Ask the Rabbi: Who Is the 'Foolish Nation'?

The Question: I have an “Ask the Rabbi” question for you! Here it goes. What is Deuteronomy 32:21 referring to when it says: “They have made Me jealous with what is not God; They have provoked Me to anger with their idols. So I will make them jealous with those who are not a people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation”? Who is the “foolish nation”? — B.P. 

Th Answer: As I’ve pointed out repeatedly in over twenty years of columns on the weekly parasha (the last two years for PJ Media), it is only possible at best to glean a superficial understanding of any passage in the Torah from a translation. Torah is unlike any other literature in this respect (among others), that in order to plumb the deeper meanings of any passage it is essential to address the text in the original language. This is all the more true of the poetic and prophetic passages, such as this one.

With that in mind, the original text (in transliteration) reads as follows: Hém qin’uni bëlo’ É-l, ki‘asuni bëhavleihem; va’Ani aqni’ém bëlo’ ‘am, bëgoy naval ach‘isém. I’ve inserted punctuation to show how neatly the verse is divided into two halves, and each half into two subclauses.

The first half states two problems: The context makes it very clear that the antecedent of “they” is Israel, and this addresses a time when Israel have largely abandoned G-d and His Torah. “They have aroused My wrath” (perhaps a a better translation than “they have made Me jealous”) with a non-G-d; “they have angered Me with their vanities” isn’t bad for the second subclause. The second half of the sentence states the consequences of these two rebellions: “I shall cause them to be wrathful with a non-nation, with a goy naval I shall anger them.”

It is perhaps instructive to note that both the verbs in the first clause, in’uni and ki‘asuni, are in the pi‘él or factitive conjugation; by means of a “non-G-d” Israel have brought into being a state of Divine wrath; through the actions or practices characterized here as havalim (which your translation calls “vanities”; the term means something insubstantial or unimportant, and has a basic meaning of “air” or “mist”) they have created a state of Divine anger.

Most of the classic commentators who discuss this passage (Rashi, Ramban, Ba‘al ha-Turim, Chizkuni, and Sforno, for example) relate the first half to the proximate causes of Israel’s two major exiles in the wake of the destruction of the first Temple, and then of the second Temple. The Talmud (Yoma 9b) famously relates the destruction of the first Temple and the subsequent exile to the three cardinal sins of bloodshed, idolatry, and sexual looseness.

The idolatry and bloodshed, and consequent abandonment of Torah came in the wake of the long and disastrous reigns of Menashe (cf. e.g. II Kings XXI-XXIII) and his son Amon over Yëhuda, who between them ruled nearly 60 years, in the course of which they adopted polytheistic cult practices and bathed the streets of Jerusalem in Jewish blood. In the wake of the general ignorance which followed in their footsteps came the sexual looseness.

Some years ago, I happened across a fascinating article by Israeli archaeologist Ephraim Stern in which he highlighted the methods used to identify a given site with the first Temple or with the second Temple: If the site dated back to the first Temple period, in the later (upper) strata of the excavation they would find numerous idolatrous objects, such as votive figurines; if the site was also occupied during the second Temple period, all that would have vanished and there would be no idolatrous figurines, if it was a Jewish site.

The only one of the three cardinal sins which would have left noticeable physical traces, then, is exactly what is referred to in our first clause: “They have aroused My wrath with a non-G-d.” It was corrected, by the time of the Shivath Tziyyon and dedication of the second Temple in the time of ‘Ezra.

The second subclause seems to speak of other, unspecified practices or beliefs: “They have angered Me with their vanities.” This refers to the end of the second Temple period, which, the Talmud tells us, was marked by sin’ath chinnam, usually translated “groundless hatred,” between one group of Jews and another; the period was riven with heretical cults, such as the Tzëduqim (“Sadducees”) and the early Christians.

So the consequence of the first failure and exile was: va’Ani aqni’ém bëlo’ ‘am: “I will cause them to be wrathful with a non-nation.” The “non-nation” is generally identified with the Babylonians, who destroyed the first Temple and led Israel into exile; most of the commentators relate the phrase to Isaiah XXIII,13, which says of the Babylonians, ze ha‘am lo’ haya (“this people was not”); Babylon was a polyglot empire put together by the Assyrians and held together by sheer force of arms, not a nation in and of itself.

The consequences leading to the second exile, our present exile, are what concerns you. Rashi tells us that the goy naval (unlike an ‘am, which can be a simple assemblage of people, a goy is a nation of people descended from a common ancestry with a common culture) refers to the heretics of the second Temple period (minim), and relates the phrase to Psalms XIV,1: Amar naval bëlibbo éyn Elo-him (“A fool says in his heart, There is no G-d”).

Most of the other commentators (e.g. Ramban, Ba‘al ha-Turim, and Sforno) relate this to our present exile, in which the nations of the west among whom we are exiled have taken up one of the heresies mentioned by Rashi, and are therefore collectively a goy naval (the Sforno suggests the term refers to no particular nation, but to the fact that the nations of our exile have no specific language or script). The difference between them is that, where the Babylonian empire was a polyglot group held together by force, the western world is one united around its common religious culture; it is therefore more of a nation.

Note that the verbs in the second set of clauses, ani’ém and ach‘isém, are both in the hif’il or causative conjugation; G-d will bring about Israel’s wrath and anger through the “non-people” and the goy naval.

However, as we learn at the end of this fearful passage: Harninu goyim ‘ammo ki dam ‘avadav yiqqom vënaqam yasim lëtzarav vëchippér admatho ‘ammo (“Rejoice, nations, for He shall avenge the blood of His servants. And He shall wreak vengeance on his oppressors and He will grant atonement to His land and His people.”) All of Israel will return to the Torah and will see the comeuppance of those nations which have caused us problems. May that day come soon, in our lifetimes.