Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Walk Article-Shemot



Rabbi David Walk


            Over this past weekend I had a fascinating conversation with a bright, young congregant about the concept of redemption.  This was refreshing, because much of the talk around shul these days is about football playoffs, both NCAA and NFL.  And even though part of me would like to discuss the chances of the New England Patriots winning their fourth Super Bowl, the issue of redemption is infinitely more important, at least a lot more.  Our discussion revolved around the topic of whether there can be redemption outside of Israel or exile while residing within Israel It's an interesting topic, and extremely important to modern Zionists.  For the past couple of centuries many great scholars, especially Chassidic Masters, have taught that we can reach a redeemed state even in the Diaspora.  For this reason many Chassidic courts in Europe included the word Jerusalem in their names, because being there was like ascending to that holy city.  However, this young man remembers being lectured while studying in Israel that redemption requires the Holy Land I must admit that this very quandary has concerned me as well.  And wouldn't you know, this is the best possible week to have this debate, because this week we focus on that very first exile in Egypt.

However, we've really been reading about the exile of Egypt since that moment two weeks ago when Ya'akov went down to Egypt with his seventy member clan.  But the Midrash complicates the matter with a comment on the first verse of our new book, "It repeats that they came to Egypt, because all the time that Yosef lived, there was no exile for them.  So, it's as if they just came down (into exile) now (Shmot Raba, 1:4).'  So, when did the Exile really begin?  There are more than one possible answer to that question.  Do we begin the exile with settlement outside of Israel or with the beginning of servitude?

There's another problem.  Isn't there always?  When did the exile end, and when did our ancestors reach the proper spiritual level referred to as redemption?  This is the topic of Nachmanides' (1194-1270) famous comment at the beginning of Exodus, 'The exile is not ended until the day of their return to their proper place, until they return to the level of their ancestors. When they left Egypt, even though they had emerged from the house of slavery, they were still considered as exiles, for they were in a country that was not their own, wandering about in the wilderness. When they came to Mount Sinai and made the Mishkan, and God once again caused His Presence to rest in their midst, at that point they return to the level of their ancestors.'  According to him, that's why the book doesn't end until the Mishkan has been built.

So, exile and redemption can be delineated in different ways.  Location is just one of many factors.  In other words it's not like real estate values.  However, there is another way of looking at the issue.  We seem to record the descent to Egypt on two separate occasions, and there is Midrashic material which stresses that the exile didn't begin until the deaths of Ya'akov and Yosef (others actually posit that the exile didn't begin until the deaths of that entire generation).  The new approach to explain why Exodus begins with a recap of those who came to Egypt is that the two books, Genesis and Exodus, are presented from different view points.  Genesis is written about individuals and how they develop into an extended family.  The book of Exodus, on the other hand, is written about a community which is quickly becoming a nation.  Remember the individuals of Genesis have trouble reproducing.  The community in Exodus can't be stopped from producing amazing amounts of progeny.

We often view our great ancestors from these different vantage points.  We begin our daily Shmoneh Esreh prayer by addressing God as the God of our Patriarchs and then we specify 'the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzchak and the God of Ya'akov.'  We see these giants as both individuals and as the building blocks of a unified people.

From the point of view of Genesis, the exile may have started at different times for different elements of the tribe.  There are both personal and national experiences.  Likewise, the redemption phenomenon may have been perceived at different times for different individuals.  Exile and redemption can be a personal event or development, as well as a national occurrence.

Now we can turn our attention to our initial inquiry.  Can there be redeemed souls outside of Israel?  Yes, there can be an individual who has achieved an extremely high spiritual status in the Diaspora.  Can there be a sense of exile even while residing in the Promised Land?   Indeed, there can.  However, I will categorically state that the Jewish nation can not become aware of a redeemed status in the Diaspora.  The national recognition of redemption requires us to be present in the land promised to our Patriarchs.  The full power, purity and perception of redemption requires a critical mass of Jews interacting on a Torah level within the borders of our homeland.  On a personal note, I can attest to the reality that Jewish experiences and observances are more intense in Israel, and that's only right.

Those Chassidic Masters who encouraged their followers to try and undergo a redemptive sensation in the study halls and Chassidic courts of Eastern Europe were only doing what their profound spirituality considered reasonable.  For many of these masters personally felt the warm caress of Divine Presence in these benighted lands.  On the other hand, those zealous, Zionist teachers were also correct.  The long awaited redemptive era will only be achieved in Eretz Yisrael.  I'm sympathetic to both positions.  But isn't it time that we eschew the small scale, individual variety of redemption, and strive for the full blown version described in Exodus and so long awaited by our brethren?  It's time.