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Cholent: The Purpose of Exile

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cholent

G-d, how long?!

Psalms 90:13

The story is told of a simple, unlettered Jew who kept a tavern on a distant crossroads many days’ journey from the nearest Jewish community. One year, he decided to make the trip to the Jewish town for Rosh HaShanah.

When he entered the shul on Rosh HaShanah morning, it was already packed with worshippers and the service was well underway. Scarcely knowing which way to hold the prayer book, he draped his tallit over his head and took an inconspicuous place against the back wall.

Hours passed. Hunger was beginning to gnaw at his insides, but impassioned sounds of prayer around him showed no signs of abating. Visions of the sumptuous holiday meal awaiting him at his lodgings made his eyes water in pain. What was taking so long? Haven’t we prayed enough? Still the service stretched on.

Suddenly, as the cantor reached a particularly stirring passage, the entire congregation burst into tears. “Why is everyone weeping?” wondered the tavernkeeper. Then it dawned on him. Of course! They, too, are hungry. They, too, are thinking of the elusive meal and endless service. With a new surge of self-pity he gave vent to his anguish; a new wail joined the others as he, too, bawled his heart out.

But after a while the weeping let up, finally quieting to a sprinkling of exceptionally pious worshippers. Our hungry tavernkeeper’s hopes soared, but the prayers went on. And on. Why have they stopped crying? he wondered. Are they no longer hungry?

Then he remembered the cholent. What a cholent he had waiting for him! Everything else his wife had prepared for the holiday meal paled in comparison to that cholent. He distinctly remembered the juicy chunk of meat she had put into the cholent pot when she set it on the fire the previous afternoon. And our tavernkeeper knew one thing about cholent: the longer it cooks, the more sumptuous it is. He’d glanced under the lid on his way to shul this morning, when the cholent had already been going for some eighteen hours: Good, he’d sniffed approvingly, but give it another few hours, and ahhhh… A few hours of aching feet and a hollow stomach are a small price to pay considering what was developing in that pot with each passing minute.

Obviously, that’s what his fellow worshippers are thinking, as well. They, too, have cholents simmering on their stovetops. No wonder they’ve stopped crying. Let the service go on, he consoled himself, the longer the better.

And on the service went. His stomach felt like raw leather, his knees grew weak with hunger, his head throbbed in pain, his throat burned with suppressed tears. But whenever he felt that he simply could not hold out a moment longer, he thought of his cholent, envisioning what was happening to that piece of meat at that very moment: the steady crisping on the outside, the softening on the inside, the blending of flavors with the potatoes, beans, kishkeh and spices in the pot. Every minute longer, he kept telling himself, is another minute on the fire for my cholent.

An hour later, the cantor launched into another exceptionally moving piece. As his tremulous voice painted the awesome scene of divine judgment unfolding in the heavens, the entire shul broke down weeping once again. At this point, the dam burst in this simple Jew’s heart, for he well understood what was on his fellow worshippers’ minds. “Enough is enough!” he sobbed. “Never mind the cholent! It’s been cooking long enough! I’m hungry! I want to go home…!”

The Dividends of Exile

Galut is the state of physical exile and spiritual displacement in which we find ourselves since the destruction of the Holy Temple and the dispersion of the people of Israel more than nineteen centuries ago. On the most basic level, galut is the result of a series of national and individual failings – as we say in the mussaf prayer for the festivals, “Because of our sins, we were exiled from our land.” But Chassidic teaching explains that this is but the most external face of exile; on a deeper level, the purpose of galut is to galvanize the Jewish soul and unearth its greatest resources, and to redeem the “sparks of holiness” buried in the farthest reaches of the material world.

In this sense, galut is a cholent – the longer it cooks, the better it gets. The more painful the galut, the more challenging its trials, the lowlier the elements it confronts us with – the greater its rewards. Every additional minute of galut represents deeper and vaster reserves of faith actualized, more “sparks of holiness” redeemed, and greater realization of the divine purpose in creation.

But there comes a point at which every Jew must cry out from the very depths of his being: “Enough already! The cholent has been cooking long enough! We want to come home!”

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