Followers of the Belz Hassidic movement attend a wedding in Jerusalem..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘And these are the names of Israel who are coming (habaim) to Egypt” (Exodus 1:1) – the opening verse of the Book of Exodus strangely uses the present participle, “who are coming.”
Rabbi Yehoshua Rokeah of Belz (1823-1894) explained this teaches us that the text is not just offering a historical account of a specific journey. Rather, the Bible is making a statement about the Jewish People’s journey in this world.
Jacob’s legacy – to his children and to his descendants ever after – was that they should not feel too comfortable. They should always feel as though they had just arrived.
Indeed, it is human nature to overcome the initial feelings of loneliness and strangeness in a foreign place. If we intend to stay, we make an effort to get used to all manner of local norms: customs, social cues, language, dress code and so on. But if we arrive for a mere sojourn, we may respectfully keep local customs, but we do not earnestly try to fit in because we know that our stay is only temporary.
Thus the Torah tells us that the Israelites came to Egypt as temporary visitors, always with a sense of just having arrived and anticipating an imminent departure.
There was once a hassid who came to Rabbi Yehoshua of Belz and complained he was unable to make a living. The Belzer Rebbe advised him to travel to a distant country where he would be able to earn a living, adding a condition: the hassid was to write to the Rebbe regularly.
As a faithful disciple, the hassid left his home and set out for the other country.
In his initial letters, the hassid wrote that he was indeed able to make a comfortable living, but alas, felt spiritually bereft. He missed the hassidic camaraderie, the prayers and the singing, the sense of joint mission. The hassid asked the Belzer Rebbe whether he should return home on account of his spiritual homesickness.
The Belzer Rebbe responded that he should take heart and strengthen himself… but he should remain.
Sometime later the hassid wrote again, but this time the letter had a different tone. The hassid reported he had made friends, acclimatized to the local way of life and was generally more comfortable in his surroundings. The Belzer Rebbe wrote back: Return home immediately! When the hassid inquired why he had to return with such haste, particularly now that he was starting to feel at home, the Belzer Rebbe explained: As long as you felt like a foreigner, I knew you were spiritually safe and would not be influenced by deleterious local practices. Alas, once you felt comfortable, I began to worry lest you would want to stay there and leave the spiritual path of Hassidism.
This teaching and the tale suggest that Jews are ideally wanderers, foreigners and strangers. Perhaps part of the Jewish spiritual mission is to never really feel at home? Certainly most of Jewish history attests to this destiny. Is this truly our lot? It must have appeared that way for generation after generation of Jews, who commemorated the Exodus in a foreign land.
But perhaps the time has come to change that perception. Rabbi Avraham Ya’acov Friedman of Sadigora (1884-1960) was one of the hassidic masters from the Ruzhin dynasty. An avid supporter of the nascent State of Israel, he is generally known by the sobriquet “Avir Ya’acov” – the title of the collections of his teachings.
A hassid once came to the Avir Ya’acov’s home in Tel Aviv and asked for the rebbe’s blessing before he set out for America for some worthy cause. The Avir Ya’acov responded: You did not come to seek my counsel and to ask whether or not you should make the journey. Rather, you have already made your decision and just came for my blessing.
“Had you asked me my opinion, I am not sure what I would have said to you. But since you have already made up your mind and you are about to set sail, I bless you that the Almighty should guard you… from any notion of wanting to stay there in America! This blessing should accompany you as long as you are there!” The Avir Ya’acov’s parting blessing suggests that the paradigm of the Jew as a foreigner continues to hold true in modern times. But the blessing also hints at the limits of this paradigm: Anywhere Jews find themselves, they are strangers… except in the Land of Israel. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah and a post-doctoral fellow at Tel-Aviv University’s Faculty of Law.