Where Is God to Be Found in Exile?
Jacob receives the news from his sons that Joseph lives with silent incredulity. Numbed by his mourning, he dares not expose himself to more pain and disappointment. The report was counter-intuitive: not only had Joseph survived, he had risen to become the second-most powerful man in Egypt. But the abundance of provisions and possessions that his sons had brought back from Egypt confirmed their words. As Jacob’s resistance gives way, he resolves to accept Pharaoh’s invitation to settle in Egypt. He must be reunited with Joseph before death separates them irremediably.
Yet, despite the surge of emotion, Jacob hesitates. To end his days in Egypt would mean to leave the tract of land promised by God to Abraham and Isaac. His father had been specifically instructed by God not to let a famine drive him down to Egypt. It was God’s wish that Isaac remain in Canaan where a glorious future awaited him (26:1-5). Accordingly, Jacob headed first to Beer-sheba, a site sacred to the family because both Abraham and Isaac had resided there (22:19; 26:23-33). In search of divine assurance, he availed himself of his father’s altar and was also granted a vision. Except, this time, God instructed Jacob to relocate to Egypt without fear: “I Myself will go down with you to Egypt and I Myself will also bring you back…(46:4).” Unburdened, Jacob proceeds down to Egypt with his entire clan and all his worldly goods to a reunion beyond his wildest imagination.
Professor Nahum M. Sarna in his commentary on Genesis fully catches the radical import of God’s declaration (a comment sadly omitted by Etz Hayim): “The God of the patriarchs knows no territorial limitations” (p.313). The point of the promise is not only to vouch for the well-being of Jacob’s family (that indeed it will emerge from Egypt as a nation), but also to affirm that God is universal, as accessible in Egypt as in Canaan. No territory, no matter how sacred, has a monopoly on being the only portal to heaven.
Despite its contemporaneous ring, Sarna’s stately comment is actually a reformulation of an ancient rabbinic view triggered by the self-same verse. An early Palestinian midrash was prompted by that verse to posit that “when Israel went down to Egypt, God’s presence (Shekhinah) accompanied them” (Mekhilta de Rabbi Yishmael, ed. Israel Rabin, p. 128). To leave the land did not put them out of God’s protective reach. Exile was not bereft of God. Implied in this midrash is the comforting belief that as God descended with our ancestors into Egypt, God would be with us in the exiles yet to come. Born in exile, the Jewish people were to discover the condition to be congenital. Yet there is nothing coterminous between a piece of real estate and God’s vivifying presence.
Somewhat later, the Babylonian Talmud rendered the implicit explicit with a full-blown theology of consolation based on God’s universality and undiminished empathy. A history of exile should not be construed as a refutation of chosenness. As is its wont, the Talmud casts its argument in the form of biblical proof texts, the repository of eternal truth.
Behold how beloved are Israel by God, for wherever they went into exile, God’s presence accompanied them. When they went into exile in Egypt, God accompanied them as Scripture states: “Lo, I revealed Myself to your father’s house in Egypt…” (citing I Samuel 2:27, and not our verse!). When they went into exile in Babylonia, God’s presence accompanied them as Scripture states: “For your sake I send to Babylonia…” (Isaiah 43:14).When they went into exile in Edom [i.e. Rome], God’s presence accompanied them as Scripture states: “Who is coming from Edom…” (Isaiah 63:1, missing in our printed editions because of medieval papal censorship). And someday when Israel will be redeemed from exile, God’s presence will accompany them as Scripture states: “Then the Lord your God will restore your captivity…” (Deuteronomy 30:3). The fact that the verb shav (return) is intransitive rather than transitive teaches that God will return with them from all their exiles (Megillah 29a, my translation).
In response to the question where is God to be found in exile, the Talmud declares: in the synagogue and the academy, calling them in the words of Ezekiel (11:16) places of sanctity but on a diminished scale (mikdash me’ at). The final point, of course, is the key to what animates the entire passage: what is the status of the synagogue vis-à-vis the Temple in Jerusalem?
In the centuries prior to its destruction by the Romans in 70 C.E., the Temple dominated the religious life of Jews in Judea and the Diaspora. Sacrifices were not offered anywhere but on its altars and no other sanctuary ever came close to effectively challenging its centrality. Jews from at home and abroad voluntarily paid an annual tax of a half shekel for its maintenance. On the harvest festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, pilgrims would stream from far and near to celebrate in its midst. On other occasions, it served as the venue for the bringing of personal sacrifices, first fruits and certain tithes. And it was at the Temple that Judaism’s lunar-solar calendar was carefully regulated for the entire Jewish world. The vast expansion of its platform and premises by Herod mirrored as well as enhanced its institutional supremacy. In the evocative words of Professor Lee I. Levine: “Here was where God dwelled, this was the cosmic center of the universe (axis mundi), the navel (omphalos) of the world that both nurtured it and bound together heaven and earth as well as past, present and future. For Judaism, no less than other religions of antiquity, space was not a homogeneous entity. There is the sacred in the midst of the profane (i.e. ordinary) and the former, of course, is directly related to the presence of the divine” (Jerusalem, 2002, p.246).
What came to fill the wrenching void of the Temple’s loss was the synagogue, a surrogate that effected the very survival of Judaism. But the switch required the kind of spatial reconfiguration of which we get an echo in our two midrashim. In a chaotic world, holiness becomes portable. Scripture embodies God’s presence in the revealed word and prayer replaces sacrifices. To be condemned to live in exile is to be homeless or rootless but not godless. While the synagogue surely predates the year 70 C.E., the theology that it would take to validate it took time to evolve and prevail. Our deft midrashim attest to the silent revolution that gradually enabled the synagogue to remake Judaism. In religion the most enduring revolutions are those that escape detection.