As we are no preparing for Passover, of course, we begin to think about the exile in Egypt and about exile in general. When one becomes familiar with the Torah and with Judaism, one will observe that exile features frequently in the Torah. Adam and Eve are exiled from the Garden of Eden, Cain is exiled, Abraham has to go into exile in Egypt and Jacob and his sons also descend to Egypt, beginning the most famous of exiles. Also according to the midrash, an ancient Jewish commentary on the Torah, in the very second verse of the Torah “the earth was desolate and void, and there was darkness over the face of the depths” is a hint at exile. The midrash says that “desolate and void, emptiness and darkness and depths hint at the Persian, Babylonian, Greek and Roman exiles. And it should be noted that the themes of exile, exodus and redemption have caught the attention of many people throughout the world, inspiring liberation movements, anti-slavery movements, and independence movements, from Africa to South America to Europe. What is the meaning of exile and why does it have such a universal mystique and interest? The Maharal explained that there are three main components of exile. The first is being strangers in a strange land. The displacement of the Jews from our native land, Israel, and not living in our homeland is the first, and probably the most obvious aspect of exile. The second is that we are, as it says in the Scroll of Esther,”scattered and separate amongst the nations.” The third aspect is that we are under the subjugation and domination of other peoples – not independent.
Rabbi Isaac Luria, (The AriZal) states that these three components also exist for every single person on earth. He says that in a sense, from the perspective of the soul, we are all in exile. The soul is a spiritual entity and as a spiritual entity in the physical world, a world of time and space and ego, the soul is in exile. The soul is a stranger in a strange land. It is not in a world in which it is comfortable. In its spiritual homeland there are no restrictions of time, or space, or ego.
In addition to this the soul is no independent. The soul is subject to the rule of the body, and to the needs and desires of the body. The soul may want to listen to the class, the body may want to sleep. The soul may want to pray, the body may want to eat, and so on. So it has to live by foreign rules, and it is also under foreign domination as an exile.
Finally, just as we are “scattered and separate” so too the soul experiences being separated from other souls. In the spiritual world there is a sense of unity with G-d, and there is a sense of unity with all souls, whereas in this world there is a strong feeling of division, a strong feeling of being scattered and separate. According to the AriZal, we identify with the story of exile and redemption, because we are all exiles.
The purpose of the commandments is to sanctify the world and to turn it into an environment in which the soul no longer feels like it is in exile. The commandments of the Torah sanctify time, place and self, thus elevating these factors and revealing the infinite, spiritual aspects of each. That is one way to make the soul feel “at home.”
Secondly, there is also the idea of training the body to be obedient to and to be in harmony with the needs and desires of the soul. When the body and soul are in sync then there is no slavery or subjugation, rather relationship and harmony. Much of Jewish law is about training our actions and physical self to be a willing partner to our spiritual self.
The third way in which we redeem the soul from its state of exile is by creating a greater unity between one person and another. The commandments referred to as “between a person and his friend” are designed to create that unity. According to this idea of the AriZal, the Torah and the commandments of Judaism are really here to redeem us from exile.