Torah, Uncategorized

Exile in the Land

by Maya Rosen, for All That’s Left

This Chanukah, All That’s Left, a Jerusalem-based, anti-Occupation collective, is publishing a series of eight essays — one for each day of Chanukah — from left-wing rabbis, rabbinical students, and Torah scholars sharing their thoughts on the Festival of Lights in this dark time. Jewschool is proud to partner with ATL in publishing some of these essays. You can access the full reader here. Maya Rosen’s piece was published for day 3 but applies broadly.

What does it mean to be in exile? While there are those who view the return of Jews to the Land of Israel as a negation of exile, a strand of traditional Jewish texts offers us a different view about what exile means. 

At the very beginning of the Torah, in just the second verse of Breishit, we are told about the state of the world at the time of its creation: 

וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃

The earth was unformed and void, and darkness was over the surface of the depths, and a wind of God was sweeping over the water. 

The Rabbis, in Breishit Rabbah, midrashically read each of the phrases of this verse: 

רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן לָקִישׁ פָּתַר קְרָיָא בַּגָּלֻיּוֹת: “וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ”, זֶה גָּלוּת בָּבֶל…”וָבֹהוּ”, זֶה גָּלוּת מָדַי…”וְחשֶׁךְ”, זֶה גָּלוּת יָוָן…”עַל פְּנֵי תְהוֹם”, זֶה גָּלוּת מַמְלֶכֶת הָרְשָׁעָה

Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish understood the verse as referring to exile. “The earth was unformed” – this is Babylonian exile… “And void” – this is the Median kingdom… “And darkness”– this is the Greek exile… “over the surface of the depths” – this is the exile of the evil kingdom [Edom / Rome] (Genesis Rabbah 2:4). 

There are a few interesting things to note in this midrash. First, in linking each word of the verse to a different moment of exile, the midrash articulates an understanding in which galut, or exile or diaspora, has been with us since the earliest days of the world; it is baked into the very order of the world from the time of creation. It is not an avoidable byproduct or the result of our misdeeds or of our defeats but rather a fact of the universe. 

But more importantly for our purposes is one particular phrase in the midrash: גלות יון, the exile or diaspora of Greece. This refers to the story of Chanukah and the well-known account of the oppression of the Greeks against the Jewish people. 

There is one thing that’s strange about the phrasing here, though: the story of Chanukah took place in the Land of Israel. What does it mean for there to be Greek galut given that the story never leaves the boundaries of the Land? 

The insight of this midrash may be that it is possible to be in galut even inside the Land of Israel. 

This particular Land-of-Israel-based diaspora, according to the midrash in Breishit Rabbah, is associated with darkness because הֶחֱשִׁיכָה עֵינֵיהֶם שֶׁל יִשְׂרָאֵל בִּגְזֵרוֹתֵיהֶן, the Greeks darkened their eyes with their decrees – that is, the Greeks forbid the Jewish people from engaging in Torah learning and the performance of mitzvot, leading many Jews to begin to adopt Hellenistic ways. What are the implications of such a decree? As the Alter Rebbe of Chabad, R. Shneur Zalman of Liady, explains in his Torah Ohr on Parshat Miketz (3:1), exile usually refers to a physical condition and thus, the miracles of Pesach and Purim are miracles that are defined also by physical redemption – redemption from slavery and being saved from the threat of annihilation. But the story of Chanukah, the Torah Ohr argues, is not the story of physical galut, as in the story of Pesach or Purim, but is rather the story of גלות התורה, the exile of Torah. It marks a moment where the existential threat faced by the Jewish people is our distance from the Torah. It is an exile not in the physical sense but in the existential sense. It is an exile because it is the story of what happens to us when we lose our way, when we are in our land but we have lost sight of who we are as a people, when the source of the wisdom of our people is no longer what guides us. 

Remembering that we can be in galut in the Land of Israel is a powerful reminder that we are but גרים ותושבים, sojourners and temporary residents, on this land (Vayikra 25:23). The story of Chanukah’s military victory proves to be premature: although the Jewish Maccabees do fend off the Greeks in the story, the Temple is later destroyed and the Land conquered. But the story that is not premature, that endures, is the one that our rabbis chose to codify in the Talmud – not the military victory over the Greeks but the miraculous fortitude of the oil for eight days. It is the story of the endurance of the small remnants of what is left; it is a story that reminds us that true victory is possible not only for the mighty but מסרת גיבורים ביד חלשים, רבים ביד מעטים – God delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many Greeks into the hands of the few Jews. Neither justice nor God’s favor, we learn, are to be found in military might. 

No matter where we are physically located this Chanukah, we are in a moment and space of galut. We are far from where we are supposed to be. 

The Yadei Moshe, in a comment on Bamidbar Rabbah (7:10), discusses the classical Rabbinic idea that כָּל מָקוֹם שֶׁגָּלוּ שְׁכִינָה עִמָּהֶם, wherever the Jewish people were exiled – Egypt, Rome, Babylonia – the Shechina was with them. The Yadei Moshe asks how this operated in גלות יון, the Greek exile of Chanukah, which took place in the Land of Israel. He answers: פירושו שנצטער השכינה עמהם – the meaning is that the Shechina was in pain with them. In other words, the spiritual exile of the Jewish people is painful to God as well.

Although this moment is dark, we are not alone in this galut. God is with us in yearning for a world that looks so very different from this one. 

Several Hasidic commentators link the name “Chanukah” to the word חינוך, or education, and argue that Chanukah “educates” us for גאולה (redemption). If this is so, then perhaps the lessons we need to learn and carry out to bring about the world’s redemption are ones that take into account the Jewish people’s enduring and universal galut, that see the world not through the lens of victory but through the lens of the few and the just, those who seek to undo our exile not through a return to the Land but through a return to the Torah and its insistence that the true story is not that of military victory but rather the spiritual struggle to commit to the hard path of the just. 

Maya Rosen is a graduate student in history at the Hebrew University and works as a writer, editor, and translator in Jerusalem, where she is also active in work against the occupation.

All That’s Left is a collective unequivocally opposed to the Occupation and committed to building the Diaspora angle of resistance.


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