In this week’s Torah portion, we are deep in Egypt, seeing first-hand how G-d extricated us from this fearsome exile. From this we learn how He will extricate us from our present exile. As the Chofetz Chaim said, “We can learn about the end of our [current] exile from what happened at the end of our exile in Egypt” (Quote from Rabbi Elchonen Wasserman zt”l).
It says in next week’s Torah portion, “I, G-d” will take you out of Egypt, on which Rashi comments, “I Myself, not through an emissary” (Exodus 12:12).
What was so difficult that G-d Himself had to do it? And why is it so agonizingly difficult to end our present exile? We have to try to understand.
We are so deep in exile that we are unaware that we are in exile. We are in such darkness that we do not see. We have to come to grips with this, because – when the alien civilization in which we dwell comes crashing down – we don’t want our fate to be entangled with theirs, the way the fate of four-fifths of the Jewish People was entangled with the fate of Egypt (See Rashi to Exodus 13:18 and 10:22).
I had a personal insight into this when my wife recently found some letters from the 1960s, when we were first married. We were sailing (yes!) to England, where I was enrolled as a graduate student at Oxford University. Before beginning our studies, we toured Italy. This was a world of gentile antiquity and “culture.” At that time, there was no such thing as email or cell phones. People wrote letters. Some of our letters were eight sides long, with tiny writing and even a detailed floor plan of our “flat” in Oxford. Reading these letters is frightening.
Everything is described as beautiful and interesting and adventurous. In photographs from this era, we look normal and happy. We were enmeshed in exile, and we were smiling! That is frightening! How could we have been happy?
“Al naharos Bavel … By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and also wept when we remembered Tzion…. How can we sing the song of G-d upon the alien’s soil? If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill. Let my tongue adhere to my palate if I fail to recall you, if I fail to elevate Jerusalem above my foremost joy” (Psalm 137).
What has happened to us? How did we forget?
Sometimes people finish praying and immediately laugh and joke as they leave the synagogue. How can they do that? Didn’t they just cry for Jerusalem?
What has happened to us? How did we forget?
When I look at those old letters and photographs, I realize that I was fooling myself completely! It is so easy to fall into the no-responsibility life of exile! Enjoy! In the words of the ad, “Just do it!” Go on vacation! Do what you feel like! Go to the stadium! You can even eat kosher, just like in Shushan haBira!
Why actually did my wife and I leave that life of being buried alive in exile? If we thought we were so happy, why did we become observant Jews? What shook us out of our drugged stupor?
In October, 1973, we visited a man named Walter Grunfeld. He was watching the TV news, which described the Yom Kippur War, as General Ariel Sharon’s forces crossed the Suez Canal and surrounded the Egyptian Army. Israel was saved from death! Walter Grunfeld was crying with happiness! I remarked to him, “Oh yes, I read in the newspaper that there is a war somewhere in the Middle East.”
And then he started screaming at me. “What kind of Jew are you? Are you made of stone! Don’t you have a heart! What kind of Jew are you?” I stood there like an icicle. I had never heard such words before. Those words never left me, to this day: “What kind of Jew are you?”
Walter Grunfeld’s words began to melt the ice. I began to realize: I am dead!
In those days, we lived in a small Hudson-Valley town. I was in the ambulance corps. My friend was the local pastor. He was only thirty seven, but he was already making plans for his retirement home in Florida. He was designing the home so the corridors would be wide enough to maneuver the stretcher when they took him on his final trip … to the morgue!
This is exile! This is the culture that surrounds us! The mouth of the pit is opening before us! The Satan dangles toys before our eyes and, for this, we run away from the Master of the Universe and Eternal Life!
Decades ago, I entered an electronics store in Borough Park to buy a big-screen monitor. The clerk, with long payos swinging, said, “The Yetzer Hara dancing on the screen … how big do you want it to be?” I ran out of the store!
That is why G-d Himself had to enter Egypt. This is too big a job even for an angel! G-d Himself had to descend to Egypt because His children were clutching so desperately at the emptiness!
My friends, the nations of the world are now gathering to plan the culminating attack of history, to complete the job – G-d forbid – which they have been plotting since the days of Ishmael and Esau. This time, they are sure they will succeed. They are not going just against the Land of Israel, but against the entire Nation. They have become “disgusted because of the Children of Israel” (Exodus 1:12). We make them physically sick!
It is time to stop fooling ourselves! We smile for the pictures, but the scenery is fading. “Their idols are silver and gold, the handiwork of man. They have a mouth, but cannot speak. They have eyes, but cannot see … those who make them should become like them, whoever trusts in them! (Psalm 115). Before the culture of emptiness blows itself up, we must flee to the Mountain of Torah. “Hashem Hoshia, hamelech ya’anainu b’yom kareinu … G-d will answer us on the day we call!” (Psalm 20:10)