The Torah includes two prophetic chapters of tochacha or rebuke outlining horrible punishments the Jewish people will receive for their transgressions. Ramban (commentary on Vayikra 26:15) draws a sharp division. Vayikra 26 describes the first temple’s destruction and the resulting Babylonian exile; Devarim 28 depicts the second temple’s destruction and the long exile that follows.
Ramban marshals several proofs supporting his thesis. Only the Vayikra passage mentions idolatry (verse 30) since that sin was prominent during the first temple period and not the second. Vayikra emphasizes punishment for violating the Sabbatical year (verse 34), something the prophet associates with churban bayit rishon (see II Divrei Hayamim 32:21). The Vayikra passage ends with God remembering the covenant of the patriarchs (verse 45) but not with authentic repentance or a full return of the exiles; indeed, this reflects the reality of the return from Babylon.
Devarim 28: 49 mentions a nation that arrives from afar since the culprit in the second temple’s destruction was Rome. The Devarim chapter portrays a widespread scattering among the nations which took place during the extended exile following the Roman Jewish War. In contrast to Vayikra 26, it does not state a clear duration for the exile but rather makes redemption dependent on repentance. This all fits the story of our current extended exile which we hope will conclude with the ultimate redemption.
Abravanel disagrees with Ramban’s interpretation and argues that each chapter refers to both exiles. Vayikra 26:31 refers to the destruction of “temples” in the plural. Devarim 28:25 states that the Jews will flee from their enemies. This matches the story of the first temple much more than that of the second during which they fought the Romans with great valor and courage in a losing cause.
More could be said about the verse by verse interpretation aspect of the debate but perhaps some broader issues lie at the heart of the argument. Abravanel objects to the possibility that Moshe would state a prophecy in Devarim that Hashem had not previously alluded to in the Chumash. Perhaps Ramban and Abravanel debate the balance between the divine role and Moshe’s contribution in the composition of sefer Devarim and the implications thereof.
They also may debate the nature of the second temple. Abravanel insists that the return from Babylon and the building of the second temple do not constitute redemption given that a small minority of Jews retuned, the second temple lacked the overt divine presence of the first temple, and the second temple period included frequent subjugation to the authority of Persia, Greece and Rome. Returning from Babylon was more of a brief respite to help render the ongoing exile endurable. Abravanel even compares the second temple to impressive synagogues constructed in the Diaspora. According to his view, Jewish history only incorporates one story of exile and return and it is this story that the Torah relates twice.
Ramban and Abravanel debate whether partial redemption constitutes redemption. Despite all the shortcomings of bayit sheni, Ramban saw the return of Jews to their homeland, the restoration of some sovereignty, and the rebuilding of even an inferior temple as quite redemptive. We need not conceive of salvation in all or nothing terms. The potential implications for twentieth century Jewish history are obvious. May we express appropriate gratitude for the current sate of affairs even as we yearn for the ultimate redemption that will repair the many remaining cracks in our fragmented world.