Travels in Exile

Jul 22nd, 2011 by Rabbi Simcha Weinberg in Spiritual Growth
What is life but a form of motion and a journey through a foreign world? Moreover, locomotion – the privilege of animals – is perhaps the key to intelligence. The roots of vegetables (which Aristotle says are their mouths) attach them fatally to the ground, and they are condemned like leeches to suck up whatever sustenance may flow to them at the particular spot where they happen to be stuck…

In animals the power of locomotion changes all this pale experience into a life of passion; and it is on passion, although we anemic philosophers are apt to forget it, that intelligence is grafted.

George Santayana: The Philosophy of Travel

I rejoice in Santayana’s words and luxuriate in the power of locomotion and rejoice in the endless possibilities of journeying through life. I am pleased to be free of roots in a way that a vegetable cannot. I shudder to imagine having my roots so numerous, long, twisted, and deep that I am unable to move and limited to the sustenance of only one place.

I have lived on the East Coast and the West, the Midwest, North and South. I have been to too may countries to count. Each place was an experience. Each experience was enriching.

Why would we, who so benefit from locomotion, dread exile? Do we fear the movement or the instability of exile?

All the stops on our long exilic journey live and breathe and give us life and breath. When I study the Rambam – Maimonides – I feel my roots stretching to Spain and Egypt. I can snake my roots to Lithuania to the small dark room of the Vilna Gaon and draw sustenance from him. The roots are like tentacles twisting their way into Safed to nourish themselves in the Beit Midrash – Study Hall – of the Ari, the Ramak and Rav Yosef Karo. My roots stretch all the way to Sura and Pumpedita in Babylon where they can absorb the wisdom of the rabbis of the Talmud. They twist around the Arabian Peninsula and snake their way up to the France of Rashi, the Germany of the Maharam, and with more curves and tangles make their way to the feet of the Chatam Sofer in Hungary.

Yes, we have lived in exile for a long time, but we have never become vegetables stuck in one place. Our roots cross mountain ranges, continents, oceans, centuries, millennia, and tens of languages. There are no kinks or blocks in our roots no matter how far they stretch across time and space. The nourishment flows directly into our souls and feeds us. We have been in locomotion for 2500 years since the destruction of the first Temple, and we have never become vegetables.

We suffered in our exile. The world does not have a shining history in its dealings with us. Wars, pogroms, crusades, blood-libels, have penetrated the roots in every time and place, but they have not limited the available nourishment. They could not kill the roots.

Is Santayana correct that locomotion feeds our passion? Have we not grown in each village hovel and great study hall to where we extended our roots?

What has empowered our roots? How are they so strong and thick? How can they stretch so far? How have they withstood the challenges of our 2500-year journey through a foreign world?

They begin in Israel, in Jerusalem, from the Holy of Holies. Our roots are not natural. They derive their strength from a place that is itself rooted under God’s Throne. Our roots do not begin with us: They began in Israel.

Perhaps exile, the one we fear, is the loss of connection to those magnificent and powerful roots. Yes, we have thrived in our power of locomotion. It has fed our passions and made us stronger and more determined. But only as long as we understand that being rooted in the Temple is not to be condemned as a vegetable, but blessed with roots that stretch across all time and space and connect us with our Source.

We only fear the loss of that connection. That is the exile we fear.

Author Info:
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