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WHAT EXACTLY IS EXILE?

Roy Neuberger - Jun. 19, 2015


How contemporary is every word of Torah!

Tragically, the events of this week’s Torah portion are reflected in our own days. As our sages tell us, “In the period which will precede the coming of the Messiah, insolence will increase … those who dread sin will be despised … and truth will be absent…” (Sota 49b).


Korach and his followers were not afraid to deride Moses. Their rebellion laid the groundwork for the exile in which we find ourselves today. As we approach the Three Weeks commemorating the destruction of both Holy Temples, it behooves us to try to understand the nature of exile and what basis of hope there may be for us in the days ahead.


The amazing thing is that we have survived!

In my book, Worldstorm, I discuss how Adam and Eve were able to survive their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. “Can you imagine their burden on that day, the hot tears flowing as their feet walked out of that perfect world and passed the sword of the angel guarding the entrance through which no man has ever returned? Can you imagine what rested upon their shoulders? Already then they must have felt the guilt of thousands of future generations of their own children, the accumulated pain which was to befall every individual who would ever exist in the future world. It would all come about as a result of their one ‘tiny’ error. How could they bear it? How could anyone bear the responsibility for such untold suffering?

“The amazing thing is that they did bear it. Their greatness is shown perhaps more by the way they bore their exile than by their actions inside the Garden. Adam and Eve did not commit suicide. That same Adam and Eve – whose introduction to life outside the Garden included the murder of one son by another – walked onward through life. They did not give up! They lived to become the parents of yet another son, who carried the knowledge of G-d onward to the next generation and through whom the hope of the world was to survive” (Worldstorm, Ch. 1).

The same amazing phenomenon is true of the world after the destruction. Imagine the incomprehensible suffering and the dispersal of our entire nation to the four corners of the earth. Certainly, by all logic, this had to be the end of the Great Nation who served G-d with unique devotion.

But no! Dispersed as we were to every corner of the globe, our Holy Temple burning, enslaved by our enemies … we were not destroyed! To the utter amazement of the entire world, we are still here! Like Adam and Eve, from the very depths we have survived.

What in fact is exile?

Just the way we understand anything else, the only way to comprehend the meaning of exile is to look at the Torah’s definition. How does exile end? It is a very surprising law! The exile“must dwell in his city of refuge until the death of the High Priest…”(Numbers 35:28).

When we apply this law to our present circumstances, it implies something very uplifting, namely that exile is rooted in past actions and a different era. Then we were different people. But perhaps our suffering in exile has made us new people!

Let us in fact look forward … to the Third Temple … to a new High Priest! For two-thousand years we have looked backward to the exalted lifestyle which we forfeited. Just like Adam and Eve leaving the Garden of Eden, we have been pouring out hot tears over the terrible errors and mistakes which have led us to this point. But now we are on the threshold of something new!


G-d will never forsake us!

“But despite all this... 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 their G-d. I will remember for them the covenant of the ancients, those whom I have taken out of the land of Egypt before the eyes of the nations, to be G-d unto them. I am the L-rd” (Leviticus 26:44ff).

Now it is time to understand that we can also look forward! It is time to realize who we are. We are not like Korach, who was swallowed alive when “the earth opened up its mouth … and all that was theirs descended alive to the pit…” (Numbers 16:32-3).

No! How does the Torah characterize the one who is sent into exile? “For one who had not lain in ambush and G-d had caused it to come to his hand, I shall provide you a place to which he shall flee” (Exodus 21:13). He who enters exile is not evil. Although he killed a man, he is not an intentional murderer. And so the Torah states, “You shall designate cities for yourselves, cities of refuge shall they be for you, and a murderer shall flee there, one who takes a life unintentionally” (Numbers 35:11).

Exile is a refuge, not a bottomless pit. In our present exile, Torah communities and sages of incomparable greatness have arisen, and we as a nation have cleaved to G-d with enduring strength. “What is frail man, that You should remember him, and the son of mortal man, that You should be mindful of him? Yet You have made him but slightly less than the angels and crowned him with soul and splendor” (Psalm 8:5-6).

My friends, clearly we are almost ready to assume the spiritual level for which G-d has prepared us! How far off can the day be when a new High Priest is anointed, when a new Temple stands on the Temple Mount and we are once again “crowned with soul and splendor!”

 

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