“The Role of Exile in Jewish Theology”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

As we have noted previously (Kee Tavo 5762-2002), parashat Bechukotai is one of the two parashiot in the Torah, together with Kee Tavo (Deuteronomy Chapters 26:1-29:8) that contain the Tochacha, תּוֹכָחָה, G-d’s reproof of the Jewish people. In both these parashiot, G-d warns the people of the severe punishments that await them if they stray from the path of the L-rd.

In Leviticus 26:32-33, the Torah writes, וַהֲשִׁמֹּתִי אֲנִי אֶת הָאָרֶץ, וְשָׁמְמוּ עָלֶיהָ אֹיְבֵיכֶם הַיֹּשְׁבִים בָּהּ. וְאֶתְכֶם אֱזָרֶה בַגּוֹיִם, וַהֲרִיקֹתִי אַחֲרֵיכֶם חָרֶב, וְהָיְתָה אַרְצְכֶם שְׁמָמָה וְעָרֵיכֶם יִהְיוּ חָרְבָּה And I [G-d] will make the land desolate, and your foes who dwell upon it will be astonished. And you, I will scatter among the nations, I will unsheathe the sword after you; your land will be desolate, and your cities will be a ruin.

The irony cannot go unnoticed. The same G-d who miraculously brought the people into the land of Canaan, fought off the 31 native nations, and divided up the captured territories among the twelve tribes, is the same G-d who now threatens to expel the People of Israel from the land, because of their misdeeds.

The great Israeli commentator, Rabbi Yehudah Nachshoni, in his Studies in the Weekly Parashah, asks: What is the purpose of exile and what role does it play in Jewish history?

In his introduction to the discussion of this issue, Rabbi Nachshoni boldly acknowledges that G-d’s threats of punishment of the Jewish people in the Tochachah are difficult and painful, and portend great suffering in store for the Jewish people. Yet, in the same measure, these Torah portions forecast hope–for He [G-d] who is fully able to carry out the reproof and visit the punishments, He too can also make the dream of redemption real, and fulfill His many favorable promises to the Jewish people. From this point of view, says Rabbi Nachshoni, the reproof is actually part and parcel of the scheme of redemption. As confirmation of his thesis, Rabbi Nachshoni cites the Talmudic narrative in Makot 24b, about Rabbi Akiva who laughed when he saw a fox emerge from the destroyed Holy of Holies, and declared: “He who fulfilled His promise about the punishments, will also keep his word regarding His promise of redemption and reward.”

Perhaps the seminal verse in the Tochachah is G-d’s promise that no matter what a small portion of the Jewish people will always remain, and from this remnant the Jewish people will regenerate and flourish. Leviticus 26:44: וְאַף גַּם זֹאת בִּהְיוֹתָם בְּאֶרֶץ אֹיְבֵיהֶם, לֹא מְאַסְתִּים וְלֹא גְעַלְתִּים לְכַלֹּתָם. But, despite all of this, while they will be in the land of their enemies, I will not have been revolted by them, nor will I have rejected them to obliterate them, to annul My covenant with them–-for I am the L-rd, thy G-d.

It is this verse, the promise of an eternal nation of Israel, which provides profound insight into the role of Galut, exile. In fact, the exile itself, testifies to the eternality of the Jewish people, who have withstood the constant threats of annihilation, bitterness and tragedies of exile, and have not only survived, but have actually flourished.

Rabbi Nachshoni cites the insightful observation of Rabbi Joseph Albo, author of Sefer ha’Ikkarim, who maintains that the Jews are the only nation in history whose original name and race remain in existence to this day. All the nations of antiquity have ceased to exist either in name or in peoplehood, as they were overrun by marauders and enemies only to lose their original identities. There certainly must be a cogent reason for the Jewish people’s survival, both in name and as a people.

Rabbi Nachshoni cites the opinions of several classical commentaries who present their own explanations of the role of exile.

Rabbeinu Bachya sees the goal of exile as a means of disseminating the rules and instructions of G-d and spreading the lessons of Torah to the nations of the world where the People of Israel are exiled.

The ancient Talmudic rabbis also feel that dispersion is really a blessing within the curse. Because of dispersion, the enemies of Israel were unable to destroy the Jewish people entirely, since they were all never located in a single location.

The “Wandering Jew,” often viewed as part of a Divine curse, is seen by these commentators as a positive factor. The wandering has made it possible for Jews to never completely assimilate among the nations by becoming overly comfortable in a single location, and remaining there for long durations, which would lead to inevitable assimilation.

The Chatam Sofer suggests that the closer the Jews became to the native nations, the more the natives’ enmity increased. This too serves as a test of survival for the Jewish people.

The Meshech Chochmah notes that throughout Jewish history, from the time of Jacob, the Jewish people were always considered foreigners. No matter where they dwelt, they resided separately from the people of the land, and created multiple fences to maintain their own identity. When the Jews eventually start to feel comfortable with the fact that they are living in the Diaspora, and wish to become part of the native people, they are seen as thorns in the eyes of the natives, and once again, are transformed into aliens and strangers. An outside storm arises, casting the people into a new location, among new enemies

This alienation, too, is seen by the Gaon of the Dvinsk as a way of fighting off assimilation. Wandering prevents progress among the assimilators, ultimately directing the people to return to their roots. The Gaon points to the fact that, historically, after every major Jewish calamity, the Jews begin to build again, reestablishing their original values, rather than forsaking their traditional values for the values of the native people.

The author of the Akeidat Yitzchak asserts firmly that Jews should not delude themselves into thinking that assimilation among the nations will relieve them of their travails. There is no way to escape Jewish destiny. Even the curse of, “there will be no one to acquire you,” will be turned into a blessing. The Akeidat notes that Jews were never really forced into slavery, like the black people, but often lived as “privileged” subjects of the kings.

Thus, it is the melding of the curses and the blessings together, which eventually emerges as an ultimate blessing.

May you be blessed.

The festival of Lag Ba’Omer (literally the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer) will start Saturday night, May 17, and continue all day Sunday, May 18, 2014. The Omer period is the 49 days from the second night of Passover through the day before Shavuot. The 33rd day is considered a festival because, on that day, the students of Rabbi Akiva ceased dying and because it marks the anniversary of the passing of Rabbi Simon bar Yochai.