When looking at certain themes that run through both the Five Books of Moses and the Bible, we see the cycle of exile and redemption repeat itself continually. Even before the Jewish people there are many examples of humanity acting within the influence and parameters of the ongoing repetition of this archetypal cycle.
Adam and Eve were placed in a utopian, redemptive setting – the garden of Eden – but were forced into the first exile as a consequence of eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The fact that the cycle of exile and redemption begins with the first humans is very significant; their story thus becomes the model of the existential predicament of mankind.
After Cain kills Abel his punishment was to be a “vagrant and wanderer,” trapped within a constant state of exile. Noah was commanded to build an ark where he and his family lived and took refuge until the waters of the flood receded. The year of exile in the ark was followed by the opportunity of redemption and the possibility of building a new world. Noah and his sons unfortunately were not able to translate this nearly once in history occurrence into a rectified reality. The generation of the Tower of Babel reasoned they needed to build a tower unto the heavens in order that they would not be scattered across the face of the earth, which ironically was the exact result of their building the tower.
Abraham, the first Jew, was forced to leave Ur Chasdim for his belief in one God. The term “Hebrew,” by which Jews were referred to initially, comes from the root “to cross over,” in this case, to cross over the Euphrates river. Abraham and family settled in Haran, the place where God commands Abraham to “Go for yourself, from your land, from your relatives and from your fathers house, to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). This communication instructing him to leave all behind him in order to build a new life significantly marks the first time God directly speaks to Abraham.
Paradoxically, soon after Abraham arrived in Israel, “the land that I will show you,” there was a famine and Abraham and Sarah were forced to descend to Egypt. This incident is a cardinal example of the dictum of the Sages: “the actions of the fathers are a sign for the children” (Sotah 34a). The simple understanding of this statement is that from the actions of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of the Jewish people, we the children, can learn valuable ethical and moral lessons for life. A deeper inference is that the actions of the fathers and mothers pave the way for all subsequent Jewish history and in this sense all the stories in the Torah are archetypal in nature, repeating themselves in a multitude of ways in every generation and within each person. More than this, their actions created and engraved character traits and pure potential within the spiritual DNA of the Jewish people, the “stuff” we as Jews are made from.
The story of Abraham and Sarah going down to Egypt because of famine, her being taken into Pharaoh’s house, which is then struck with a plague causing Pharaoh to send them away with riches, serves as the pattern for the eventual descent of Jacob and his family to Egypt and the slavery and subsequent redemption, the subject of the greater part of the Five Books of Moses. In this sense, the actions of the fathers as recorded in the Torah take on the additional aspect of being prophetic in nature, both reflecting and causing reality.
After returning to Israel, God revealed to Abraham at the “Covenant of the Pieces,” that his descendents will become slaves in Egypt, but will return to the land that God has promised him and his seed for ever (Genesis 15:1-20). In every word and detail of this story are revealed the future history of the Jewish people. The slavery and redemption of the Jews from Egypt, receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai and wandering in the desert for forty years become the background for the vast majority of the Five Books of Moses.
At the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses revealed to the people in great detail, and through constant repetition, the cycle of exile and redemption as it will manifest through out history till the final redemption. An even superficial reading of Jewish history confirms these prophesies: the Jews came into Israel and conquered it, the glory of the great kingdom of David and Solomon, the ten tribes taken into exile by Assyria, the destruction of the first Temple and exile to Babelonia, struggling with Persia, returning to build the second Temple, the battles of sovereignty with the Greeks, the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans and the beginning of nearly 2,000 years of exile. During those 2,000 years countless communities, large and small, around the globe, experienced alternative “golden ages” and relative peace, followed by crusades, inquisitions, expulsions, ghettos, pogroms and the holocaust. The rebirth of the Jewish state in 1948, only three years after World War II, places us once again in a semi- redemptive state.
The cycle of exile and redemption though is much more fundamental than just a cycle manifest in history, it exists at multi levels of reality, especially nature. In the changing of the seasons and the cycle of the year we see vividly how the new buds, leaves, flowers and fruits of spring and summer are metaphorically “redemption,” in relation to the loss of leaves, bareness, dormancy and the “exile” of winter. The Jewish people are compared to the moon progressing each month through visible fazes of waxing and waning, redemption and exile.
It states in the Torah that Pesach must be in the spring, “because in the spring you came out of Egypt” ( ). The connection between spring and Pesach is not coincidental – there is an intrinsic connection between the redemption of the Jewish people and the rebirth of spring, as mentioned above.
On a personal level, who has not felt the “exile” of loneliness, depression, insecurity, low self esteem and even at times, hopelessness? Who has not felt the “redemption” of sweet victory, a sense of accomplishment, the magic of love and a deep sense of purpose. The human psyche is wired to the beat of the universe, which is mysteriously connected to the cycle of exile and redemption. The oscillation of breath and the pulse of the heart can be also be understood to reflect this cycle.
Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh teaches that for an individual exile means the inability to express oneself. This translates itself as frustration, anger and impotence. Personal redemption reflects itself in the ease, exhilaration and joy born from the ability to express oneself.
Perhaps the most all encompassing expression of exile and redemption is contained in the mystery of life and death itself. In the simple sense, life represents redemption, while death symbolizes the epitome of exile. Interestingly enough, one could look at it just the opposite from another vantage point: the soul descending into the body represents a state of exile from its heavenly roots, whereas death can be seen as a release of the soul to return to its primordial state of redemption and closeness to God.
This idea is actually developed at length in Kabbalah, in order to explain the Jewish people going down to Egypt as the saga of each soul being forced, as it were, to leave its pristine spiritual existence above to come down into the material world and a physical body. The word Egypt means a “narrow place,” and in relation to the soul, the body is the essence of a “narrow place.” Leaving Egypt, receiving the Torah and the forty years of wandering in the desert is the macro model and allegory of the trials and tests of each soul as it wanders through life. The final goal – the holy land – represents the fulfillment of our mission and purpose in life.
The Arizal, Rabbi Isaac Luria, the great Kabbalist of Safed in the mid 1550’s, explained that in the very beginning of the creative process, God, as it were, contracted His Infinite Presence in order for there to be a “place” for independent existence. This apparent withdrawal created a “vacuum” in which a finite, “independent, ” physical reality could be created. In a sense, this is the Divine source and root of exile; its appearance as a necessary contracting stage in the creation of the world is crucial to our understanding the ultimate purpose of the cycle of exile and redemption.
Into this “vacuum” God formed the first vessels to hold His light. According to the Arizal, these immature vessels shattered in what he calls the primordial “breaking of the vessels.” The shattered sparks of these broken vessels were released and spread throughout creation and form the foundation of our present state of reality, which he termed “the world of rectification.” From this Kabbalistic cosmology we begin to grasp how deeply rooted the cycle of exile and redemption are and why they appear throughout reality.
To understand more profoundly the nature of this cycle we must look at the Hebrew words for these two concepts: galut, “exile” and geulah, “redemption.” We notice immediately that the two letter root for both words is identical – gimel and lamed, gal. This root has many meanings – all of which shed light on the very essance and connection of these two complimentary states. Gal in its varied applications means a wheel, a wave, a circle, to reveal, to open, to reincarnate. All these imply that exile and redemption are not connected randomly, but form one unified cycle, revealing a necessary process through which, by definition, all life transmigrates.
It is further taught in Kabbalah and Chassidic thought that the essential difference between galut, “exile” and geulah, redemption, is the letter alef. The form of the alef is the letter yod above and a yod below, simultaneously connected, yet separated, by a slanted vav. This form represents the separation of the upper waters and the lower waters, (the two yods,) on the second day of creation by the firmament, (the vav,) which both divides and unifies them. This description of the form of the alef represents the existential reality of man, who feels at times close to God and at other times as far away as can be.
The letter alef, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, equals one, yet paradoxically its form reveals intrinsic duality within this oneness. This is the Divine source of the complimentary states of exile and redemption, as well as all other apparent dualities. Exile and redemption in their very essence are rooted in oneness and therefore we must see them as they unfold as a unified process. Redemption simply cannot exist without a prior state of exile. Understanding this in a fundamental way helps an individual enormously when facing the daily challenges of life. Through sensitivity to this fundamental cycle of life one realizes that as much as adversity “hurts,” if viewed through a different perspective it becomes the seeds of growth and the sparks that are transformed into a blazing flame.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov used to celebrate opposition; for him it was a sign that he was doing something worthy of opposition. For just as in the physical world there is a general principle that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, so too in the spiritual worlds “this against [corresponding to] this has God created” (Ecclesiastes 7:14).
The Arizal translated his cosmological symbolism into a language that helped explain the exile of the Jewish people. Instead of seeing the long and bitter exile as only a consequence of our deeds, or a punishment for our sins, as predicted in Deuteronomy, exile became an opportunity, a necessary development in the history of mankind. For the Jewish people, as the living allegory of Divine process, had the task to gather and uplift the holy sparks of light scattered through out the world as a result of the “breaking of the vessels,” the primordial shattering of the initial immature vessels of the creative process.
In order to do this they themselves had to be scattered to the four corners of the earth to accomplish this holy mission. Little by little these sparks would be brought back to Israel where they would achieve their full rectification at the “end of days” and the inception of the Messianic era. This revolutionary paradigm shift in the very nature of how we view exile and our Divine mission, becomes a model to be followed in our own personal lives as well. Jacob received the name Israel “because you have strived with God and man and have overcome” (Genesis 32:29). Striving becomes a means as well as an end in itself.
The Rebbe of Slonim, Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky, when discussing the “Covenant of the Pieces,” God’s original covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15:1-21), teaches that the exile in Egypt was not based on reward and punishment, or as a consequence of our actions, but was a process of purification that the Jewish people had to go through to be a people and to fulfill our unique mission in the world. In order to be a proper vessel for redemption and rectification – to be a light unto the nations – we as a people had to experience the cycle of exile and redemption as the foundation of our national life, it had to flow in our blood, be engraved in our very essence. Only then could we truly merit the name Israel.
Immediately preceding the “Covenant of the Pieces,” Abraham sought an answer from God regarding his and Sarah’s inability to have children and his apprehension as to who would carry on his mission in life. “And He took him outside and said, ‘Gaze now towards the heavens and count the stars if you are able to count them.’ And He said to him ‘So shall your seed be'” (Genesis 15:5). Rashi brings three explanations of “He took him outside.”
The simple reading is that he took him out of his tent in order to see the stars. His second explanation is from the Midrash, that God told him to go outside his astrology that was telling him he was not destined to have children; Abram can’t have children but Abraham can! His third explanation, also from a Midrash, teaches that God took Abraham above the stars in order to gaze, as it were, down upon the stars from above, allowing Abraham a Divine perspective of reality.
This story contains an essential teaching – that as much as we are controlled and shaped by both nature and nurture, we still have the ability to break free from our mold and go “above the stars.” This soul power is what has sustained the Jewish people, allowing us to survive against all odds and historical precedent and to excel in virtually every field of human endeavor.
On one hand, we can on occasion break out of the seemingly inevitable reoccurring cycle of exile and redemption in all of its manifestations. On the other hand, this cycle is so fundamental to all creation and life itself that even when “spinning on the wheel” we do have the ability and free will to transform a state of exile into a positive development and use it as a spring board for new levels of attainment. This is the secret of the ten trials of Abraham, each one raising him to higher levels of spirituality than he would have been able to reach without them. Though tests are never easy, our attitude towards them shifts dramatically when realizing what their ultimate purpose is.
We have seen how the concept of exile and redemption permeates creation, nature, history and the human psyche. Our challenge is to know when to “go with the flow” and when to “go outside” like Abraham from the inevitable and change or create anew our destiny. All redemptions in Jewish history have been followed by future exiles. All highs in our lives are followed by future lows.
Though we have not answered the big question of why God deemed all creation to follow this model, it is perhaps as far as we can understand at present, to recognize the cycle and get the maximum mileage out of it. To revel in a sunset as we do the sunrise. To feel the depths of brokeness and still be joyous. To take the downs of life in stride and use them to ascend even higher. To learn to appreciate both the winter and the summer, finding God’s messages and wisdom in all phases of life. To see unity among multiplicity, oneness in the big picture. To see death as just another stage of life, to value tears of pain as we do tears of joy.
We are told that when the Messiah comes it will usher in the final redemption, followed by no future exiles. We are also taught that death itself will be swallowed up and cease to exist. We will then be privileged to learn the great secrets of exile and redemption, when “the knowledge of God will cover the earth like the waters cover the sea” ( Isaiah 11:9).