In this week's Torah reading, our ancestors descend into Egypt and the days of exile begin. Immediately, the Torah informs us, "a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know of Joseph." (Exodus 1:8) Exile begins innocently. We may even think it is for our benefit, but it never works out for us, because we are meant to live in subservience only to G-d.
A "new king" always arises, sooner or later. In today's world a similar phenomenon is occurring. Most of us grew up in apparently safe and secure environments, but are now surrounded by people with dark looks and menacing behavior. Those we thought were our friends are acting like enemies. "A new king" has arisen.
I was born into a prosperous world, believing myself to be completely at home in American society, but happiness eluded me. I thought something was wrong with me, and in a way I was right: I was trying to believe that I belonged in the world of exile. But I couldn't get away with it. My misery forced me to admit that I possessed a Jewish soul!
Eighty percent of the Children of Israel never left Egypt with Moses! Rashi calls them "rashaim... wicked individuals." (Exodus 10:22). The poison of exile had seeped into their veins. And so, when Egypt collapsed, they collapsed with it and disappeared forever.
Today, the surrounding society is in a similar situation. If we would open our eyes, we would realize that the entire world is about to explode as ancient Egypt exploded. We would pray with the intensity of one who knows that his life hangs in the balance!
Each blessing in the Shemoneh Esreh prayer represents a different area in which we need salvation! We need resurrection of the dead because, if we cling to G-d, we will have eternity! We need wisdom because our feeble brains are insufficient to guide us through life without His constant help. We need health because we are threatened with countless physical maladies. We need to pray for sustenance because tomorrow everything could be taken from us! We need the Messiah! We need Jerusalem intact, spiritually and physically! The list goes on and on!
This Friday is the eighteenth day of the Hebrew month of Teves, the anniversary of the most amazing day of my life. Forty-nine years ago, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, my world collapsed. I had a choice: either collapse with it or flee and find the world of truth, which lasts forever. Faced with a mortal challenge, I fled from the world of lies and, for the first time, admitted that G-d had to be real!
I didn't want to believe in G-d, but I had to believe in G-d, because the alternative was eternal descent to the abyss, G-d forbid!
Here is how I describe it in my book, From Central Park to Sinai: How I Found My Jewish Soul:
"At 2 a.m. on January 10, 1966 I awoke with a start. Things had not been going too well lately. Our marriage seemed to be falling apart and I began to think I myself was coming unraveled... When I awoke at 2 a.m. I was desperate. I saw a chasm opening in front of me, a pit from which there was no escape.
"I felt as if my life were a long corridor, with many doors along each side. I had opened each door ... There was a door for 'hiking in the wilderness.' A door for 'singing folk music.' A door to the psychiatrist's office. Each door had led ... into a blank wall. Was there no door that led to truth, to freedom, no door to sunshine and happiness?
"I began to cry. I was through. There was no future. I was dying. There was no place I hadn't tried, no door I hadn't opened. I was drowning. My life was ending... I was sliding: down, down, down... falling through space. And then, as I fell, a thought brushed by me. A little thought, a little voice, like a feather floating by in the midst of the void, a crazy little idea...
"No, it couldn't be true. But then ... What else was there besides death?! All my life I had been raised as a good American boy. I went to the finest schools and met the most sophisticated people. Nobody normal believed in G-d! I mean, where is G-d? ... I don't see Him. I can't touch Him. I'm supposed to believe in something I can't see?
"I 'knew' that G-d didn't exist. The problem was that I felt I also didn't exist! Something was terribly wrong. Suddenly, I began to turn the whole question around. There was one unopened door. Why had I never noticed it before? It was the door to G-d. I had been sure G-d did not exist. But now that my own life seemed to be falling apart, I began to wonder.
"Maybe I had to turn the whole thing upside down... I saw that I did not exist - my life was empty - and at that time I was sure that G-d did not exist. But what if G-d did exist? Maybe then I could also exist! Maybe my existence depends on G-d. Maybe there was a life I hadn't even dreamed about. Maybe if G-d was really alive I could be alive. Maybe I had been looking at things "upside down" or "backwards" or "inside out."
"When you are drowning you grab the life preserver. You don't ask questions. I was drowning, and all of a sudden out of the sky came this life preserver. I grabbed it. Dawn was beginning to break in Ann Arbor as a new light began to glow inside me. All of a sudden, I started to have this incredible feeling of hope, a new idea that would enable me to live."
May we all soon see the final redemption with the coming of the Messiah!