Strangers in a Strange Land
Much of our discontent derives from our struggle with the temporary nature of our existence. The world is indeed “a narrow bridge.” We sojourn here but for the blink of an eye. This is the fundamental nature of our condition; we are visitors, we are strangers.
We struggle to conduct our lives as if we “belong.” We tell ourselves that everything “will be all right.” That we are not really “strangers.” That this is our home.
But we are strangers and we Jews, of all people, should appreciate how transient and vulnerable our existence can be.
In Bereishit (46:8-27), we are told that Yaakov’s household, numbering seventy, have just arrived is Egypt. “And these are the names of the children of Israel who are coming (habayim – present tense) into Egypt. This phrase is repeated nearly verbatim in the opening pasuk of Shemot, save that the number is reduced to twelve and the tense of the verb changes to past.
Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt’l. finds great insight in these small changes. In them, he sees the key to redemption – to see ourselves as having “just arrived” and as being nothing more than “temporary residents”. The Midrash suggests as much by noting that Yaakov’s children retained their Hebrew names. Pesach Haggadah teaches that Yaakov meant only to live in Egypt temporary.
For Rav Soloveitchik, maintaining a psychological awareness of our temporary existence is fundamental to redemption. He abhorred the term “Diaspora” to describe the Jewish condition. He preferred instead the harsher, and more accurate, term, galut – exile. Why? Because “Diaspora” implies legitimacy. Galut is truth.
Two thousand years of recent Jewish history has certainly taught us this truth. So many of these lessons have been harsh and violent, from dislocations to pogroms and Holocaust. Other reminders have been less hurtful while being no less true.
In an effort to be “inclusive”, a meeting of Congress was recently opened with a prayer to God (He/She/It) and concluded with “Amen” and “A-women.” It took me a moment to fully appreciate how fully this communicates Jewish non-belonging and non-inclusivity. Hebrew, our sacred language, was being manipulated and rejected; reduced to mere phonemes and denied its independent meaning and value!
I shuddered to think what other trespass such “well-meaning” people could bring. Would they expect a dag (fish) to walk on all fours and wag its tail? For he (Hebrew for “she”) to be rejected as misogynistic?
Humorous? Perhaps. But also clear in the message – if we’re willing to hear it – that the thing that is essential about us is that we do not belong.
We are only visitors. Strangers.
We accept, we misunderstand, or we embrace, that status at our peril.
Our archetypal experience of victimization, of otherness, of being strangers – our enslavement in Egypt – needed to be shrugged off before we could realize the promise of freedom God had for us.
“…and I shall take you out from under the burdens (sivlot) of Egypt” (Ex. 6:6)
The Hebrew verb li’sbol means “to suffer.” God promises that He will remove us from the burdens, from the suffering, that was a constant of our existence in Mitzrayim. Li’sbol also means “to tolerate.” With this understanding in mind, Rebbe R’ Bunim comments that despite their backbreaking labor, the Children of Israel came to “tolerate” their situation. In their perspective, slavery was the natural state of being. They belonged where they were. They had become blind to how terribly bitter it was. As a result, their galut became not only physical but spiritual as well. God had to redeem them not only from their backbreaking labor in order to free them from their tolerance of their slavery.
Tolerance of evil is worse than the evil itself.
Spiritual galut is worse than physical galut.
How easy it is to become benumbed to our physical galut and discomfort! So much so that we’d rather continue mired in our misery than subject ourselves to the challenge and uncertainty of change and the hope of betterment. We know from countless studies that long-term prisoners are reluctant to leave their prison cells to face the “outside world”. So too were the Jews reluctant to leave their “prison” in Egypt.
As slaves, we didn’t have to “think”, we didn’t have to “risk”, we didn’t have to “feel” honest and true feelings. We did not have to confront our exile. All was decided for us. No uncertainty. Just burden, to which we became tolerant. Imagine! We tolerated – invited – the burden of slavery as though it was our appropriate lot in life! If it is possible to become tolerant of sivlos Mitzrayim how much more is it to become tolerant of the everyday burdens and challenges, we all confront today!
R’ Menachem Mendel of Kotzk proclaimed that the first step towards freedom is the willingness to rebel against slavery, against galut. Before being led to Sinai, B’nai Yisrael had to accept God’s great gift of freedom from their savlanut – their tolerance to their slavery. This, the freedom from tolerance, is the ultimate foundation for geula. There can be no redemption until galus is utterly rejected. Indeed, it is this understanding that prompts the Chidushei HaRim to teach us that the posuk should read, “I will deliver you from being tolerant of Egypt.”
The Children of Israel criticize Moshe and Aaron for angering Pharaoh by calling for their freedom. They have become so inured to their slavery that they would rather continue as slaves than sacrifice for their freedom. They had become like the beaten down and despondent worker who faces his miserable shop foreman with a shrug, “What else can I do? This is my life.” The necessary implication being, “I deserve galut.”
But that is not “a life”. That is slavery. It is the antithesis of God’s desire that we enjoy the power and grace of geula! The slave wants only his daily bread, the inexorable sameness and numbness of existence and not a life of spirituality and meaning.
Certainly, the generation of Yetziat Mitzrayim had to say, “Enough!” before they could cross the Red Sea and enter the wilderness and, ultimately, receive the Law at Sinai.
“Enough” is more than “ouch” to the pain of the lash. It is a declaration that the pain of the lash is not “my due.” It is a statement of absolute refusal. It is not a negation of what is bad but an embrace of what is good. It is an embrace of the possibility of geulah.
Rabbi Dr. Aton Holzer shared with me that not long before he’d made Aliyah, Shavuot happened to fall on Memorial Day. As he walked to shul, wishing “good morning” the people he passed along the way, the shirtless men washing their cars on the beautiful, early summer day, the outdoor cafe patrons crowding the sidewalks, the many people strolling along. Finally, he arrived at shul. He opened the door and heard the Yom Tov nigun for HaKel, he immediately thought of C.S. Lewis’ wardrobe, a portal to another world, a wonderful, beautiful escape and very different from the reality in which he lived.
In Eretz haKodesh, he came to appreciate, the world inside and outside the shul is not so different. It is as if he lived in the wardrobe.
This is a glimpse of the salvation Rav Soloveitchik spoke of.
To know salvation exists, we must know we live in galut. And, we must want salvation.
It is told that Rav Nachum of Chernobel once stopped at an inn owned by an old Jew. At midnight, Rav Nachum sat on the floor to conduct his Tikun Chatzos, crying so bitterly over the Churban that many of the inn’s guests were awakened by his distress.
Trembling, the Jewish owner rushed to the Rebbe. “Why are you crying? Does something hurt?”
Rav Nachum shook his head. “I am bemoaning the Churban and the bitter galus.”
The innkeeper was confused. “What Churban? What galus? What is all the grief about?”
“You don’t know?” Rav Nachum asked. “Our Temple in Jerusalem was razed. We were exiled from our Chosen Land because of our sins.” He studied the innkeeper. “I am beseeching God to speedily send the Moshiach, so he brings us to Eretz Yisrael.
“Are you ready to go up to the Promised Land?”
The innkeeper shook with fear and raised a hand. “Wait, Rebbe. I am going to ask my wife what to do. She will know.” He hurried away only to return soon after. “No,” he said, clearly. “We will not go. It would be foolish to lose all the chickens, cows, and sheep. No, it makes no sense to follow Moshiach and leave all this behind!”
Rav Nachum persisted. “Is it really so good here? Often, the locals rampage, kill and plunder!”
The inn owner once again raised his hand. “Let me ask my wife.” Once again, he came back quickly. “She said that this is our life and it is quite satisfactory, thank you. She said I should tell you to pray to God to chase away all the evil locals to the Promised Land. As for us, we will stay here with the chickens, cows and sheep.”
The poor innkeeper and his wife were blind to their galut. They were blind to true existence of their lives. And while it is easy to laugh at the foolishness of the innkeeper, we are very much like him. We revel in our comforts while shrugging off our discomforts. “It is what it is”, we tell ourselves.
In telling ourselves this, we are accepting galut; we are accepting our being strangers. It is time to acknowledge galut and move to salvation. Geula awaits.