From this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayigash:
“Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation. I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back…” (Genesis 46:3-4)
These words, spoken reassuringly by God to Jacob as he prepares to travel to Egypt, have a spiritual resonance the extends far beyond their immediate context in the Joseph story.
The image of God “personally” accompanying Jacob into Egypt is a powerful one – indeed it is an image that would become particularly important to the Jews of the post-Second Temple period as they struggled to understand the meaning of their exile. As the Rabbis of this period would have it, the destruction of the Second Temple was a cataclysmic event that did not only result in the physical dislocation of the Jews, but in existential dislocation as well. The Temple in Jerusalem had been the central focus of Jewish spiritual life for centuries – the place where God’s Presence was understood to dwell. Where could God be found, now that the Temple was no more? How could the Jewish people experience God’s presence in their lives, now that they were dispersed throughout the Diaspora?
In a radical new theological reconstruction, the Rabbis posited that God was no longer to be understood as geographically specific to the Temple in Jerusalem. God was now understood to be inherently “portable.” The Shechinah, or God’s indwelling Presence, was to be found wherever the Jewish people might wander. And when they experienced exile, God had gone into exile with them, as it were. In a famous Talmudic midrash, it was taught:
Rabbi Simon ben Yohai says: Come and see how beloved are Israel before God. For in every place to which they were exiled the Shechinah went with them. They were exiled to Egypt and the Shechinah was with them, as it says, “Did I surely reveal myself unto the house of your father when they were in Egypt.” (I Samuel 2:27). They were exiled to Babylon, and the Shechinah was with them, as it says, “For your sake I was sent to Babylon.” (Isaiah 43:14)
And so, when they will be redeemed in the future, the Shechinah will be with them, as it says, “Then Adonai God will return (with) your captivity.” (Deuteronomy 30:3) It does not say here veheshiv (“and God shall bring back”) but veshav (“and God shall return”). (Talmud Avodah Zarah 29a)
Many commentators has argued that this rabbinic theological revolution was a primary factor in the centuries-long survival of the Jewish people: the belief that tragedy and dislocation was not tantamount to abandonment; the stubborn affirmation that the Divine could be found close by even in (or especially in) the darkest of times.
The image of God in exile is a revolutionary one even today. It reminds us that as long as our world remains unredeemed, God is in a sense enslaved with the rest of us. Redemption will only arrive when we ourselves take the initiative to repair our lives and our world- only then will we have truly liberated holiness from exile.