Israel as Exile

Alex Braver
June 5, 2013
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I’ve lived in Israel for ten months now, and every week in synagogue I hear this prayer, composed shortly after the state’s independence in 1948:

אָבִינוּ שֶׁבַּשָּׁמַיִם, צוּר יִשְׂרָאֵל וְגוֹאֲלוֹ, בָּרֵךְ אֶת מְדִינַת יִשְׂרָאֵל רֵאשִׁית צְמִיחַת גְּאֻלָּתֵנוּ.
Heavenly Father, Israel’s Rock and Redeemer, bless the State of Israel, the first flowering of our redemption.

There is a lot in this country that is flowering and that points the way to redemption. I’ve had the privilege of touring parts of the country, of going to amazing beaches in Tel Aviv, to the spiritual center of Tsfat and to archaeological sites around Jerusalem. I’ve met amazing people doing amazingly creative things with Jewish text and tradition, bringing them alive in ways I’ve never seen before. Jewish language and ideas permeate the society here in ways I didn’t quite expect…I remember hearing a seemingly secular waiter in a delicious-yet-crowded hummus restaurant quote the Bible to particularly unruly groups of customers, saying:

בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם, אֵין מֶלֶךְ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל: אִישׁ הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינָיו, יַעֲשֶׂה. שופטים כא כה
In those days there was no king in Israel; every person did that which was right in their own eyes. Judges 21:25

If that’s not a sign of redemption, I don’t know what is.

But “the first flowering of our redemption” is an interesting phrase, one with which I admit to wrestling. And it is from this place of wrestling that I come to offer the following loving critique (which I think touches on political, cultural, and religious spheres) to my Israeli sisters and brothers as I prepare to return to the Diaspora:

You are still in exile.

Exile does not end when you arrive at a particular place, or even when you’ve built a thriving, complex, miracle of a society there–it ends when your heart reaches its own Promised Land.

Exile is part of the human condition, representing our alienation from God, from others, and from ourselves.

Exile means that we are not yet perfect, that we still long for completion and connection, that our truest selves–made in the image of God–have yet to be fully revealed.

The State of Israel, as amazing as it is, does not – in and of itself – end this deeper type of emotional and spiritual exile…but it creates the dangerous situation of making us think we have, perhaps blinding us to the work that still must be done to find personal and societal wholeness.

We in חו”ל (outside the Land) have a lot to learn from Israel and the vibrant, diverse, vigorous Judaism that I’ve managed to dip my toes into this year just by living here. But Israel and Israelis ought not ignore those of us who remain in the worldly exile, to learn the lessons we experience every day: that we and our societies are not perfect, that we strive toward a better world, and that each and every one of us still seeks the Holy Land.

The weekly Torah commentary of the Hassidic master Kedushat Levi, who lived in the harsh Diaspora of 18th century Eastern Europe, has accompanied me through my ten-month stay in Israel, and he presents a very relevant comment on the Ark of the Covenant that accompanied the Israelites through their journey in the forty-year exile of the desert. The Ark was there, he writes, to lift up the scattered sparks of holiness that were stranded in the wilderness, and to thereby reveal an awe for God in all things (Parshat Behaalotcha). According to this reading, the forty years of wandering were not just a punishment—they were also part of a plan, a mission to purposefully delay entry into the Holy Land and instead begin finding holiness outside of it. The Israelites would only be delivered into Israel once they learned to redeem the wilderness.

Exile does not just mean “suffering” or “not being at home.” It is rather a realization that we have a sacred task to perfect ourselves and the world around us, to see both brokenness and the sacred spark within that brokenness. When the Diaspora community is working at its best, it is fulfilling this mission—carrying its own Holy Ark through its own unending desert, looking for hidden holiness. I hope that the State of Israel can learn to see itself not just as the “first flowering of our redemption,” but also as its own unique type of exile, filled with hidden holy sparks that have yet to be lifted.

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Alex Braver is a rabbinic fellow at B'nai Jeshurun and a third-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He has also served as a student chaplain, studied at Yeshivat Hadar, and tutored remedial math and English at a charter school in Boston. He graduated from Brandeis University in 2009 with majors in history and politics.

1 Comment

  1. With all due respect, this point can - and should - be made without reference to the word ‘exile’. Everyone knows what ‘exile’ has always referred to, and the origin of the term implicitly recognizes a pre-exile period, which I think we can assume was similarly incomlete or ‘broken’ from a spiritual point of view. The fact that there is a flourishing Jewish society and government in Israel is by definition the opposite of exile. Find a different word for the need to improve its functioning.

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