On one hand, people shy away from challenges. There is a danger of failure were there not, it would not be a challenge and no one likes to fail. On the other hand, we seek challenge, for confronting a challenge lifts us out of the doldrums of ordinary experience.
Similar concepts apply with regard to our Divine service. G-d does not want our Divine service to be merely routine. And so, He presents us with challenges. Some of these challenges are limited in scope, and some are more daunting, forcing us to summon up our deepest resources.
This is the nature of the challenge of exile. During the Era of the Beis HaMikdash, the open revelation of G-dliness inspired Jews to serve G-d with heightened feeling and intent. In the era of exile, by contrast, G-dliness is hidden, and we are presented with many obstacles to our observance of the Torah and its mitzvos. We can no longer rely on our environment to deepen our feeling for G-dliness. Instead, our focus must become internal. In this manner, exile arouses our deepest spiritual resources, and strengthens our connection to G-d.
-Rabbi Eli Touger
In the Garden of the Torah
“Challenge, Growth, and Transition”
Commentary on Torah Portion Exodus
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. III, 843ff; Vol. XVI, p. 36ff;
Vol. XXVI, p. 301ff;
Sefer HaSichos 5751, p. 240ff
In yesterday’s morning meditation, I wrote about some of the challenges of serving God, particularly in how Christians and Jews differ in understanding such service. I also talked about some of the things a Christian can learn about serving God from a Jew, such as preparing our souls to perform a deed in His Name, and approaching such a deed with awe and fear of our Creator.
In today’s commentary on the Torah Portion, we see that God sometimes presents challenges to our service, so we don’t become lazy and complacent. After all, how many religious people advance just so far in their faith and then “rest on their laurels” so to speak? Probably a lot. Could that describe you for certain parts of your spiritual life? Have you ever suddenly faced inconvenient and troubling problems just when you thought you had your life together? Did you ever cry out to God, “Why are you doing this to me?” Maybe this is the answer.
But what does any of this have to do with this week’s Torah reading and the beginning of the Book of Exodus? Let’s continue with Rabbi Touger’s commentary.
These concepts are reflected in our Torah reading, which describes the successive descents experienced by the Jewish people in Egypt. As long as Yosef and his brothers lived, the Jews enjoyed prosperity and security. But with the death of the last of Yaakov’s sons came forced labor, the casting of Jewish infants into the Nile, and other acts of cruelty. Even after Moshe brought the promise of redemption, the oppression of the Jewish people worsened, to the extent that Moshe himself cried out: “Since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has done evil to this people.”
Nevertheless, the Torah reading also tells how the Jews cried out to G-d, awakening His attention. In response, G-d conveyed the promise of Redemption and His pledge that, “when you take this people out of Egypt, you will serve G-d on this mountain,” i.e., G-d committed Himself to give the Jews the Torah. This revealed the possibility of a higher and deeper bond with G-d than could have been reached before.
There’s a lot going on here that answers our questions. For the first forty years of his life, Moses experienced relative ease as a “Prince of Egypt” (much like Joseph before him) while his brothers and sisters labored as slaves. The next forty years, he labored as a simple shepherd, but life was still good and without undo complications as Moses married and raised a family and lived a meager but satisfying existence. Then came God and His challenge, and the life of Moses was thrown into turmoil.
Then Moses returned to the Lord and said, “O Lord, why did You bring harm upon this people? Why did You send me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people; and still You have not delivered Your people.” –Genesis 5:22-23 (JPS Tanakh)
While Moses was closer to God than he had ever been in his life up to this point, he was also extremely upset, frustrated, and miserable. Everything he had done to try and help his people had blown up in his face. Things were worse for the Children of Israel than they had been before Moses showed up at the behest of God. When we are serving God, we usually expect things to get better right away. For Moses, they didn’t. They don’t always get better for us right away, either. Even when God says:
Then the Lord said to Moses, “You shall soon see what I will do to Pharaoh: he shall let them go because of a greater might; indeed, because of a greater might he shall drive them from his land.” –Exodus 6:1 (JPS Tanakh)
In theory, we know we should trust God completely and whatever He says He will do, He will do. On a very human level however, we tend to have doubts, especially when we feel like we’re up to our neck in hot water, or in Moses’ case, up to his neck in angry and beaten down kinsmen. We can feel trapped in such situations and even lost.
One of the unique challenges we have as believers is the challenge that the Children of Israel had in the time between Joseph and Moses. Both of these men are considered “Messianic” figures in relation to their people and the world and during their lifetimes, both provided rescue and safety (though perhaps not in an absolute sense) for God’s chosen ones. Rabbi Touger explains it this way.
The cycle of Jewish exile and redemption is significant for the world at large. The purpose of creation is to establish a dwelling for G-d. This dwelling is fashioned by the involvement of the Jewish people in different aspects of worldly experience. During exile, the Jews are scattered into different lands and brought into contact with diverse cultures. As such, as the challenge of exile brings the Jews to a deeper connection with G-d, it also elevates their surroundings, making manifest the G-dliness which permeates our world.
The saga of exile and redemption is not merely a story of the past. On the contrary, heralds of the final transition from exile and redemption are affecting all dimensions of existence today. To borrow an expression from the Previous Rebbe: “Everything is ready for the Redemption; even the buttons have been polished.” All that is necessary is that we open our eyes, recognize Mashiach’s influence, and create a means for it to encompass mankind.
The Sages liken the times of Joseph and Moses to the time of the Beis HaMikdash; the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Their times are also like the time of the Mashiach. People are able to serve God with great fervor and zeal and experience a particular closeness because both the Temple and the Mashiach, for the Jewish people, act as points of “access” of Jews to God. In contrast, the days between Joseph and Moses and the times of slavery are like the time of the great exile after the Second Temple. These are times when people feel a tremendous separation from God and must summon up great courage to go on and to serve God. We know that during their slavery in Egypt, the Children of Israel did not hear from God at all and felt very much alone. Only when the Prophet Moses was raised up did God speak to His people again.
How does all this relate to us? During the earthly lifetime of Jesus, people began to have a unique access to God in the form of a human being that had never happened before. How this was possible, we cannot say for sure, but Jesus himself confirmed it.
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” –John 14:6-7 (ESV)
He also said:
So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. –John 5:19 (ESV)
When people were able to see and hear Jesus, they were able to experience access to God in a unique and unprecedented manner.
And then he was killed.
And then he rose and was among his people for forty days (Acts 1:3).
And then he left. And we’ve been waiting for his return ever since.
Like the Children of Israel in slavery and after the destruction of the Second Temple, we who are the disciples of Jesus are in a kind of exile. God promised Jacob (Genesis 46:4) He would go down into Egypt and into exile with Israel and He would surely come back out with them. That is also like us. Our Joseph, our Moses, our Messiah is not with us today. We have the Spirit, so God is with us in exile. Many times we speak to God and He speaks to us in some manner, but it is not the same as if the Messiah were present in the world in a physical manner. We know this because he has promised to return and we await his return. It matters if he is in the world because once he comes back, everything will begin to change. It won’t be so much like we will be taken out of our exile but that our exile will be transformed into our home, though this will not occur in its final form until the end of days.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. –Revelation 21:1-3 (ESV)
In Eden in the beginning, God dwelt with man in the Garden until the fall. For a short time, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). God dwelt among His people in the desert (Exodus 40:34-35) and in the Temple of Solomon (1 Kings 8:10-11). God desires to dwell with us again and to that end, we have faith in the promises of the Messiah that when he returns, it will be so.
At the end of last week’s Torah Portion, the readings from the book of Genesis were concluded and this week we begin the readings from Exodus. At the end of the readings in any book of the Torah during the annual Torah cycle, the last reader, by tradition, recites a phrase that we also need to hear as we who are in exile await the return of our King. Let these words be instilled in our hearts and give us courage and hope as we face the challenges of God.
Chazak! Chazak! Venitchazeik! Be strong! Be strong! And may we be strengthened!
We also have these words of encouragement.
There are no things. There are only words. The Divine Words of Creation.
The words become scattered and we no longer understand their meaning. Only then are they things. Words in exile.
If so, their redemption lies in the story we tell with them. Reorganizing stuff into meaning, redefining what is real, and living a life accordingly.
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson