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Parashat Shemot 5776 — 01/02/2016

Parashat Shemot 5776 — 01/02/2016

Shemot 1:1-6:1

With the beginning of the Book of Shemot we are cast into the full horrors of the Egyptian exile and slavery.  However, the Egyptian exile is not simply a historical event, it is a paradigm for our lives, as Jews, and, I would argue, as human beings.  R. Steinsaltz writes:

The Egyptian exile and the Exodus are, for us, far more than the specific historical narrative that appears in the book of Exodus; t hey are basic elements within our being.  The exile and the redemption in Exodus were not a one-time event, but merely the paradigm for an event that recurs again and again throughout our history – exile followed by redemption followed by exile again – and thus the metamorphosis of the Jewish people continues.

Clearly exile is something more than simply being forced to live in a place other than one’s homeland.

In truth, it appears that exilic existence involves a more fundmental problem.  The essential point of exile is that something is not where it should be, in its appropriate place. … If a carp is transferred from a pool near Atlit to a pool near Nahariya, it may have difficulty adapting, but being in one pool or thee other is not an essential difference for it.  … But when a fish is taken out of water altogether … it is in a place that is fundamentally inappropriate and, for a fish, life-threatening as well.

Now for a fish, being taken out of water is clearly life-threatening – the fish will physically die.  For the Jew, there is another kind of death – a spiritual death.  When the Romans forbade study of Torah, Rabbi Akiva very publicly continued to teach.  When asked why he did this, he used the analogy of the fish being taken out of water – just as the fish cannot live unless immersed in water, Jews cannot survive as Jews without being immersed in our tradition, for it is our tradition that binds us to our spiritual roots.

So there are two aspects to exile.  First, one can physically be in the wrong place.  Second, one can spiritually be in the wrong “place.”  In the case of the Jewish people, we can have one or both principles operative.  The Jewish people’s “place” in the world is the Land of Israel, no matter how much our adversaries may want to deny this.  Yet there are many Jews living in the Land of Israel who are cut off from and ignorant of our tradition, and as such are living in a spiritual exile.  In fact, some Chareidi groups in the Land of Israel celebrate the extra day of the Festivals, as we do in the Diaspora, to acknowledge that the redemption is not complete, even for those fortunate enough to live in the Land.

On the other hand, there are communities in the Diaspora where Torah study and observance is alive and well.  R Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, the dean of American Orthodox rabbis (d. 1993) is said to have remarked about one such community that it was a very nice community, but they’ve forgotten that they are in exile.  Now certainly t hese people were quite aware that they were living in the US, and they were living a life that was definitely rooted in tradition.  Yet they had become so comfortable with their lives and their lifestyles, that they were “stuck” in a rut – maybe not a muddy, materialistic rut, but a rut nonetheless, and they were apparently incapable of seeing past what they had to discern what was missing.

Our tradition holds that each land, each part of the earth, has its unique characteristics, and that the people who live there become adapted to its unique qualities.  In fact, each nation, like each individual, has its own unique role to play in the unfolding of the Divine plan for the perfection of creation, and that role can be most effectively played in the land that has the (spiritual and material) resources needed for that particular role.  For the Jewish people, the Land of Israel, the Holy Land, is the place most suited to our mission of bringing Gd’s Holiness our of hiding and into the forefront of human consciousness.  That is why it has been so difficult for us actually to remain on that Land for any great length of time – first, it demands a high standard of perfection from us, which we sadly have often fallen short of, and second, this imperfection on our part has left us weakened and unable to withstand the forces of impurity that are particularly concerned to prevent the rise of purity and holiness.  The result has been our long periods of exile, and this exile has led to our sense of foreignness in the world.

I think that the ultimate exile, however, is our exile from our own essential nature.  At the basis of our personality is our soul, which is infinite, a piece of the Divine.  The soul’s natural abode is in the infinite, close to Gd, but for reasons that are really not given to us to understand, the soul is exiled into the material world, to face all the challenges of that world.  If we sometimes feel that this world is not our home, that’s because it isn’t.  If things feel like they’re not right, it’s because they aren’t – the world is unredeemed.  In Hamlet’s words, “The time is out of joint/ O curséd spite/ That ever I was born to set it right.”  But that gives us an insight into the purpose of exile.  The soul is in exile into the material world to infuse its holiness and perfection into that world.  Perhaps in the s ame way the exiles of the Jewish people are a way of “exporting” the holiness of the Land of Israel to the rest of the world.

If we wish to create a redeemed world, a world where our pure soul can feel comfortable, the first person we have to redeem is ourself.   We have to return to our essential nature, to realize that our material bodies are not who we are.  Our bodies are just a garment for our souls, a kind of “prosthesis” that lets our purely spiritual beings interact with the world.  We have to uncover ourselves to ourselves, to remember who really we are.  Only then can we fulfill our mission to redeem the world.

Haftarah: Isaiah 26:6-28:13, 20:22-23 (Ashkenazim) / Yirmiyah 1:1-2:3 (Sephardim)

I don’t know why Ashkenazim and Sephardim have different customs for Haftarahs.  The custom of reading a Haftarah dates back to Mishnaic times, long before the distinction between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, so presumably the difference doesn’t arise from disputes in the Talmud.  It may be that although the Rabbis instituted that a portion of the Prophets be read along with the Torah reading (originally it may have been instead of the Torah reading, as various  kings would ban the public reading of the Torah, and the custom remained after the ban was lifted), they didn’t specify which portions should be read each week, and the Jewish community as a whole never reached a perfect consensus.

And it will be on that day that a great shofar will be blown, and those who are lost in the land of Assyria and those  cast away in the land of Egypt will come, and they shall prostrate themselves to Hashem on the holy mountain [i.e. the Temple Mount] in Jerusalem (27:13)

For commandment by commandment, commandment by commandment, line by line, line by line, a bit here and a bit there (28:10)

The two quotes describe the redemption, and the state of exile, respectively.  When the Redemption comes, all exiles will be gathered in – the prophet of course is mostly concerned with Jewish exiles, but of course, a global redemption is going to include everyone.  What is the great shofar?  It is a wake-up call that a new age is dawning, and that a new way of thinking is necessary.  This is actually addressed in the second quote, which has long been one of my favorite Biblical quotes.  When one is estranged from his own infinite nature, and his mind is overshadowed by all the boundaries of the world, and his vision is restricted to the nose on his face, and sometimes not even that much, then the right path is often obscured.  It is then that we need the Gd’s guidance in the form of revealed scripture.  The trouble is, that codes of conduct, while valuable and necessary, can only take us so far.  The rules get more and more complex, trying to legislate every little nook and cranny of life, simply because we have lost the ability to sense directly what is right and wrong.  Our every decision must be researched and analyzed, line by line, law by law, because what should be glaringly obvious is hidden behind the cloak of our material urges.  When the Redemption comes, and the proverbial scales fall from our eyes, we will no longer have this problem.  And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know Hashem: for they shall all know Me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, says Hashem: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. (Jer 31:34)