The book of Genesis deals with the life stories of the nation’s patriarchs and matriarchs, beginning with Abraham, continuing with Isaac, and ending with Jacob and his sons. Essentially, these are narratives about individuals. The book of Exodus puts the focus, for the first time, on the Jewish people, not as a list of individuals but as a whole nation. With this begins a new narrative in the Torah – the story of the Jewish people. To be sure, in the book of Exodus as well, much attention is focused on the life of Moses. However, his story is the story of the Jewish people’s emergence, in which the story of Moses the individual occupies only a subordinate place.
The Genesis narratives are certainly important, and they, too, have national significance, as our sages say, “The experiences of the patriarchs prefigure the history of their descendants.”1 Nevertheless, in and of themselves, they are still narratives on a small scale. From Exodus onward, however, the narrative is on a much larger scale; it is the narrative of the Jewish people as a whole. Hence, even the minor narratives in Exodus have greater significance for us than the Genesis narratives do.
The Exodus from Egypt
The major and central narrative in the book of Exodus is undoubtedly the story of the Exodus from Egypt: the experience of exile and the process of leaving it. The Exodus is a central theme not only in the book of Exodus but in Jewish life in general. An examination of the siddur reveals that we mention the Exodus at every opportunity, both when there is a clear and obvious connection, such as on Pesach, and when the connection is less obvious as well, such as on all the other festivals – Shavuot, Sukkot, Rosh HaShana, and Yom Kippur. Even in the text of the Kiddush that we recite each Shabbat, the Exodus features prominently.
The Egyptian exile and the Exodus are, for us, far more than the specific historical narrative that appears in the book of Exodus; they are basic elements within our being. The exile and the redemption in Exodus were not a one-time event, but merely the paradigm for an event that recurs again and again throughout our history – exile followed by redemption followed by exile again – and thus the metamorphosis of the Jewish people continues.
These processes of exile and redemption exist on an even larger plane, as the basis of the entire world. The Jewish people are not the only ones who experience these stages; all of humanity does so as well. This does not happen in the same way and on the same level for every person or every group of people, but these are basic stages in the life process of everyone, individuals and nations alike.
We go through this cycle in the course of our individual lives. Some people spend sixty years in Egypt and ten years in the wilderness, some spend forty years in Egypt and forty years in the wilderness, and some merit a more generous division: They spend a short period of time in exile followed by a longer time in the redemption stage. But on the whole, the human life cycle always adheres to this process: There is a stage of exile, of difficulties and problems, followed by a stage of redemption, of bursting through the difficulties and the problems, and the cycle continues.
Scientists often speak of basic structures of which everything that exists in the world is merely a copy. For example, almost all forms of matter share the same type of molecular bonds, which serve to join together the tiny particles present in any material. Whether the material is as simple as salt or as complex as a hormone, every form of matter has a basic structure that repeats itself in other instances throughout the universe. Correspondingly, the cycle of the Egyptian exile and the Exodus is the prototype for this central pattern that we continue to experience, both as a community and as individuals, in a variety of forms.
The simple reason for mentioning the Exodus daily is not just to recall the historical story; rather, it is because the life cycle and even the daily cycle always follow this pattern. The cycle of exile and redemption forms the basis of our lives, and in this respect the story of the Exodus exists on a different plane from the other stories in the Torah; it is the central story of existence.
The Torah relates two universal stories: the story of Creation and the story of the Exodus. The story of Creation is a pattern that begins with a perfect world – the world of the Garden of Eden – and reaches a crisis that necessitates a resolution – in this case, the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden. Although this is the story of all of existence, nevertheless, it is not exactly what we encounter every day. Our world is not built like the Garden of Eden – it is certainly not a perfect world. To be sure, it is important to know that such a world once existed, but in our individual experience and in human life in general, we do not encounter it. We start out in a different kind of world, one that is patterned after the Exodus. Our world is built on the reality of exile, a complex existence with problems and difficulties. In the midst of exile, we must endeavor to ultimately attain redemption.
The meaning of exile
We see that exile is not an accidental state – neither in our own history nor in the world in general. Therefore, understanding exile is all the more important. It is clear that exile is not a pleasant existence and that it entails various difficulties. But what is the essence of the problem with exile? What is its fundamental difficulty?
Exile has inherent significance beyond the reality of being unable to live in one’s desired geographic location – in our case, the Land of Israel. When we say that the Jewish people is in exile, this is more than a determination of place, for exile is a state that is intrinsically problematic, not just because of its geographic location.
The problem of exile as it has been described as follows: “Your descendants will be strangers in a land not theirs”2 is tolerable – it is just a stay in another country. Does the true exile begin when “they will be enslaved and oppressed”? Perhaps, in determining whether a certain country is considered “exile,” one need only check whether he is subjected to oppression. If he is oppressed, this is indeed exile; if he is not oppressed, then it is merely another country outside the Land of Israel. Hence, people might argue today that while life in Syria was certainly exile, life in America does not qualify as exile, because in America neither “and they will be enslaved” nor “and oppressed” apply.
In truth, it appears that exilic existence involves a more fundamental problem. The essential point of exile is that something is not where it should be, in its appropriate place. In the normal course of things, it may be that a person temporarily resides outside his homeland. The new place may be uncomfortable for him, but that is not yet considered an exilic existence. Nowadays, when a Frenchman moves to Canada, he may feel like a “stranger,” but this is not an essential problem that creates a life of exile for him. If a carp is transferred from a pool near Atlit to a pool near Nahariya, it may have difficulty adapting, but being in one pool or the other is not an essential difference for it. Regardless of the pool in which it ends up, it is in an appropriate place for a fish. But when a fish is taken out of water altogether, whether this occurs near Atlit or Nahariya, or whether it was treated properly or not is irrelevant; it is in a place that is fundamentally inappropriate and, for a fish, life-threatening as well.
Individual or collective?
There are several stages to the Egyptian exile. The People of Israel settle in Egypt over a long period, and not all of this period is considered exile, certainly not in the true sense. Jacob and his family travel to Egypt of their own volition, willingly and for their own good. When, then, does their existence become one of exile? Where is the dividing line?
It appears that the oppression of the Egyptian exile begins only when Pharaoh says to his people, “Behold, the People of Israel are too numerous and strong for us.”3 The beginning of the Egyptian exile hinges on the Egyptians’ perception that Israel is a foreign nation – they sense Israel’s foreignness. As long as this awareness is lacking, and the Egyptians relate to the People of Israel as individuals, this is not yet exile; the People of Israel are merely strangers.
Exile hinges on whether the person is part of a collective or a separate individual. When individuals, even a large number of them, are in another country, they may be considered foreigners, strangers in a strange land; but when there is a whole collective, an entire nation, in a place that is inappropriate for it – that is exile. For this reason, one of the ways in which Diaspora Jews often seek to solve the problem of exile is by attempting to ignore their collective identity. They want their countrymen to relate to them as to individuals, not as parts of a whole. They avow that they are Jewish only by chance, just as a Turk happens to have been born in Turkey and an Italian happens to have been born in Italy – they do not belong to the Jewish collective. Once these individuals remove themselves from the collective, then although they are not in their true homeland, and they are different in many ways from their non-Jewish neighbors, this is an individualized problem and not one of exile.
Even in the reality of Egyptian bondage, there surely were Jews who took such an approach. Imagine a Jew living in Egypt who is suddenly forced into slavery and ordered to work with mortar and bricks. These decrees are certainly not pleasant for him, so what does he do? The first thing he thinks of is how to advance in rank – how to be appointed a foreman and not merely a regular worker. After becoming a foreman, he continues to rise in rank becoming a taskmaster, and then rises further in the ranks until he finds a more desirable position. This Jew sees the problem as a personal one – a problem connected to his place and his personal situation – and he relates to the problem correspondingly. From his standpoint, the general state of things is, on the whole, in order. Therefore, if he is not content with where he is, or if something is bothering him, he adapts by simply changing his position, shifting to a more personally comfortable place, but doing nothing to fundamentally change his situation.
Awareness of exile and redemption
One who relates to himself strictly as an individual will never leave Egypt. He manages to convince himself that he has it good – so things are good for him; why should he change? Only one who is aware of his situation, who understands that he is in exile, has a chance of leaving it for the “good and spacious land.”
Awareness of exile begins the moment there is a sense, which sometimes comes from within and sometimes comes from without, that the problem is not just a personal problem but an overall problem of disharmony. When there is awareness of exile, the problem is no longer how to make small adjustments within the reality but how to get out of this place entirely.
Awareness of exile is the awareness of the need for a revolution – that is, for a fundamental change in the order of the existing reality. One who considers himself a stranger is likely to think, for example, that he gets the worst jobs only because he does not yet have citizenship in his resident country. So he will try to attain citizenship and suffice himself with that localized solution. Only a feeling of essentially not belonging to the place in which one resides can bring an individual or a nation to move out. Only such a feeling will lead to an awareness of the fundamental problem of exile and produce the need for a revolution.
Emergence from exile requires an essential change, because the whole essence of redemption is revolution, an essential change in the world order. This point bears on a simple question that commonly arises: Does everyone who moves to Israel necessarily emerge from exile? What happens, for instance, when someone moves from a Jewish city like Miami Beach to a Jewish city like Jerusalem? In such cases, what usually happens is that the person, for some reason, is not comfortable in his hometown. The seaside weather is too humid, perhaps, and he prefers to live in Jerusalem’s drier climate. Or perhaps he wants to send his children to a Belz cheder, which is lacking in his hometown. In any case, he moves to Jerusalem, and all is well in the end. In all other respects, from his standpoint, there is no essential difference between the two places, and his life remains fundamentally unchanged. In such cases, there are two possibilities: either the exile was not really exile, or the redemption was not really redemption.
These two states – exile and redemption – go together; they are interconnected. It is precisely a person’s awareness that he is in exile that creates the opening through which he may emerge from that exile and attain redemption. So long as one accepts as a given the framework of the existing reality, he will never be able to recognize the possibility of redemption. So long as one sees the problems as a handful of disagreeable details within a reality in which he basically feels at home, he has no reason to take action to change that reality. Only when a person comes to the realization that he lives in exile – that the situation is fundamentally out of order – only then can he begin to discuss redemption, an essential change in the reality.
The existence of exile and the possibility of attaining redemption are, thus, bound up with the fundamental question of how the individual views the reality of his life. The moment one comes to the awareness that his reality is not as it should be and that it must be changed on an essential level is the very moment when he can begin the process of redemption.
- Tanchuma, Lech Lecha 9; Nachmanides on Genesis 12:6.
2. Gen. 15:13.
3. Ex. 1:9.By Adin Even-Israel (Steinsaltz)
As taken from, The Cyclical Exodus – An Essay on Parshat Shemot – Kabbalah, Chassidism and Jewish Mysticism (chabad.org)