’ Because when sufferings overtake them, they thwart them and do not recall the name of the blessed Holy One, as is said, Pour out Your wrath on the nations that did not know You [and on the kingdoms that did not call on Your name] (Psalms 79:6). But Israel, when sufferings overtake them, surrender and מִתְפַּלְּלִין (mitpallelin), they pray [lit., make themselves the object of divine intervention], as is said, [The cords of death encircled me— and the straits of Sheol found me]—distress and sorrow did I find. And in the name of YHWH I called. [YHWH, pray, save my life] (ibid. 116:3–4) [cf. Bereishit Rabbah 92:1: ‘Rabbi Yehoshu’a son of Levi said: All sufferings that overcome a man and prevent him from words of Torah are sufferings of rebuke, but sufferings that overcome a man and do not prevent him from words of Torah are sufferings of love. As is written: For whom YHWH loves He rebukes, [and like a father his son, regards him kindly] (Proverbs 3:12)’].
Therefore the blessed Holy One said, ‘Even though these curses overtake you, they stand you up [or: they are your endurance].’ And so He said: [Who feeds you manna in the wilderness, which your fathers did not know,] in order to afflict you and in order to try you, [to make it go well with you in your later time?] (Deuteronomy 8:16). So Moses said to Israel: Even though sufferings overtake you, you have the עֲמִידָה (amidah), Standing Prayer. As is said, You are stationed here today all of you [before YHWH your God] (ibid. 29:9)….
Another interpretation: You are stationed here today—why the day sometimes darkens and sometimes lightens, so it is with you. Although you have darkness, the blessed Holy One is going to shine on you with everlasting light, as said, [No more shall the sun be your light by day, nor the moon’s radiance shine for you,] but YHWH shall be your everlasting light [and your God become your splendor] (Isaiah 60:19). When? When you all become a single אֲגֻדָּה (aguddah), band [or: faction, bunch, bundle], as said, [But you, the ones clinging to YHWH your God,] are all of you alive today (Deuteronomy 4:4). According to the way of the world, if a person takes aguddah, a bunch, of reeds, will he be able to break them in a single stroke? But if he takes them one by one, even a child can break them! And so you find that Israel was not redeemed until they became one bunch, as is said, [In those days and in that time, said YHWH, the Israelites and the Judahites shall come together, [weeping as they walk shall they go, and YHWH their God they shall seek] (Jeremiah 50:4)—when they are united they welcome the face of Shekhinah” (Tanḥuma, Nitsavim 1).
“You shall not תִתְגֹּדְדוּ (titgodedu), gash yourselves (Deuteronomy 14:1)—do not form אֲגֻדּוֹת (aguddot), factions. Rather, be a single אֲגֻדָּה (aguddah), band. And, similarly, He says: He has founded אֲגֻדָּתוֹ (aguddato), His vault, upon earth (Amos 9:6)” (Sifre, Devarim 96).
“And it shall be, if you do not heed the voice of YHWH your God to keep to do all His commands and His statutes that I charge you today, all these curses will come upon you and overtake you…
Inasmuch as you will not have served YHWH your God in joy and with a good heart out of an abundance of all things, you will serve your enemies whom YHWH will send against you in hunger and in thirst and in nakedness and in the lack of all things, and he will put an iron yoke on your neck until you are destroyed…
And YHWH will bring you back to Egypt in ships, on the way that I said to you, ‘You shall not see it again,’ and you will put yourselves up for sale there to your enemies as male slaves and slavegirls, and there will be no buyer” (Deuteronomy 28:15, 47–48, 68).
“Rabbi Shim’on son of Yoḥai fled to the wilderness of Lydda and hid in a cave—he and his son, Rabbi El’azar. A miracle occurred for them—a carob tree sprouted and a spring of water gushed forth. They ate from the carob tree and drank from the waters. Elijah, of blessed memory, visited them twice daily and taught them, without anyone knowing about it.
One day, the sages were in the beit midrash, questioning and debating: ‘The curses of Leviticus allude to the First Temple, while the curses of Deuteronomy allude to the Second Temple. The curses of Leviticus contain promises and the blessed Holy One’s affection for Israel, as is written: I will remember My covenant with Jacob (Leviticus 26:42), and Yet even this, too—when they are in the land of their enemies, [I will not reject them] (ibid., 44). The curses of Deuteronomy contain no promises nor any consolation at all such as are found in the first curses.’ And none of them could explain it.
Rabbi Yehudah son of Il’ai rose, saying, ‘Woe for the absence of Son of Yoḥai! No on knows his whereabouts; and even if they did, they could not divulge.’
Rabbi Yose son of Rabbi Yehudah arose one morning and saw birds flying—a turtledove trailing them. He stood up, saying, ‘Turtledove! Faithful Turtledove! Since the days of the flood, the form of the holy people has suited you and graced you [because the dove is distinctive among birds in that it does not mate with another bird, should its mate disappear during the season, cf. BT Berakhot 53b]. Go, serve as my messenger to Son of Yoḥai, wherever he is.’ The dove circled around and came before him. He wrote a note, recording what he had said. The dove arose and took it in its mouth, traveling to Rabbi Shim’on, carrying it under her wing [cf. Zohar 1:11b].
Rabbi Shim’on looked at the note and cried—he along with his son Rabbi El’azar. He said, ‘I weep because of our separation from the Companions; and I weep regarding these matters that have not been revealed to them! What will later generations do when they consider this!
Just then, Elijah, of blessed memory, arrived. He saw him weeping, and said, ‘I was ready for a different mission, but the blessed Holy One dispatched me to dry your tears. Oh, Rabbi, Rabbi! Now was not the time to reveal these matters to the righteous, but here is what the blessed Holy One explained. The first curses contain thirty-two verses, all corresponding to the paths of Torah. The latter curses contain fifty-three verses, corresponding to the parashot and routes of the Torah. In the first exile, from the First Temple, Israel passed along those concealed, secret paths. Their sins were revealed and their end was revealed, along with consolation and promises for them. In the latter exile—after the Second Temple—the people of Israel transgressed against fifty-three portions, revealed paths. Their sins were concealed and their ends were concealed—neither promises nor consolation were written [cf. BT Yoma 9b].’
Just then, a wind gusted by, separating them, sweeping Elijah up in a wheel of fire. Rabbi Shim’on remained, weeping. He fell asleep at the opening of the cave. Suddenly Elijah, of blessed memory, came saying, ‘Arise, Rabbi Shim’on! Wake up from your slumber. Happy is your portion, for the blessed Holy One is concerned for your honor! All the promises and consolations of Israel are written in these curses.
Go, see how a king loves his son, and even though he curses and lashes him, his deep love endures. When he displays severe wrath, his compassion for him prevails. Similarly, with the blessed Holy One—even though He curses, His words come from love. In their revealed form they appear to be curses, but they are great boons, because the curses came from love. This contrasts with the first ones, which all derived from harsh judgment. In these there is judgment and love—like a father who loves his son while gripping in his hand a switch for flogging. The child shrieks mightily, creating a din; but the lashes are lessened with love [cf. BT Berakhot 5a].
Most severe of all these curses—What’s more, every illness and every plague that is not mentioned in this Scroll of Torah YHWH will hide from you, that would have caused you to be wiped out (Deuteronomy 28:61). Here are promises of great love from father to son! It is not written יַעֲלֶה (ya’aleh), will bring [upon you], but rather יַעְלֵם (ya’lem), will hide [from you]. He will subdue them and nullify them in a pit—their place—so that they cannot venture forth; rather, they will be subdued and covered in their pit.
Until you are wiped out (ibid.)—which will never, ever happen, for the blessed Holy One took an oath that He would never destroy Israel, and that their memory will endure forever. This is as is written: so shall your seed and your name stand (Isaiah 66:22), and As I live, if the heavens above could be measured… (Jeremiah 31:37). Since it has been sworn by oath that Israel will never, ever be wiped out, it is fitting that plagues and illnesses should be concealed and covered, never emerging to harm them to the extent of annihilation—that will never, ever happen.
The end and conclusion of them all is YHWH will bring you back to Egypt in ships, by a route that I told you, ‘You shall not see it again.’ There you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male slaves and slavegirls, but there will be no buyer (Deuteronomy 28:68)—promises and consolations that the blessed Holy One provides to Israel at the end of days! YHWH will bring you back to Egypt in ships—a promise to return them, and to perform miracles and signs that the blessed Holy One had enacted in Egypt in days of yore. This is as is said: As in the days of your coming out of the land of Egypt, I will show him wonders (Micah 7:15).
בָּאֳנִיּוֹת (Bo-oniyyot), In ships—but here its meaning is as you have said, expounding it as בַּעֲנִיּוּת (ba-aniyyut), in poverty, without a coin in one’s purse [cf. BT Sanhedrin 97a: ‘The (Messiah,) son of David, will not come until… the (last) coin has gone from the purse’]. Everyone in the world is poised to pounce upon Israel, aboard seafaring vessels, intending to annihilate them, but they will all drown in the sea just as was done in olden days, and joy abounded. Here it is written בָּאֳנִיּוֹת רִנָּתָם (bo-oniyyot rinnatam), raising their voice in ships (Isaiah 43:14)—just as joy is there, so is there joy here [cf. Ester Rabbah, Petiḥta 3].
By a route which I told you—since the day that the world was created the might of the blessed Holy One has not been seen in the world, nor the time of favor, other than on that route. For as you see the Egyptians today (Exodus 14:13)—on that same route, in that very manner, so shall He do for you.
Further, they will gather afterward from all sides against Israel, and the people of Israel will think then that they will be eliminated—sold to their foes—as is written: There you shall offer yourselves for sale. It is not written you shall be sold, but rather you shall offer yourselves for sale—in your hearts you will imagine that you have been sold. But this will not occur—it is written: none will buy. And there will be none who shall rule over them.
All this will occur at the end of days; and it is all dependent upon teshuvah. But it is all concealed, as is written: in order that you may prosper in all that you do (Deuteronomy 29:8)—one who has a heart should contemplate and will know to return to his Lord [on teshuvah as a prerequisite for redemption, see JT Ta’anit 1:1, 63d; BT Sanhedrin 97b; Pirqei de-Rabbi Eli’ezer 43; Tanḥuma, Beḥuqqotai 3; Tanḥuma (Buber), Beḥuqqotai 5; Zohar 1:117b; 2:188b–189a; ZḤ 8a, 23c (both MhN)].
Rabbi Shim’on asked, ‘Where is Israel’s redemption revealed among these curses?’
Elijah replied, ‘Examine carefully and see the most horrific instance of them all—that is where it appears.’ He examined carefully, and found the verse Your life will dangle before you, and you will be terrified night and day and will have no faith in your life (Deuteronomy 28:66). Even though there are those who know that time, life dangles before them, and they are uncertain—even though this is the essence, and the words endure.
In the evening, Rabbi Shim’on wrote a note and placed it in the mouth of the turtledove, which journeyed back to Rabbi Yose—who had stayed put, his eyes expectant. Upon spotting [the dove], he said, ‘Turtledove, Turtledove, you are the most faithful bird in the skies!’ He proclaimed of it: the dove came back to him at eventide; and look, a plucked off olive leaf was in its bill (Genesis 8:11). He took the note and went to the Companions. He showed it to them, and they were astonished.
Rabbi Yehudah wept, saying, ‘Alas! Even though we do not know his whereabouts, the place where the tree falls, there it will be (Ecclesiastes 11:3) [cf. BT Bekhorot 57b; Eikhah Rabbah 1:37]. Where Son of Yoḥai is found, his companions are there with him, awakened by him, learning from him. Happy is the soul of Son of Yoḥai, for the blessed Holy One has performed miracles with him; he has decreed, and the blessed Holy One has fulfilled! [cf. BT Mo’ed Qatan 16b; Zohar 3:15a]. In the future, he will be the head of the righteous ones who sit in the Garden of Eden; he will receive the face of the Shekhinah and will see the blessed Holy One. Delighting with the righteous ones, he will call to them: Come, let us bow down kneel; let us bend the knee before YHWH our Maker (Psalms 95:6)’” (Zohar Ḥadash 59c–60a).