The Heart of Galut

Written by Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe Posted in Exile/Galut

Why is it that in the space of one hour we can be full of faith and then skeptical, kind to one stranger and abrupt with another, deeply inspired to seek holiness and then be drawn to the basest desires?


We are so accustomed to this phenomenon we do not often question it, but we should. Do we desire to live a G-dly life or not? Do our negative inclinations and deeds prove that our convictions and commitments are only a sham? If our commitment to "do the right thing" is not superficial, why does the opposite draw us in so easily on a moment's notice?


The answer to this lies in understanding the continuing influence of the events of Tishah B'Av. Tishah B'Av -- the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av -- is the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. The Ninth of Av is the day on which:

1) The men of Israel accepted the false reports of the Spies, thereby causing 40 years of wandering in the desert.

2) The Babylonians destroyed the First Temple.

3) The Romans destroyed the Second Temple.

4) The great stronghold of Beitar fell, extinguishing the last embers of the Bar Kochba revolt against the Roman Empire and with it the hope of Jewish sovereignty over their land.

5) The Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492.

6) The First World War broke out in 1914. As we know, the First World War led almost inexorably to the Second World War, which contained the Holocaust, and all its attendant horrors inflicted upon the Jewish People.

Furthermore, the state into which the events of numbers 2, 3, and 4 in the above list put us -- Galut ("exile") -- is the cause of all the subsequent physical and spiritual disasters. Exile is being out of one's place. Galut is a state of alienation from a tangible sense of the presence of the G-dly around us which we enjoyed when the Holy Temples were in existence.


This is because it is not so much that we are in exile, as that G-d is in exile. G-d is concealed from the world, making it far easier for us to choose evil and far more difficult to see the hand of G-d that directs all. This concealment is experienced by us as distance and disengagement from G-d.


This, however, is only from our perspective. From G-d's perspective, He remains engaged in the universe at every moment. Indeed, the Chassidic masters show that our world could not exist a single nanosecond without G-d giving it life and creating it ex nihilo by the power of his Essence every moment of time. Galut is like a one-way mirror in which we only see our limits but G-d sees all and relates with all as before.


The Dream


There is a powerful metaphor in Psalm 126 that can help us understand -- and more importantly, do -- something about this state of being. It begins, "When G-d will return the exiles of Zion we will [see our experiences in exile] as having been dreamers". The nature of sleep and its unique attendant experience -- dreaming -- holds the key to understanding galut.


When we sleep we are most certainly alive. Our brain is functioning, as is the rest of the body. However, according to Chassidic masters, all psychological and physiological aspects of sleep and dreaming flow from a spiritual dynamic.


The Talmud says that "Sleep is one sixtieth of death." Death is the complete withdrawal of the soul from the body, permanently disconnecting them. In sleep, the soul remains within the body, giving it life -- but at a distance. The primary life force of the soul that vitalizes the mind and the higher faculties withdraws, leaving behind only a trace of vitality -- just enough to keep the body and basic brain functions going.


In the absence of higher rational thought, various memories fill the mind at random, and from the confluence of these memories, we create most of our dreams. Since the rational powers are not there to "police" what we see, we conflate different and contradictory ideas to create visions of the impossible.


In a dream, we can be simultaneously old and young, in two different places at the same time, or in the presence of two people one of whom died before the other was born. All contradictions "fit" in a dream. It is only when we wake up that we realize that what we saw could never be or have been.


This is the essence of the galut experience. The withdrawal of G-d's revealed presence from our world leads to the capacity for self-delusion and self-contradiction. Because the Soul of the Universe (the vivifying force of G-d) is not engaged with its "body" (our world) in a revealed manner, we are able to do things that contradict and deny G-d's will and presence. Just as in a dream contradiction is rampant, so, too, in galut we can reject G-d without perceiving how this contradicts the most fundamental fact of our being -- the reality that our very existence is an expression of G-d's power and will.


This is why we accept the contradictions noted at the beginning of this article. The deepest part of us remains attuned to the truth of who we are and what we truly desire; but our deep-seated convictions co-exist with an alienated and confused self that is ignorant or in denial of them. It's not that we deny or abandon our source and innermost self. We do something that is, in a certain sense, even more destructive: we simultaneously know and ignore, commit and shrug off, believe and deny.


Waking Up


What do we do when a bad dream becomes too horrible to bear? We make ourselves wake up, and all the impossible predicaments and disturbing contradictions of the night disappear as if they never were. Once the soul is re-engaged, we see that the dream could not have been real.


This will be the collective experience of humanity when galut ends and redemption comes about. However, this collective redemption is the sum of many individual redemptions. For the cosmos to awaken we each need to wake ourselves up.


We awake when the pain and contradiction of our dreams becomes too intense to bear. If we accept and internalize that we are G-dly beings, if we understand our lofty potential and what a prison for our souls galut therefore is, if we understand that G-d is everywhere available by a simple choice to connect to G-d by doing another Mitzvah -- we can wake up.


Every time we refuse to accept the limits that our capacity for self-delusion places on us -- we are waking ourselves up.


Every time we insist that each moment of our life can, and should, reflect our essential potential rather than the force of habit and social convention -- we are waking ourselves up.


When we dream, irrelevant facts can loom large, because we lack the needle of reason to deflate them. The fact that "no one else I know is living this way" has no bearing on our capacity to live "this way." When we break through this delusion of imagining that the behavior of others has a veto on ours -- we are waking ourselves up.


By these acts of awakening and refusing to accept the nightmare, we shatter the one-way mirror and enter a world in which we see G-d as clearly as G-d sees us.


This is the world awoken from the nightmare of human suffering, emptiness, and petty hatreds. This is the world envisaged by all our prophets: a world free of hunger, disease, and jealousy, a world in which all humankind will focus together on the ever-exhilarating experience of knowing G-d and living accordingly.


This wonderful world is not a utopian dream. Our world is the nightmare. All we have to do is wake up.

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