As the sun began to set, a deep slumber fell upon Abram; and, behold, a dread, a great darkness, descended upon him. And [G-d] said to Abram: “Know that your children shall be strangers in a land not theirs, [where] they will be enslaved and tortured … and afterwards they will go out with great wealth.”
For much of our history, we have indeed been “strangers in a land not ours.” There was the Egyptian Exile that preceded our birth as a nation; the Babylonian Exile that followed the destruction of the First Temple; the Greek Exile during the Second Temple Era; and our present exile, which began with the Roman destruction of the Holy Temple in 69 ce and from which we have yet to emerge after more than nineteen centuries under the hegemony of alien powers.
Exile—galut, in Hebrew—is much more than a person’s physical removal from his homeland. A person in exile is a person severed from the environment that nourishes his way of life, his principles and values, his spiritual identity. In exile all these are in jeopardy, for the onus is now on him alone; he must call upon his own resources of resolve and perseverance to survive. In the words of our sages, “All journeys are dangerous.”
Why are we in galut? Galut is commonly regarded as a punishment for our national and individual failings. Indeed, the Prophets repeatedly describe it as such, and in our prayers we lament the fact that, “Because of our sins, we were exiled from our land.” But if galut was solely punishment for sin, its intensity would gradually diminish as the sins that caused it are atoned for; yet we find that galut grows darker and deeper as it progresses. Furthermore, our state of galut was foretold to Abraham in his covenant with G‑d as an integral part of the Jewish mission in history long before the sins for which it atones were committed.
A clue to a deeper significance of galut can be found in the “great wealth” that G-d promised to Abraham as the result of his children’s sojourn in the land of Egypt. Indeed, this promise is a recurrent theme in the Torah’s account of the Egyptian Exile and the Exodus—to the extent that one gets the impression that this was the very purpose of our enslavement in Egypt.
In G-d’s first communication to Moses, when He revealed Himself to him in the burning bush and charged him with the mission of taking the Jewish people out of Egypt, He makes sure to include the promise that, “When you go, you will not go empty-handed. Every woman shall ask from her neighbor, and from her that dwells in her house, vessels of gold and vessels of silver and garments… and you shall drain Egypt [of its wealth].”
During the plague of darkness, when the land of Egypt was plunged into a darkness so thick that the Egyptians could not budge from their places, the Jewish people—whom the plague did not affect—were able to move about freely inside the Egyptians’ homes. This, says the Midrash, was in order that the Jews should be able to take an “inventory” of the wealth of Egypt, so that the Egyptians could not deny the existence of any valuable objects the Jews asked for when they left Egypt.
And just prior to the Exodus, G-d again says to Moses: “Please, speak into the ears of the people, that each man ask his [Egyptian] fellow, and each woman her fellow, for vessels of silver and gold.” G-d is virtually begging the Children of Israel to take the wealth of Egypt!
The Talmud explains that the Jewish people were disinclined to hold up their departure from Egypt in order to gather its wealth:
To what is this comparable? To a man who is locked up in prison and is told: “Tomorrow you shall be freed from prison and be given a lot of money.” Says he: “I beg of you, free me today, and I ask for nothing more” … [So G-d had to beseech them:] “Please! Ask the Egyptians for gold and silver vessels, so that the righteous one (Abraham) should not say: He fulfilled ‘They will be enslaved and tortured,’ but He did not fulfill ‘and afterwards they will go out with great wealth.’”
But certainly Abraham, too, would have been prepared to forgo the promise of “great wealth” if this were to hasten his children’s liberation. Obviously, the gold and silver we carried out of Egypt was an indispensable component of our redemption.
The Glitter in the Gold
The Talmud offers the following explanation for the phenomenon of galut:
“The people of Israel were exiled amongst the nations only so that converts might be added to them.”
On the most basic level, this is a reference to the many non-Jews who, in the course of the centuries of our dispersion, have come in contact with the Jewish people and have been inspired to convert to Judaism. But Chassidic teaching explains that the Talmud is also referring to “souls” of a different sort that are transformed and elevated in the course of our exiles: the “sparks of holiness” contained within the physical creation.
The great Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria taught that every object, force and phenomenon in existence has a “spark of holiness” within it—a pinpoint of divinity that constitutes its “soul,” its spiritual essence and design. This “spark” embodies the divine desire that the thing exist, and its function within G-d’s overall purpose for creation. When a person utilizes something to serve his Creator, he penetrates its shell of mundanity, revealing and realizing its divine essence.
It is to this end that we have been dispersed across the face of earth: so that we may come in contact with the sparks of holiness that await redemption in every corner of the globe.
Every soul has its own “sparks” scattered about in the world, which actually form an integral part of itself: no soul is complete until it has redeemed those sparks related to its being. Thus a person moves through life, impelled from place to place and from occupation to occupation by seemingly random forces; but everything is by divine providence, which guides every man to those possessions and opportunities whose soul is intimately connected with his.
Thus the Torah relates how Jacob risked his life to retrieve some “small jugs” he had left behind after crossing the Yabbok River. “The righteous,” remarks the Talmud, “value their possessions more than their bodies.” For they recognize the divine potential in every bit of matter, and see in each of their possessions a component of their own spiritual integrity.
At times, a person might be inclined to escape galut by enclosing himself in a cocoon of spirituality, devoting his days and nights to Torah study and prayer. But instead of escaping galut, he is only deepening his entrenchment within it, for he is abandoning limbs of his own soul—his sparks of holiness —in the wasteland of unrefined materiality.
It is only by meeting the challenges that divine providence sends our way, by utilizing every bit of material “gold” and “silver” toward a G-dly end, that we extricate these sparks from their galut, achieve a personal redemption, and hasten the universal redemption when “The great shofar shall be sounded, and the lost shall come from the lands of plenty, and the forsaken from the lands of stricture, and they shall bow to G-d on the Holy Mountain in Jerusalem.”
Based on an address by the Rebbe, Passover 5721 (1961).
. Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 4:4.
. Mussaf prayer for the festivals.
. Exodus 3:21-22.
. Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 14:3.
. Talmud, Berachot 9b.
. Talmud, Pesachim 87b.
. Torah Ohr, Bereishit 6a.
. The “HHHHHoly Ari,” 1534-1572.
. Genesis 32:25; Rashi, ibid.; Talmud, Chullin 91a.
. Talmud, ibid.
. Isaiah 27:13. (The Hebrew word Ashur [“Assyria”] literally means “fortune,” and Mitzrayim [“Egypt”], “stricture.”)
. Likkutei Sichot, vol. III, pp. 823-827.