Vayetzei: Surviving Exile

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Sipping an ice-blended white chocolate dream in the cholov yisrael Coffee Bean in November makes it hard for a California Jew to consider the imperiled state of the Jew in exile. Yes it’s a galus (diaspora) – ober a gutte galus (but a good one). But is it?

May 1964 – LOOK magazine runs a cover story on “The Vanishing American Jew”, predicting that by the year 2000, no identified Jews would be left in this country. Forty three years after dire prediction, Look magazine has vanished and we remain 5 million plus. All however is not rosy on the American Jewish front. Sub-zero replacement rates, an aging population and a 52% intermarriage rate do not bode well for the future of American Jewry. Consider that in the year 1946, there were 146 million Americans and 6 million Jews, while presently there are 300 million Americans and 5.5 million Jews and we begin to understand just how bad it is.

So it’s not easy to survive in galus, ice blended and all. It has never been easy. Not in Eastern Europe, Russia, Spain, Portugal, etc. Challenges within and enemies without pull us in different directions. Our essential exile survival, opines Rav Yaakov Emden, far eclipses the splitting of the sea and matan Torah for pure miracle content. What is that survival secret for the Jew in galus?

Unfortunately, reading this piece will not stem assimilation nor prevent intermarriage. Consider Yaakov, our paradigm patriarch of exile. Somehow, he figured out how to raise 11 righteous children in a bad neighborhood, growing to the point that he was received an angelic reception upon his return.

Before leaving Israel, he makes a pit stop of 14 years to imbibe the Torah of Shem and Ever, a spiritual manual for exile survival. He transmits that Torah to Yosef (cf. Rashi,) who in turn raises righteous children Efrayim and Menashe in the fleshpot of Egypt. Alas, we don’t have access to his curriculum – but we retain the power of observation.

Our parsha commences with Yaakov, scion of a nascent dynasty, bachelor at seventy seven, facing a seemingly endless exile. Literally, he sleeps on dirt and pebbles – in the future spot of the Beis Hamikdash. Could he not have legitimately wallowed in self pity? Instead, Yaakov dreams and subsequently exclaims ein zeh ki im beis elokim v’zeh sha’ar hashamayim – this place is a house of God and a gateway to heaven. Chazal see this as a defining moment in his life. Specifically, the Beis Hamikdash is awarded the title of House of the God of Yaakov (Yeshayahu 2, cf. Pesachim 88) because he called his sleeping spot a beis elokim. Why?

Yaffa Eliach relates the penetrating story of the Bluzhever Rebbe’s seder in Bergen Belsen:

In the barracks, three-tiered wooden bunk beds served as tables and chairs. Three precious unbroken matzos (a story unto itself) were placed on the table. An old, dented, broken pot served as the Seder plate. No roasted shank bone, no egg, no haroset, no traditional greens, only a boiled potato given by a kind old German sat on the plate. But there was no shortage of bitter herbs; bitterness was in abundance. The suffering of the Jews was reflected in their eyes.

The Rebbe began to recite the haggadah from memory. Soon, the mah nishtana came and the youngest child asked:
“Why is this night different from all other nights? For on all other nights we eat either bread or matzah, but tonight only matzah.” The Rebbe responded: “Night, means exile, darkness, suffering. Morning means light, hope, redemption. Why is this night different from all other nights? Why is this suffering different from all the previous sufferings of the Jewish people?” No one attempted to respond. The Rebbe continued: “For on all other nights we eat either bread or matzah, but tonight only matzah. Bread is leavened; it has height. Matzah is unleavened and is totally flat. During all our previous nights in exile, we Jews had bread and matzah. We had moments of bread, of creativity, and light, and moments of matzah, of suffering and despair. But tonight, the night of the Holocaust, we experience our greatest suffering. We have reached the depths of the abyss, the nadir of humiliation. Tonight we have only matzah, we have no moments of relief, not a moment of respite for our humiliated spirits….But do not despair, my young friends.”

The Rebbe continued in a voice filled with faith. “For this is also the beginning of our redemption. We are slaves who served Pharaoh in Egypt. Slaves in Hebrew are avadim; the Hebrew letters of the word avadim form an acronym for the Hebrew phrase: David, the son of Jesse, your servant, your Messiah. Thus, even in our state of slavery we find intimations of our eventual freedom through the coming of the Messiah.

“We who are witnessing the darkest night in history, the lowest moment of civilization, will also witness the great light of redemption, for before the great light there will be a long night, as was promised by our Prophets. ‘But it shall come to pass, that at evening time there shall be light,’ and ‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; they that dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.’ It was to us, my dear children, that our prohets have spoken, to us who dwell in the shadow of death, to us who will live to witness the great light of redemption.”

The Seder concluded. Somewhere above, the silvery glow of the moon was dimmed by dark clouds. The Rebbe kissed each child on the forehead and reassured them that the darkest night of mankind would be followed by the brightest of all days.

Avraham davened shacharis, the morning prayer. Yaakov davened ma’ariv – the evening service. Shacharis mandates l’hagid baboker chasdecha, i.e. the recognition of God’s manifest kindnesses. Ma’ariv is the prayer of the Jew in the dark; it requires v’emunasecha baleilos – the expression of faith when all seems bleak. To sense the kedusha of har habayis< while sleeping in the dirt requires that unbelievable sense of emunah. Several years later, as his family is packing up for the Egyptian exile, Yaakov brings cedar saplings in his luggage. They are preparing for exile and he is considering redemption.

To successfully pray ma’ariv, one must be goleil choshech mipnei or, (rollaway the darkness for the light) i.e. one must transcend the present darkness and act upon a reality that will surely be even as it seems so distant. This might seem like a tall order and nebach, many Jews have been blinded by the night – but do we really have a choice? Hayinu K’cholim (Tehillim 126)– at the time of redemption, it will only have seemed as if we were dreamers – because our redemption is very much assured.

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.