The Midrash (Bereshit Rabba 2:4) informs us that from before creation, Hashem knew that the Jewish people were destined to endure four exiles. The Midrash derives it from the second verse in the Torah, which says:
(ב) וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ וְחשֶׁךְ עַל פְּנֵי תְהוֹם וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים מְרַחֶפֶת עַל פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם
2) And the earth was chaotic and empty, with darkness upon the surface of the deep; and the Divine Presence hovered upon the surface of the water.
(ד) ר”ש בן לקיש פתר קריא בגליות והארץ היתה תהו זה גלות בבל שנאמר (ירמיה ד) ראיתי את הארץ והנה תהו ובהו זה גלות מדי (אסתר ו) ויבהילו להביא את המן וחושך זה גלות יון שהחשיכה עיניהם של ישראל בגזירותיהן שהיתה אומרת להם כתבו על קרן השור שאין לכם חלק באלהי ישראל; על פני תהום זה גלות ממלכת הרשעה שאין להם חקר כמו התהום מה התהום הזה אין לו חקר אף הרשעים כן; ורוח אלהים מרחפת זה רוחו של מלך המשיח
Reish Lakish interpreted the verse as referring to the [four] exiles. And the earth was תהו – chaotic, this refers to the Babylonian exile, [where Nebuchadnezzar exiled the Jews after the destroying the first Holy Temple…] ובהו – And empty – this refers to the Medes (Haman)…וחשך – and darkness – this refers to the Greeks [the story of Chanukah] … upon the surface of the deep – this refers to the evil empire (Rome) which has no end just like the deep which has no end…. ורוח אלקים and the Divine Presence – this is a reference to the Mashiach [who will come at the end of this seemingly endless exile].
A different Midrash (Tehilim 78) tells us that Hashem also showed Yaakov the four exiles through which his children would need to pass.
רבי ברכיה ור’ שמעון בן יוסי בשם ר’ מאיר אומרים, הראה הקב”ה ליעקב סולם והיתה בבל עולה שבעים ויורדת. מדי חמשים ושנים ויורדת. יון מאה ושמונים ויורדת. אדום עולה יותר מדאי והיה רואה ומתירא. אמר לו הקב”ה (ישעיה מד, ב) אל תירא עבדי יעקב. כשם שנפלו אלו כך יפלו אלו
Rabbi Brachia and Rabbi Shimon ben Yossi said in the name of Rabbi Meir. Hashem showed Yaakov a ladder (this is the ladder Yaakov saw in his dream); Babylon went up 70 rungs (representing the 70 years of the Babylonian exile) and came down, Media went up 52 rungs and came down, Greece went up 180 rungs and came down, but Edom (Rome) went continuously higher. When Yaakov saw this, he became afraid [that they would never come down]. Hashem told him, do not fear my servant Yaakov, just as the others have fallen, they too will fall.
We see from the Midrashim that we are currently in the Exile of Edom, which our Sages tell us is Rome, who took over from the Greeks and destroyed the second Holy Temple in the year 70, sending the Jews out of the land of Israel to all four corners of the earth into the current exile. That puts the current exile at 1950 years and going strong. We are witness to what both midrashim indicated, namely, that the final exile would go on and on.
Although the Roman empire is long gone, the gentile western world we live in today is largely dominated by the descendants of Esav.
As foretold in the first midrash quoted above, the end of this exile will come when the Mashiach comes, which is what we are waiting and praying for each and every day. In the meantime, we must endure it.
What is the meaning of גלות – galus – exile, and what is its function? Why couldn’t the Jewish people remain in Israel but instead had to be expelled from their own country?
The Land of Israel is a holy land. Hashem tells us in the Torah (Deuteronomy 11:12):
(יב) אֶרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְדֹוָד אֱלֹהֶיךָ דֹּרֵשׁ אֹתָהּ תָּמִיד עֵינֵי יְדֹוָד אֱלֹהֶיךָ בָּהּ מֵרֵשִׁית הַשָּׁנָה וְעַד אַחֲרִית שָׁנָה
12) It is a land that Hashem your G-d constantly seeks out: the eyes of Hashem your G-d are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to year’s end.
The Land of Israel is like Hashem’s throne room. His “eyes” – attention- are constantly on it. Hashem’s close presence is what makes it holy-. This is also why it is the appropriate homeland for the Jewish people, Hashem’s holy people. Because of the Torah’s mandated holy lifestyle, the Jews are compatible residents for the holy land. And because of its holiness, it is the most desirable place for a Jew with spiritual aspirations to live. With the added element of holiness furnished by the land, a Jew will be able to achieve the greatest level of holiness possible.
Being in one’s natural habitat, the place where he can thrive and achieve his purpose in this world, is the state of גאולה – geula- redemption. Being out of place, out of one’s natural habitat and in an unnatural situation incapable of fully achieving one’s purpose in life, is the concept of גלות – golus – exile. Without the Holy Temple, there are many commandments that we are unable to perform.
Hashem told us in the Torah that if we do not keep His ordinances, the land will be intolerant of us and spew us out. If you had a guest that was trashing your house, would you tolerate him? You would throw him out at the first opportunity! The verse thus says (Leviticus 20:22):
(כב) וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת כָּל חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת כָּל מִשְׁפָּטַי וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם וְלֹא תָקִיא אֶתְכֶם הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מֵבִיא אֶתְכֶם שָׁמָּה לָשֶׁבֶת בָּהּ
- You shall keep all My edicts and all of My ordinances and perform them; then, the Land to which I bring you to dwell will not disgorge you.
When geula is not possible because we are unsuitable residents for the Holy Land, we must leave the land and go into exile.
Our Sages teach us that when Hashem punishes His people, both as a nation and as individuals, His goal is not to pain them and make them suffer for having transgressed His will. Rather. it is designed to help them realize their mistake and teach them how to correct it. In the words of the Sages, this is calledמדה כנגד מדה – measure for measure.
In accordance with this concept, each exile was different; each was the necessary environment to teach the Jewish people the lesson that they then needed to learn. Hashem placed them in a society that was corrupt in the very area of their errant behavior. The goal was for them to see their flaw in its most unattractive light, as it is manifest in a society that let it get out of hand. This should be repulsive to the Jew and send him running back to the Torah, causing him to recognize the wealth that lies in the Torah way of life.
The Torah portions read over the last few Shabbats, and this week’s portion, Vayishlach, describe the interaction between Yaakov and his brother Esav. Being in golus Edom, the exile of Esav’s children, we face the same issues that Yaakov faced when dealing with Esav. Perhaps we can understand our mission in this golus by focusing on the essential attribute of our enemy Edom, and see it for what it is. By seeing its true colors, we will come to realize that the Torah’s way has so much more to offer, and we will beat a hasty path back to the Torah and its ways. Studying these portions carefully may also provide us with insight as to how to navigate through the exile and emerge unscathed, as Yaakov did.
The Midrash tells us (Yalkut Shimoni Genesis 25:111):”מכרה כיום את בכורתך לי” אמרו כשהיו יעקב ועשו במעי אמן א”ל יעקב לעשו, “אחי שני עולמות לפנינו העוה”ז ועוה”ב … רצונך טול אתה העוה”ז ואני אטול העוה”ב” …אותה שעה נטל עשו חלקו העוה”ז ויעקב נטל חלקו העוה”ב.
When Yaakov and Esav were in their mother’s womb, Yaakov said to Esav, “My brother, there are two worlds before us, this world and the world to come… Would you like to take this world and I will take the world to come?..”. Esav took his portion in this world and Yaakov took his portion in the world to come.
The Torah gives us a clear picture of Esav’s essential characteristic and what made him perfectly suited to enjoy this world to the max. It starts with how Esav got his name Edom.
It was the day that Avraham our Forefather died, and Yaakov cooked up a red lentil soup for his father, Yitzchak. (It is customary that the mourner be given something round to eat right after the funeral –today they eat an egg– to symbolize the cycle of life: people are born, and people die.) Esav came home exhausted and starving for food from a day of hunting and other strenuous activities. The red lentil soup was just what he needed to assuage his hunger, and he told Yaakov (Genesis 25:30),
(ל) וַיֹּאמֶר עֵשָׂו אֶל יַעֲקֹב הַלְעִיטֵנִי נָא מִן הָאָדֹם הָאָדֹם הַזֶּה כִּי עָיֵף אָנֹכִי עַל כֵּן קָרָא שְׁמוֹ אֱדוֹם
30) Esav said to Yaakov, “Pour into me now some of that very red stuff for I am exhausted.” Therefore, He (Hashem) called his name Edom (which means red).
Because he called the soup red, Hashem called him red? What’s the connection?
Our Sages teach us that this small statement by Esav captured his essence. A soup has so many useful properties. Its most important quality is that it is satiating, and when a person is famished, that is the most important thing to consider. Next, it is tasty and enjoyable to eat. Furthermore, it is nourishing. The most superficial quality of a food, which adds no nutritional benefit, is its color. A color can add visual appeal to a food, but many times a rosy color camouflages a bitter and foul taste.
By referring to the food by its color only, Esav was revealing that the only thing that was important to him was how it looked, its outward appearance חצוניות . It looks good? I have to have it! It is irrelevant to me if it has an intrinsic value, as long as it looks good and it will make me look good. I must have it!
Being in galus Edom, the exile of Esav’s grandchildren, this characteristic captures the essence of our society as well. Our society is obsessed with looks. The most beautiful people receive all the attention. They are on the covers of magazines and on billboards everywhere.
People who were not born super beautiful spend their lives pursuing beauty by trying to make themselves beautiful through the many millions of products made to make one look more beautiful. Walk into any drug store and notice the array of cosmetics on display. There are hundreds of products for the hair, the eyes, the skin, the nails, etc., each designed specifically to make each part of you look more beautiful and acceptable by society’s standard.
There are many different diet programs each promising to help one lose unwanted (unsightly) pounds and achieve the perfect weight. There are many different exercise programs, each promising to provide a perfectly lean and muscular body. Then, there is the clothing industry that will sell you the perfect outfit that will make you look absolutely stunning! It’s all about looks.
This is just the beginning. You must also have the trappings: The house, the car, the yacht, the summer home, the winter home; all the things that make you look successful. When you have the “look” of success, you have made it in Esav’s world.
But what is it all for? What does it make you? Have you become a better person from it? It is meaningless and empty.
Not only that, the hurt, pain, and strife created by those who have, versus those who have not, is the source of so much suffering and evil. How many people were murdered or robbed because of their money? How many family feuds, altercations, insults, and embarrassments were there because of money? The list goes on forever. But, if I get it and can show it off, I will be the envy of all my friends! That is the hallmark of Esav. It’s worth everything to look good.
The “holiday season” that we are in brings home some of the superficiality of Esav. Look about and marvel at all the various decorations of lights, trees, Santas, mistletoe rings, reindeer, sleds, snowmen, etc., bedecking lawns and houses all over the world. Do any of the people who purchased these items know why they are displaying them on December 25? Do any of them know that the reason the tree is put into their houses and decorated with lights and other ornaments is because of a group called the Ashera Cult who joined the early Christians? They would bring a tree into their houses once a year, decorate it with candles and ornaments, and then worship it. When the early Christians were recruiting new members, they invited the Ashera Cult members to join them. When the Ashera Cult told them that they needed to bring a tree into their houses once a year and worship it, the early Christians told them, “No problem! Just make that day December 25th and we will all be happy.”
Rabbi David Cohen, a Sephardic rabbi in Flatbush, NY, lives on East 8th street between avenues P and Q. He has an Italian neighbor across the street who would add a new “holiday” decoration to his lawn every year. His small front lawn, which measured about 8 x 16 feet, was packed solid with holiday decorations. One year, he passed Rabbi Cohen on the street, stopped him and told him, “You know, with all the decorations on my lawn, I still can’t beat that one little candle that you put in the window every year!” That one little candle in the window carries a message that is so deep and powerful. It represents the Jewish Nation and how they still burn brightly after so many years of exile, and so many attempts to annihilate them from the face of the earth.
Yaakov, on the other hand, is about פנימיות – depth, and meaning. What is the purpose of life? What am I here to accomplish? Yaakov must find purpose and meaning in everything that he does. He doesn’t collect stuff just to have it and show off what he has. He must have a use for everything that he has, or he won’t have it. Yaakov was a very wealthy man, but all of his possessions served as a means to an end. They were tools to serve Hashem. Yaakov was not interested in collecting items. Every item he owned had a purpose.
This is the difference between the Jew and the Edom society we live in. For Esav, having stuff, and looking beautiful, are ends unto themselves. That is the goal in life! Having as much of this world as possible! For the Jew, this world is merely a stepping stone to the next world, and all the worldly goods are tools through which we can acquire our place in the world to come.
This earth-shattering difference between Yaakov and Esav is summarized in a brief conversation that took place between them. Yaakov sent Esav an elaborate gift to Esav as a bribe. Esav questioned Yaakov asking, “What was that gift for?” Yaakov said, “Why, for you, of course!” Esav responded, “No, Yaakov, you keep it, I have plenty! יש לי רב” (but I can always use more) Yaakov replied, “No Esav, you keep it, יש לי כל” I have everything!
As the grandchildren of Yaakov, we are really never satisfied to just have possessions. They simply do not have the ability to satisfy the spiritual need of a Jewish soul that needs substance and meaning from life. There are many instances of Jewish people who achieved success by Esav’s standards. They had the mansion on the lake, the BMW in the driveway, the boat, and every other status symbol that screamed, “I have won the game! I am successful!” but they were still not happy. Their life was full of stuff but empty of meaning and purpose. They decided explore their Judaism and found happiness and contentment ever since.
Understanding that this world is not our world, it is Esav’s world, helps us to withstand the influence of our society, which urges us to go with the flow and pursue all the worldly possessions and pleasures available. While we are permitted to enjoy this world, we do so in the context of the laws of the Torah, which will bring us to the World to Come. Our calling is to concentrate on matters of meaning and substance like learning Torah and performing mitzvot, which are the only things that will bring us to the World to Come. Pursuing worldly possessions will only detract and distract us from achieving that goal.
If the purpose of exile is to showcase the shortcoming of the Jewish people in an effort to bring them back to their core values, the lesson here is “Don’t be content with the superficial! Look for meaning and purpose in what you do!” But, how does this jibe with the teaching of our Sages that the reason that the second Holy Temple was destroyed was because of שנאת חנם – baseless hatred?
The answer is simple. On what would baseless hatred be based? He must have judged him based on the way he looks, his superficial appearance. But that’s Esav’s quality, not ours! This is nothing more than an excuse for hating another Jew, a false reason, but a reason nevertheless.
The Jew is instructed to look for the intrinsic importance and value of every person. He must realize that Jews are deep, and there is so much to each person, one can’t judge a book by its cover. The Mishna in Pirkei Avot (4:20) says:
רַבִּי אוֹמֵר, אַל תִּסְתַּכֵּל בַּקַּנְקַן, אֶלָּא בַמֶּה שֶׁיֶּשׁ בּוֹ.
Rebbe says, “Don’t look at the container, but rather what is in it.”
If we would focus on the qualities of Yaakov and stay clear of the enticements and characteristics of Esav, we will merit to finally see the end of this long and drawn out exile with the coming of the Mashiach speedily in our days.