We Are All in Egypt!
As we are now 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.
The exiles and redemptions of the Jewish people, especially the Exodus from Egypt, have inspired liberation movements around the world and captured the imaginations of millions. What is the meaning of exile?
It is interesting to note that the Midrash finds exile hinted at in the second verse of Genesis, at the very beginning of creation. The verse describes the earth as “desolate and void, with darkness over the depths.” The Midrash assigns each description to a different exile – “Desolate” is Persia, “void” is Babylon, “darkness” is Greece and “depths” refers to Rome. There are no people in existence, no sins and no guilt, and yet we already have a reference to exile.
The Maharal of Prague, in his book Netzach Yisrael, hints at the explanation. He points out that there are three main components of exile – being strangers in a strange land, being scattered and separated from each other, and being under foreign rule. We might call these components – foreignness, dispersal and subjugation. We were exiled from our homeland and have lived and continue to live all over the world. For most of our history and in most countries we have been made to feel as unwelcome strangers. Our families and communities are scattered geographically and not united emotionally, and, most Jews, for most of history have lived under foreign rule, more often than not, a hostile rule.
Rabbi Isaac Luriah, the great Kabbalist known as the AriZal, says that the soul of every person experiences these three aspects of exile as result of its existence in this world. The soul is a spiritual entity that finds itself in a physical world ruled by the limitations of space, time and ego. The soul is a “stranger in a strange land.”
The soul is also to a great degree “enslaved” to the needs and impulses of the body. Not that they are negative or evil needs and impulses necessarily, but they are often different from and sometimes in opposition to, the needs of the soul. The soul has to operate by the rules of the body – the soul wants to pray, the body wants to sleep; the soul wants to study Torah, the body wants to eat.
Finally, our souls are “scattered and separate” and in this world they experience separation from other souls. In the spiritual world there is unity with G-d, and there is unity with other souls, whereas in this world there is a strong feeling of division, independence, ego and separateness.
So, according to the AriZal, everyone is in exile in some way. The soul is a stranger in a strange land, subject to the rules of the physical environment, and separated from other souls.
According to this idea we can understand why exile is such a frequent them in the Torah and we can also glean an additional insight into the role of the commandments, the mitzvot. Some mitzvot sanctify the world, sanctify time and space and transform our environment into one in which the soul is no longer in exile but is actually “at home.”
The mitzvot train the body to become responsive to the needs of the soul and to work in harmony with the spiritual reality, not in opposition to it. Many commandments also seek to heal the separation between one person and another and to create unity between people in this world. In this view, the mitzvoth are the means for each of us to be redeemed from our personal Egyptian exiles, to free our souls from exile and through the achievement of personal redemption usher in an era of universal redemption and freedom of the soul.