Sermon: Vayechi

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 2 January 2018

Some months ago, the Alyth Film Club screened a German film called Nirgendwo in Afrika, Nowhere in Africa. Based on a novel by Stefan Zweig, it describes what happens to a German-Jewish family who manage to get out of Nazi Germany in 1938 and end up on a farm in Kenya. The film portrays the struggle of urban, cultured, assimilated Jews trying to adapt to an agricultural life, in the back-of-beyond in Africa. It’s fiction but Zweig himself was writing from personal experience of exile. At the height of his literary career, in the 1920s and ‘30s, he was one of the most popular writers in the world. He also had to leave Europe and lived a peripatetic existence until, in 1942, he and his wife committed suicide in Brazil.

Now while the location of that film might be slightly unusual, the story is sadly an age-old Jewish one. Wars, forced expulsions, economic pressures and so on have meant that Jews are all too familiar with this condition we call ‘exile.’ And there’s scarcely anywhere in the world where Jews have not lived at some time or other.

And the word ‘exile’ is not, of course, neutral but has strong negative connotations – suggesting that something has forced you to leave, reluctantly, the place you call ‘home’ to create a new life elsewhere.

In Hebrew the word for exile is galut. In traditional Jewish thinking, galut never means simply ‘exile’ but carries with it an additional dimension, one of a lesser-status, indeed sometimes even of punishment. So, for example, the traditional Yom Kippur liturgy has the refrain mipnei chata’einu galinu mei’artzeinu ‘because of our sins we were exiled from our land.’

Galut, as opposed to exile, therefore, is never simply a matter of geography but is integrally bound up with identity, with who and what we are. One of the early Zionist songs was anu olim artzah livnot u’l’hibanot bah “we are going up to the land” livnot, “to build” but also l’hibanot bah “to be rebuilt by it.” While we live in galut, in exile, we can never be complete Jewish human beings; only in eretz yisrael can we become that.

We have known many exiles, yet, wherever we do settle, we become supremely loyal citizens. This Shabbat we finished reading the cycle of Joseph stories this Shabbat and he is the model of the Jew who gives of their all to their new country. The contribution of Jews to their society has invariably been way out of proportion to their relative numbers in the population. I’m reading the second part of Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews and he spells out that out in fascinating detail.

And so, in our sidra, Jacob is on his deathbed, having come to Egypt, out of choice, to be with his son, Joseph. Not every displacement is an exile, of course.

Rabbi Hugo Gryn z”l once suggested that the 20th century should be called the ‘century of the refugee,’ given the enormous number of people who have had to go into some sort of exile. But it’s not, sadly, a title unique to the 20th century. We’re not even a quarter of the way into this century, yet we have seen appalling scenes of refugees: the camps in Calais; Syrian refugees; people crowding into small, unseaworthy boats to cross the Mediterranean, so reminiscent of the Boat People fleeing Vietnam in the late 1970s; the Rohynga in Myanmar; and many examples from sub-Saharan Africa. Unsurprisingly, people choose the uncertainty of exile over the certainty of death and starvation, but at what cost?

I don’t know if it’s a characteristic of Jewish exile, in particular, which makes the Jew feel fully at home in a place and yet, paradoxically, still feel in exile? Israelis used to quip on that line from the traditional Yom Kippur liturgy: not reading it mipnei chata’einu galinu mei’artzeinu ‘because of our sins we were exiled from our land’ but mipnei chata’einu galinu l’artzeinu ‘because of our sins we were exiled to our land’!

In his autobiography, the playwright Arthur Miller speaks about his Jewishness in pre-war America: “if ever any Jews should have melted into the proverbial melting pot,” he writes, “it was our family in the 1920’s. ….as it turned out, we were building a fortress of denial that would take two massive onslaughts to crack – the Depression and Hitler’s War.” (Timebends, pp62)

Denial of what you are leads to feelings of insecurity. You look over your shoulder to check that nobody will find out what seems – to you – like a dark secret: your Jewish identity. It leads to feelings of guilt and then to self-hatred. Hardly surprising, perhaps, if you end up hating that aspect of yourself which you want to get rid of but can’t, that bit which makes you feel different and, therefore, insecure.

The Jew today can still feel a stranger, even in a country where they are long-settled. Given current levels of antisemitism in this country at the moment, many Jews are experiencing just that. Exile often has little to do with where you live. As the philosopher Arnold Eisen puts it, “’home’ remains an affair of the imagination, located in the future tense.” (Cohen & Mendes Flohr, Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, p221)

Jews have chosen different responses to exile. The ultra-Orthodox communities in their ghettos of Stamford Hill or Meah Shearim, for example, seem to be saying: “you can create your own separate world and still remain psychically and Jewishly healthy.” But it is a form of denial – of the existence of the world outside the ghetto and of the Jewish obligation to contribute to the improvement of that world.

Zionism offered another response to exile: you resolve exile by doing away with it. It was posited on never being able to feel at home outside the land. So acquire a territory, preferably your ancestral one, gain national independence, and that, in and of itself, will do away, once and for all, with that feeling of rootlessness. Livnot u’l’hibanot bah “to build and be rebuilt by it.”

Yet for more than 2000 years, Jews coped with being in exile by creating their own portable homeland, which enabled them to feel ‘at home’ wherever they were. That portable homeland was called Torah, and it made exile tolerable. It gave a halacha, a way to live in the present, an ethic and a moral, but also a vision and a dream that the world could be different, better, more hospitable. “Our Homeland, the Text” as the writer George Steiner put it. (Salmagundi, No 66, Winter-Spring 1985)

The Patriarchs are dead, Joseph has died. The Jewish family is settled in Egypt. So in a way the book of Genesis ends with the Jewish People being in exile.

But it doesn’t only end with exile – it begins with it, too. Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden and experience the metaphysical, existential sense of exile. They no longer have a harmonious relationship with the ground, the very ground from which they were fashioned.

When Jacob goes down to Egypt to be reunited with Joseph, he sends Judah ahead of him to point the way to the land of Goshen (Gen 46:28) The Hebrew uses a strange word for the phrase “to point the way.” It is l’horot from the same root as the word ‘Torah.’ Jacob lives in Egypt for 17 years, continues to grow and be prosperous – yet still makes Joseph promise to bury him in the land of Israel.

Perhaps he recognises that assimilation is not an antidote to a feeling of being in exile. How you live is ultimately more important than where you live.

Joseph Brodsky was a Russian writer forced into involuntary exile in 1972 because of Soviet anti-Semitism. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987. In 1988, he lectured at a conference of exiled writers about the word ‘exile.’ He was speaking there about the writer in exile but what he said applies equally to the Jew in exile.

“Literature,” he said, “is a dictionary of the language in which life speaks to man. Its function is to save the next man from falling into an old trap … to know the meaning of what is happening to you is liberating. We must make it easier for the next man even if we can’t make it safer. And the only way to make it easier for him is to give him the whole measure of it. … This responsibility, or rather opportunity, to set the next man a bit more free … is our value for the free world.” (New York Review of Books, 21/1/1988)

Exile has to do with the mind and the heart, perhaps even more than it does with geography. Liberation is but the first step on a longer journey – but it’s not freedom itself and it makes us reflect on what we mean by ‘home’ or ‘homecoming.’

Brodsky was suggesting that the writer uses the pen to bring greater understanding of the human condition to others. In doing so, he offers a parallel with the condition of Jewish exile as both responsibility and opportunity.

We are in exile wherever and whenever we are aware of being somewhere other than where God is and humanity should be. That surely is what ‘true’ exile is: feeling a distance, a gap between where we are and where we know we should be. Once again, it’ existential, not geographical or spatial. Remarking on the phenomenal survival of the Jews, Steiner concludes, “Judaism has drawn its uncanny vitality from dispersal, from the adaptive demands made on it by mobility.” (page 23)

It’s through a deeper involvement with Torah, in all its senses, that we can bring, not vain, empty promises of a better time, but the tools with which that better, freer time can be built. That’s how to put an end to exile – not just for the Jew, but for all of suffering humanity. That remains our Jewish responsibility – and our Jewish opportunity.