Friday, January 11, 2008

Letter to my Community

Dear Community,

It has come to my attention that a Rabbi gave a Sunday class in our Beit Midrash, talking about exile and redemption. I may not have the particulars correct, but the general idea was that the Jewish nation can be in Galut even while in the Land of Israel, and can find Geulah, redemption, even outside its borders. A support was brought from the story of Ya'akov, who found peace and tranquility for the last 17 years of his life, years that were spent in Egypt. Another point was that Galut Yavan was one in which the Jews remained in Israel, and yet it was still referred to as a Galut.

If you will permit, I would like to offer what I believe to be the Torah's views on this subject.

There are two paradigms of exile: spiritual and physical. A father may banish his son from his home physically, or he may allow him to continue to live in his home, but decline to participate in that normal intimacy between father and son -- ignoring him. This is spiritual exile. In a similar way, a Jew -- as an individual, or the nation of Israel -- can feel physical or spiritual estrangement from our Father in Heaven. We can be exiled physically from our beloved home, Eretz Yisrael. However, we can also be spiritually exiled, and, while remaining in the land, lose that intimacy of communion with our God.

Now, physical exile does not have to be simply a banishment from our land. It can also take place while we are in Israel, but are removed from sovereignty. This was the tragic state in the exile of Yavan, where the Jews, while still in Israel, lost their absolute control over Israel. They also found themselves in spiritual exile, with a severance of their special relationship to Hashem.

On the other hand, being outside of the land of Israel is, no matter how you view it, exile. It is God's decision to remove us from our beloved inheritance, to teach us to rethink our actions, national and individual. Although one can find spiritual relationship to God in the exile, it is a primitive kind of relationship, a skeleton of a once-healthy body. Prophecy as a rule does not take place outside of Israel (see Mechilta on Bo, and Talmud in Moed Katan 25a). The Talmud (Bava Batra 158b) states that "the very atmosphere of Israel makes one wise," and this is further evidence that a vibrant, full, Jewish individual or national experience can only be attained in Israel. In Ketubot 110b (and brought by the Rambam as halacha), the Talmud goes even further, to state that "one who lives in Israel lives as if he has a God, but one who dwells outside the land lives as one who has no God." This extreme statement must be taken in context, and understood correctly. I would love to explain it more deeply, but this is not the place. It suffices to realize the importance that is placed upon Jewish vibrancy and culture in the land of Israel.

God sends us away from His land to punish us. How haughty would it be, and how tragically it would miss the point, to claim that one can attain Geula, redemption, outside the mystical power and holiness of Israel!

It is true that Ya'akov found a measure of happiness in Egypt. However, one must pay attention to the fear with which he goes down, and the fact that God appears to Ya'akov, calming him: "Fear not going down to Egypt; I will go down with you, and I will bring you up from there." (B'reshit 46:3-4) Ya'akov's happiness in Egypt for those 17 years does not point to any type of Geula-state; on the contrary, Ya'akov makes Yosef swear to bury him in Israel (partly because of the pain of traveling underground from exile to redemption in the days of the messiah)! Further, the Kabalistic source (Sefer Halikutim) that implies that these 17 years were so good says nothing of redemption in Egypt. It simply takes the gimatria of טוב and finds it to equal 17. Ya'akov's years in Egypt were טוב, good, because he found all his children servants of God, and enjoyed them all together. He was assured of his place in Olam Haba, because all his children were faithful to God (see Rashi on B'reshit 47:31).

It is clear that Israel should be central in all our lives. The Ya'avetz, in his siddur, writes that we Jews face Israel when we pray to show that we wish with all our passion to be there, even if we cannot at this moment. Our focus is Israel, and the building of a utopian society within the Jewish Nation that can function as a light to the rest of the world. If we feel this way, says the Ya'avetz, we have a portion in the mitzvah of living in Israel. However, if we do not truly make Eretz Yisrael a focus in our lives, we are just paying lip service when we say "וקבצנו יחד מהרה מארבע כנפות הארץ לארצנו", "Gather us up quickly from the four corners of the Earth, to our land" (Amida). If we have reasons that we cannot move there immediately, we at least must understand the centrality of Israel as the start and completion of our national redemption, in Jewish thought and practice.

I would like to invite anyone to discuss with me the sources I provide, and if they have any other sources, or ones that seem to disagree, by all means, let us continue the discussion of this and other fundamental tenets of Judaism. May our community, among the holy communities of God's nation, continue to grow in all aspects of Torah, mitzvot, and good deeds.

With honor and respect to all.