Sunday, March 25, 2018

Where Do We Belong?

The Exodus from Egypt was the birth of what is called the 'עם ה “Nation of G-d.” Before then, the fathers of the Jewish people, their spiritual and genetic predecessors, did not have national status. Avraham Avinu was honored and recognized as a unique and influential individual, who swam against the current. He was called העברי Ha’Ivri, which means the one who was עובר, who crossed over, because while he stood on one side, the world stood on the other. And Jewish converts are called "ben Avraham," son of Avraham. He represented, in a sense, something like counter-culture.

The funny thing about counter-culture is it has a certain power and attraction by virtue of its very marginality, while at the same time its goal is to proliferate its ideology and gain acceptance in established society. Meaning that paradoxically, the very success of a counter-cultural movement entails its downfall. Many music fans feel disappointed when their beloved niche band lands a hit song, despite their desire for the art of their heroes to be appreciated and their disdain for the popular radio-station’s playlist. And many revolutionary movements whose leaders once boasted of equality have ended up seizing dictatorial power once the establishment had been overthrown, lest the movement’s organically strong following meet resistance from new counter-cultural dissidents.

To understand a little better, lets learn about the Torah's description of displaced, or marginal people. The word Ger (גר) literally means a person who has left his birthplace, and it comes from the word לגור, which means to live in a place. There is a particular kind of pain and vulnerability a person feels he does not belong. He feels he cannot depend on what he is used to, or the resources of his established network. There can be a certain humility in this that anyone can appreciate.

When a Jew loves his fellow Jew who is a convert, he fulfills two Mitzvot with one stone – To love your fellow Jew, and to love the Ger. The verses’ reason for the second mitzvah is “because you were Gerim in Egypt.” The early commentators explain that there is a certain quality in a people that empathize with someone who has left his place of origin to join the Jews that is befitting of a Nation of G-d. Everyone admires this quality and it merits a special connection with G-d. The reverse is also true – it is shameful for someone who has גרות in his origin to disrespect a Ger and act as if he were not similar to him. (מום שבך אל תאומר לחברך, ב"מ נח)

The גרות of the Jewish people is more than circumstantial. It is גרות in olam hazeh, in this world (גר אנוכי בארץ, תהילים קי'ט). A true student of Torah wisdom is connected to his spiritual origin, and feels a certain strangeness in being in this world. גרות in Egypt represents being a foreigner to the physicality that Egypt represents. The deeper significance of this is hinted at by the Sefer HaChinuch, who says that the Torah compares the love for a Ger to the love of “המקום” literally, “The Place,” which is one of G-d’s names, as it says “ואהבתה את ה' אלוקך,” And you shall love the Lord your God. It is essential to Jewish identity that we were slaves in a foreign land from inception, and that our roots were nurtured by wandering in the wilderness of the desert looking only to Hashem for sustenance.

The Maharal says that the Jews received the Torah in the desert so that it should not merely be a tool for promoting the well-being of society, rather it should be received as the eternal Good that comes from beyond this world (מהרל ג"ה פ' כ'ג, ת"י פ' כ'ו). But the Torah also had to be given to a "nation" so that Torah would be established in this world and become more than merely a marginal faction or individual ambition. Hence, the Jewish Nation receives the Torah as a nation of Gerim. That's why the Torah portion in which we receive the Torah is named "Yisro," after the first Jewish convert (עיין סדר היום קל'ה). It's a society that is neither settled nor anti-establishment, whose sole purpose is the integration in this world of something which is entirely beyond it. In this way, it is comparable to a counter-culture that does not lose its power by proliferating its ideology. Its strength of otherness remains, even when it becomes mainstream. 

This is why the Jews have been able to survive and retain their identity throughout a long and bitter exile. Any nation that is founded on having an established, comfortable place in the world would have quickly disintegrated and assimilated. We are unique because this world is not really our place. "המקום" is our place and He is our security. Even the Land of Israel is not our comfort - it is a place for us to carry out our special mission. We are constantly under attack and disproportionately examined by the nations of the world because we are not meant to be like everyone else.

But we are not alone. If we embrace our strangeness, the shame of our vulnerability will be our greatest pride, and then we will rest safely in our borders, and our purpose will be universally appreciated.  

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