Friday, December 21, 2012

Two-minute Torah: Exile

More than twenty years ago, when I was the Hillel director at the University of Virginia, I went with a few friends to see an English-language performance of a Palestinian theater company. The play was set in a mythical future, and in it a messenger is sent to a Palestinian family living in Boston. The Palestinian state has been established, the messenger tells them, and they make plans to donate money to help the new entity. But the messenger informs them that no, he has not come to collect money. Rather, he has come to inform them that it is time to come back to Palestine. They explain that they can't do that at the moment. There are all kinds of reasons -- a child has to finish college, another child has medical needs that can only be met in the United States, and so on. They definitely plan to go live in Palestine, but not yet. In the meantime, please accept our donations for our needy brothers and sisters.

All of us in our small group laughed uncomfortably. We had all spent some serious time in Israel. A couple of us had made unsuccessful attempts at aliyah (immigration to Israel) and all of us knew Israelis families that were living in the US, some for many years, yet always steadfastly maintained that they had not left Israel permanently and would go back when conditions allowed. It seemed that "diaspora Palestinians" were not all that different from Jews.

In Parashat Va-yigash which we read this week, Jacob is preparing to leave Israel and join his son Joseph with the rest of the family in Egypt. He doesn't really want to leave Israel, but God tells him (Genesis 46:4) "I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will surely bring you up again." Rabbi Jacob miLita's commentary on this verse says that God is foreseeing here that Jacob's descendants would become used to exile, because God would "go down with" us to Egypt but "bring" us up . This implies that the descent to Egypt was voluntary but that God would have to use force to get us out of exile and back to the Promised Land.

Every day many of our prayers include a petition to God to bring us out of exile and return us to Zion. Yet a return to Zion is as close as the nearest airport. And the number of American Jews who have successfully made aliyah is dwarfed by the number of Israelis living more-or-less permanently in the United States. Is exile the natural condition of the Jewish people? What do you think?

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