Thursday, November 16, 2006

The other side of exile (Avot 1:11)

אבטליון אומר, חכמים, היזהרו בדבריכם--שמא תחובו חובת גלות, ותגלו למקום המים הרעים, וישתו התלמידים הבאים אחריכם וימותו, ונמצא שם שמיים מתחלל.

Avtalion says, Sages, be careful in your words: For you may you earn for yourself the punishment of Exile and be banished to a place of Evil Waters. And the students that come after will drink from them and die. And in this way the Name of the Heavens will be defiled.

As in our last Mishna, today we see signs of a dark cloud falling over the Jewish people; this is the first mention of Exile -- גלות/galut, in Hebrew (and sometimes pronounced "golus") -- that we have seen in Pirkei Avot.

Since the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE, Exile -- Galut -- has been a part of the fabric of the life of the Jewish people. Historians tells us that even after the Second Temple was built, large Jewish communities remained scattered throughout the ancient world. And -- to the dismay of the most committed Zionists -- even now that the State of Israel has stood for over 50 years, large Jewish communities remain outside of Israel and show no sign of a mass return to the native land of the Jewish people.

At first glance, Galut looks like a curse. Who would want to be expelled from their home and have to wander the Earth and live among strangers?

Yet, it may be an acceptance of Galut that is the central genius of the Jewish religious tradition – a genius that has allowed the Jewish people to survive through the millennium while countless other peoples, and empires, have arisen and fallen. This relationship with Exile may also be the central genius that has allowed Judaism to inspire the birth of the two other great monotheistic faiths.

This is all because Galut is not just a physical condition that is specific to the (painful) historical experience of the Jewish people. It is also a spiritual condition that is universal to all human beings.

Every one of us is in Exile from something, even if it is simply from the comfortable and secure feeling of drinking from our mothers' breasts as infants. We will never return to that pure, innocent and unknowing state, and we live every day with that knowledge. Like Adam and Eve having eaten of the Tree in Gan Eden, we – unlike all other living things -- live with knowledge that one day we will die. We know shame. We have the capacity to know the difference between good and evil. We live with the burden of the responsibility that means. We are in Galut from the bliss of innocence.

In a more explicitly spiritual sense, we all live in the pain of being in Exile from God. It is from the perfection and glory of God from which we all sprung. We were created in God's image. But we do not live in the Heavens. We are not angels. We live in this world with all of its imperfections. When the spiritual side of our characters is awakened -- as it can be by the death of a loved one or by a moment of profound epiphany -- we become aware of this Exile. We thirst for a return to God, for a connection with the Ultimate, the Eternal and the Truly Perfect. This is something truly universal among all people.

The genius of Judaism has been that it teaches us a way of living in Exile. I think the central image in Judaism may be that of Moshe (Moses) standing on the border of the Promised Land. Moshe -- and the Midrash reports this at great length -- pleads with God. Pleads again and again. Begs. But his plea is denied. He will never know an end to his Galut. He will never enter the Promised Land.

This, by the way, is the image in which the Torah -- the first five books of the bible that are in the scrolls we read from each Shabbat -- concludes. It did not have to be this way. There could have been six books of Torah. The Torah could have included the next book -- the triumphant Book of Joshua, where Israel enters and conquers the Land. But, that is not where the Torah ends; it ends with Moshe standing on the edge of the Promised Land.

However, Moshe -- even in all his pleading and begging -- never shows any sign of true despair. He never shows any sign of losing his love for God. He never shows any sign of regret. Ultimately, he accepts the judgment that is put upon him -- the judgment that his life will be one lived in Galut.

This is the judgment -- even for those of us fortunate enough to be able to live our lives in the Land of Israel -- that is upon all of us: the judgment of a life in Exile. Judaism teaches us how to do live a life in this state of Galut. It teaches us how to make every moment and every place Holy. It teaches us the proper way to live and to relate to one another. It teaches us how to go on even in the face of pain and isolation. It teaches us that we should never lose hope -- that we should live every day in the expectation that tomorrow will be the day that the Messiah will come and God's Kingdom will be restored to us on earth and that, in the words of the Aleinu prayer that concludes every prayer service, everyone will know that God is One.

But, Judaism also teaches us how to live in every day that the Messiah does not come. We do not live these days in despair. We live in the comfort of each other and of God. The Torah accompanies us on our journey. And, in the words of the first psalm:

אשרי האיש אשר. . . בתורת ה' חפזו ובתורתו הגה יומם ולילה

Happy is the man . . . whose delight is in HaShem's Torah, and who utters His Torah day and night.

May your day indeed be one filled with the Joy of Torah. May you accept your Exile and yet yearn for its end in every moment.

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