Friday, December 29, 2006

Vayigash: Exile by Choice

Globally, the story of the Jewish People in the Bible is a dramatic cycle: the nation is forced off its land, languishes in exile, desperate to return, and, ultimately, is granted this wish. There is a microcosm of this greater picture in the Torah. This vision is most clearly represented in this week's reading.

When God was first promises the land of Israel to Avraham, he is excited to immediately inherit it. From this promise on, Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'akov saw their permanent home only in the Land. At brith ben hab'tharim, God makes it clear to Avraham that he will not be the one to inherit it. His descendants will first be 'strangers in a land not theirs...' (Gen. 15:13). Imagine, every time one of the forefathers left Canaan, he must have thought, 'perhaps this will be the exile that mushrooms into the fulfillment of the promise of brith ben hab'tharim!' What relief they must have felt upon their return to their promised land. Only Yitzchak remained in Israel all his life.

In 37:1, Ya'akov assumes that he is back in Canaan to stay. The midrash (source to come) comments on this verse that Ya'akov wanted to enjoy the fruits of his years of hardship in his homeland. The midrash extrapolates from this that one who lives permanently (dar) in Israel is as one who has a connection to God, while one who lives outside of the Land is as one who does not have a connection to his God. Ya'akov's comfort is not to be, and Providence leads Ya'akov, along with his entire family, to settle in Grar. The term used by the Torah for this settlement originally is 'gur', which is a temporary dwelling. Surely, Ya'akov planned to leave Egypt as soon as the famine ended. However, by the end of Vayigash, Israel, the name that refers to Ya'akov as a national unit, 'dwells in Egypt, and takes hold of the land, multiplying greatly.' (47:27) For the first time in Jewish History, the exiled Jew finds comfort, peace and prosperity outside his Promised Land.

This is taken by commentators (among them the כלי יקר on this verse) to be the sin which turned this exile into the one that fulfilled the brith ben hab'tharim. The sons of Israel took hold of the land, and divested themselves of most cultural symbols that identified them as Jews. Tanchuma states that after Yosef died, circumcision was abandoned. The Jews took hold of the land of Egypt as their new home, and almost forgot their Promised Land. When a Jew forgets that outside of Israel he is a stranger and and exile, he incurs the wrath of God, who promised Canaan to Avraham.

The Ba'al Haturim comments that the word 'r'dah' appears in the Torah twice, once in reference to the descent of Israel into Egypt, and once in reference to Nebuccadnezer's descent into the fires of Hell. He claims that this equates the descent out of Israel to Hell. Rabbi Gifter comments that only one who has this attitude will be able to properly fulfill the requirement of the Talmud (Shabbath 31a) to anxiously await the redemption. Without it, our prayer every day to 'see God's return to Zion' is meaningless lipservice, and a serious affront the God who promised the Land to each and every one of us.

Imagine a king who exiles his son to live with the commoners as punishment for some offense. Every day, the exiled prince makes his way to the palace gates, imploring his father to forgive him. As time goes on, the son builds a home and develops a life outside the castle, but always returns to the castle gates, begging for forgiveness. The son hangs a painting of his father the king as a shrine in his own house, and tells himself that if he cannot be in the physical presence of his father, at least he can see his likeness. Day after day, the prince goes to the castle to pray for pardon.

One day, when he comes by, the castle gates open, and there is his father, the king. The prince looks into his father's compassionate eyes, and again recites his daily plea for forgiveness and reinstatement in the palace. The king answers the plea by saying, 'my son, I forgive you. How many years we have lost! Come back home, you are completely pardoned!'

The prince looks at his father as if he does not see him, and turns to walk back to his house. Once at home, he sighs, 'oh, I hope I live to see the day my father finally forgives me!'

While we continue to pray for the return to Zion, the doors have been open for sixty years. Each year, they open wider, making it easier and more realistic to go back home. How long will it take until we see things for what they are, and actually listen to the voice of our Father in Heaven, inviting us back in?