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Galut seems an impossible reality: impossible to comprehend, and impossible to overcome

A Chaos of Infinite Light

A Chaos of Infinite Light

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Torah observant Jews engage in formal prayer three times daily. The core of each of these services is a silent prayer which is recited standing, and hence is referred to as the Amidah (from the word omed which means to stand). The rest of the service is arranged around, and is subsidiary to, this central prayer. During weekdays, the Amidah consists of nineteen benedictions, no less than seven of which are directly and explicitly related to the messianic redemption.

Torah Jews, like everyone else, must also eat. Following a formal meal, grace - consisting of four blessings - is recited. The third of these blessings is a poignant entreaty for Moshiach. A Jew can not even snack on a piece of cake without calling to mind his yearning for Moshiach in the requisite blessing said after its consumption.

Thus, an ordinary Jew is required to mention and to think about Moshiach no less than 24 times every day. This preoccupation with Moshiach is not limited to mystics, Chassidim and the like, but is rather central to normative Judaism as it has always been practiced.

What have successful people leading fulfilling, secure, and comfortable lives in the world's richest country to do with Moshiach? Why should a surgeon, a television producer, or a high school basketball star yearn for redemption?

Obsession with Moshiach was understandable in Europe. Who or what else could deliver the Jewish people from the unrelenting oppression, poverty, humiliation and physical danger that pervaded the daily life of European Jewry for the past thousand years? But times (thank G‑d) have changed. We are, for the most part, safe, well fed, and free to pursue whatever lifestyles and goals that we choose. Why, then, do we need Moshiach? What is it that he is supposed to save us from? As far as we are concerned, everything is just fine, thank you. Furthermore, anyone hankering for our ancestral homeland can satisfy his longing by simply buying a plane ticket. Whoever so wishes can eat a falafel on the Dizengof, climb Massada, or even put a little note in the Western Wall. How can this be called galut (exile)?

Paradoxically, this bewilderment regarding the need for Moshiach is itself the most emphatic indication of how desperately we need Moshiach. The most distressing aspect of this bitter galut is that we are blithely unaware that we are in a bitter galut. We do not recognize where we really are or what sort of a condition we are in.

Although galut is frequently associated with physical suffering, this is not its cardinal characteristic, as is obvious from the experience of most Jews in America. The definitive feature of galut is rather the absence of a central unifying purpose to existence.

Peoples' lives appear to be determined by random forces: economic, political, and physical. On a larger scale, attempts to define and solve world problems are doomed to failure, since there is no consistent pattern in history and no stable rational framework underlying world events. Today's solution evolves into tomorrow's crisis. The only reliable assumption in life is that things will change in unpredictable ways. People may grope desperately to impose some sort of meaning on life, but since there is no intrinsic or absolute purpose, these efforts simply reflect the subjective whims of the moment. They can produce nothing substantial. The flower child of the sixties transforms into the greedy entrepreneur of the eighties without so much as a thought to the absurdity of his own metamorphosis. Where is he going and what does he ultimately have in mind? He can't know. His view of himself and the world depends upon circumstances that are ephemeral, undirected, purposeless, and indifferent to his existence. He is living in Shakespeare's "...tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing".

Such a tale is not necessarily unpleasant. The same mindless happenstance that consigns one man to serfdom crowns another king. The main point is that there is no reason.

How and why would G‑d create such a world? In order to understand the "why", we must first come to grips with the "how".

How: Receptive Aphasia and Dream Reality

As is the case with any of G‑d's actions, we have no direct access to His methods. His thoughts are not our thoughts. Nevertheless, He created man in His image, meaning that the relationship of Divinity to creation is reflected in the myriad spiritual dimensions and powers ultimately relating the soul of man to a physical body.

In other words, man is a microcosm of the universe. The soul powers that animate the body, such as intelligence and emotion, parallel Divine attributes of intelligence, kindness, justice, etc., that vivify creation. Likewise, the vehicles through which the soul actualizes its powers (i.e. expresses itself) — thought, speech and action — reflect the Divine modes of expression that result in physical existence.

The Torah, therefore, speaks in the language of man, i.e., in anthropomorphic metaphor. Consequently, we can gain at least indirect information regarding Divine activity by drawing analogies to the appropriate corresponding aspect of human life.

Thus, the essentially ineffable process of Divine creation is described in metaphoric terms by the Torah as "speech". Human language provides an unusually rich, multi-tiered model through which many aspects of creation can be intuited.

All of existence is nothing other than a manifestation of G‑dliness, an expression of G‑d's creative ability. The light of G‑d's Infinite Will is revealed through Divine intellectual and emotional attributes, producing illuminations that can be considered as G‑d's "thoughts". Thoughts are the private domain of the thinker, inaccessible to anyone but himself. Indeed, they are manifestations of the thinker to himself. G‑d, therefore, expresses His thoughts in "words of speech".

Words of human speech are vehicles through which supraverbal thoughts and feelings can be expressed and given substance. Ultimately, the "words of G‑d's speech" are the specific properties and forms assumed by matter, inanimate and sentient, to produce the countless details of physical existence.

Speech, unlike thought, is not a constant and automatic process. Speech is generated by the will to reveal oneself. Since speech is specifically intended to reveal the speaker, creation, the product of G‑d's "speech", should reveal G‑dliness, i.e., we should be able to perceive the Divine purpose in everything. Creation should disclose to us G‑d's "thoughts," which is to say G‑d Himself. Such, however, is obviously not the case.

Although language accurately reflects the process of continuous creation under ideal conditions, galut (exile) is far from an ideal condition. The appropriate human parallel, therefore, is not simply language, but rather disordered language of the type that is described in clinical neurology as receptive (Wernike's) aphasia.

Receptive aphasia is a disconnection syndrome. A stroke or a tumor destroys the region of the brain that associates the symbols of language, the words, with meaning. The region of the brain that actually generates language remains intact, so that the patient can speak fluently. Moreover, areas of the brain involved in cognitive and emotional expression also function properly. The problem is that the brain components that normally inform speech and provide the intellectual or emotional content can no longer do so, because the "wiring" connecting speech with meaning is destroyed. Thus, although the faculties of the mind are operative, and the ability to produce language is unimpaired, the two functions are uncoupled, resulting in fluent speech that is empty of meaning.

Patients with a pure complete receptive aphasia speak in sentences with proper intonation and inflection. What they say, however, is random nonsense, unfocused and devoid of rationale. Occasional fragments of speech may be amusing, or even lyrical, but they fit into no pattern or conceptual context. Aphasic language does not conform to, and therefore does not reveal, the "mind" of the speaker. The structure of language in a pure Wernike's aphasic is determined by unknowable, seemingly random, subconscious influences. Interestingly, the patient himself is unaware that his speech is inappropriate, since he lacks the necessary neurological machinery to interpret all speech, including his own.

The metaphor that best describes the chaotic profusion of things, people, and events that constitute worldly life is aphasic-like speech. From our perspective, the language that comprises creation appears vacuous and undirected. As far as we can detect, it is neither guided by, nor does it conform to, any discernible intent of the Speaker. The Speaker, although fluently expressive, is absolutely inaccessible, concealed behind a dense thicket of tangled and uninterpretable utterances.

There are a number of disturbing questions that emerge from all this, not the least of which is how can so many people be so content and so blissfully at home in such a horrifying condition? In order to address this question, we must broaden our view of exile by examining yet another classical metaphor for galut — that of a dream.

A dream is a dissociated and often grossly distorted mélange of images, totally alien to what one encounters in normal life. Since during sleep the imagination is unrestricted by any assumptions, rules or necessities, there is no rational framework of cause and effect, and the dream can assume dimensions which defy description. Remarkably, from the dreamer's point of view, the dream world appears entirely ordinary and very real.

The surrealistic distortion that is so apparent on awakening, is entirely acceptable and natural within the context of the dream. The dreamer may be terrified by something that, on awakening, merely evokes a bewildered smile. He may cry brokenheartedly over something that, from the viewpoint of wakeful consciousness, is not in the least sad. He regards inanities as momentous, whereas true flashes of creativity or genius may be ignored. His vision, feelings, priorities, and plans are all tailored to circumstances in the dream world in which he truly feels himself to be living.

Thus, an indispensable component of the dreamlike world of galut is the illusion of reality. People are entirely at home and comfortable with the lunacy that describes modern life. It is regarded as normal, healthy and American for thousands of people to fight, push, and scream their way into a stadium in order to experience the elevation of spirit, the rapture of watching a man hit a ball with a stick. News magazines discuss the artistic merits of a popular movie, the subject of which is cannibalism and sadism; this is normal entertainment for millions of people. During the day, a man labors mightily, dissipating his G‑d given energy and talents in the pursuit of toys or a moment's illusion of power. Vicious and violent racists condemn the victims of their racism as racist in victim-subsidized college programs. The list goes on.

The Ones Who Don't Fit In

In resolving the question as to why people are content with galut, the dream metaphor raises an even more perplexing paradox. If we are all products of the dream of galut, how can we objectively assess our circumstances so as to be aware of the horrifying morass that we are in? How can we possibly expect a world that is blind to its own madness to yearn for redemption?

The answer is that the darkness of galut is not absolute. There are those for whom the dense obscurity of galut is only partial. They are like dreamers who know that they are dreaming and are thus able to stand somewhat aloof from the dream and perceive the truth. Obviously the agonizing impact of galut can be properly appreciated only by such people. It also follows that such individuals must be totally out of register with the rest of humanity. These unusual people are the Jews.

The Divine Jewish soul emanates from its source in Divine Will, penetrating the profuse concealments of galut and illuminating the life of the Jew in this world. The strength of this influence varies, from prophets and holy individuals (tzaddikim) whose very perceptions are those of the divine soul, to ordinary Jews in whom the illumination is somewhat beclouded by the coarseness of the physical body and the delusions of worldly life. The Jews have thus always been a people apart, isolated, alien, regarded with suspicion, fear and loathing by a benighted, uncomprehending world.

For 2000 years the Jews have yearned for a redemption unfathomable to the nations of the world, and to that end, have pursued goals that are incomprehensible to the rest of humanity. The periodic misguided efforts of many Jews to alleviate the anguish of galut by accommodation and assimilation have made no more sense then it would for a psychiatrist to accept the perspectives and world views of his patients and assume their behavior patterns simply because they outnumber him. Because Jews, in essence, transcend galut, we are ultimately capable of, and therefore responsible for, ushering in the redemption, not only for ourselves, but for the entire world.

Why: A Need for Challenge and a Desire for Infinitude

Although the aphasia paradigm and the dream metaphor explain how the Almighty can seemingly detach Himself from the creation that He constantly generates, it gives no insight into His motives. What is gained by running the world in such a way that its inhabitants are able to deny the existence of the Creator and reject or even ridicule concepts of Divine purpose, justice, and mercy?

The answer is that galut is not reality and it has no inherent significance. On the contrary, it has been designed and implemented specifically to be overcome, to be negated. The Almighty is hiding in order to be found, which means that the purpose of the concealment is really revelation.

The Creator is neither dreaming nor (G‑d forbid) aphasic. Every detail of existence fulfills an overall purpose and contributes to a comprehensive Divine plan. G‑d's "speech", although incomprehensible to us, is meticulously chosen. The imagery, although appearing to us as a wild dream, is regulated by the highest purpose. G‑d, as it were, goes to considerable trouble to make the world appear as a rudderless ship.

It is because the Creator has so thoroughly concealed Himself that our actions are significant. If the world revealed Divinity, its inhabitants would, as a matter of course, be holy, and drawn to G‑dliness. Since the pursuit of G‑dliness would be natural and, therefore, effortless, it would also be, in and of itself, valueless. Our actions would simply reflect the natural tendency to be holy. As it is, however, an individual's pursuit of G‑dliness, no matter how limited, is of inestimable value precisely because it is neither natural nor normal. It requires exertion, and a willingness to struggle with one's instincts, proclivities, and habits. The simplest action, such as putting a mezuzah on one's door, requires one to do battle with an entire world that rejects, mocks and opposes such behavior. Because of galut, the performance of every Mitzvah is of infinite significance.

The Almighty has not produced the perfect world that He ultimately desires. In His infinite kindness, He has assigned this mission to the Jew.

There is another aspect of galut that can be inferred from the dream analogy. The essential characteristic of a dream, which distinguishes it from conscious musings or from a daydream, is chaos. A person's imagination, while awake, is ordered and guided by the intellect and, therefore, is of necessity, limited. Order and structure demand rules, and rules impose limitations. A dream, because it lacks order, is free of limitation. Revelations of the mind that are so luminous and original that they transcend the restrictions of language or of rational thought may be revealed by the unfettered activity of the imagination during a dream. In the case of galut, its source is so lofty that its manifestations can only be perceived by the finite, rational mind as uninterpretable chaos. The light is so intense that there are no instruments capable of detecting it, and thus it appears as darkness.

The mission of the Jewish people throughout galut is to transform the finite world into a vessel for revealing this light, i.e., to transform the darkness into light. This is done by the application of Torah, the source of which is also transcendent, to all worldly things and daily affairs. The refinement and restructuring of the details of worldly existence into vessels for G‑dliness prepare the world for redemption, which is a revelation of the essence of Divinity. At such a time, the chimeric state of galut will have served its purpose and will evaporate, as does a perplexing riddle when the solution is revealed.

This, then, is the redemption that we, all of us, everywhere, and at all times, yearn for. This is what is meant when Jews beseech three times daily during formal prayer. "For Your salvation we hope all day."

Dr. Yaakov Brawer is Professor Emeritus of the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University. He is the author of two books of Chassidic philosophy, Something From Nothing and Eyes That See
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Hessel Meilech cape town April 6, 2016

If Iran has an atomic bomb it is important that Jews also live in the diaspora. With our terrible history with no Messiah we need to be scattered around the world for our survival. Reply

Michael Las Vegas via chabadofsummerlin.com August 2, 2015

Thank you for your insights. Very illuminating. A famous person has said, "salvation is of the Jews". Reply

Troy Atlantic Beach, NC. USA August 14, 2014

Epitome of Spirituality, I am not a recognized Jewish Person, however the author inexplicably defines my role in life amongst the chaos. I left the Western church at 8 years old and searched thru spirituality during college. I was never satisfied to any conclusive attitude observing my fate or destiny, purpose within guidance until I happened upon a Jewish woman whom took me to my first Passover. I attended with reluctance taught and left with an observance I can never fully describe other than I found Heaven for the first time and continue to this day to learn more, feel more and practice connections more, one day I will ask to convert. For now I live, learn and appreciate. Reply

Elisheva Portland via chabadofmaine.com December 19, 2013

Mitzvot As much as I agree that living is Israel is important, I think there shouldn't be hierarchy for mitzvoth, they are all equally important. Reply

George Jimenez, sr. Escondido, Ca. U.S.A July 27, 2013

A chaos of Infinite light As a student and believer in Torah, I for one appreciated the article above. Very well put and explained, I can not wait to move to the Holy Land. Reply

Anonymous Los Angeles, California July 19, 2010

Chaos and Truth Beautifully stated. I have forgotten which of our sages said that when Moshiach is revealed, we will be like Joseph's brothers, who suddenly saw that all their assumptions were mistaken, and all the apparent chaos of their lives had meaning all along.

Within those same lines, however, surely we Jews will also see that we were given only part of the puzzle, and that pieces of the greater truth were scattered among the other six billion human souls all along. That we needed them, somehow, in some way as yet to be disclosed...just as they needed us. Reply

Anonymous Denver, Co May 23, 2010

A comment accuses author of racism One comment says the author is a racist for describing Jews as a people capable of insights that other people cannot have. The comment is absurd since any person dedicated to living as an observant Jew can become Jewish and be part of G-d's plan for the Jews. Reply

Craig Hamilton Sandwich, MA June 9, 2008

Re: Racism Race is a horrible word, nondescript. Though Judaism is inheritable like a “race,” this is not a good way to observe Judaism. I prefer "tribe," as to call Judaism a race is the denial of its culture. Jewish culture is inseparable from its religion. Being Jewish has nothing to do with personal selection, but rather cultivation of Jewish character that Jewish mothers instill in their young. Thus, to be a Jew is to have a way of life that only rings true to a Jewish soul. Reply

Anonymous Dallas, Tx/USA May 30, 2008

Racism The author recognizes racism in others on college campuses, but does not see it in himself when he speaks of the Jews as a unique race with a divine purpose that unchosen races do not have. He sees the speck in another's eye and misses the log in his own. Reply

Craig Hamilton Sandwich, MA December 23, 2007

Galut I enjoyed the article because of its length. I did not have the word galut in my vocabulary. This long article helped me understand the word galut. Perhaps, it was the length of the article, meaning the amount of time I spent studying galut helped me feel empathy for those who do not have empathy, or even those who are mistaken. It would not surprise me if the length of this study of galut will give me better recollection of the word galut. Reply

Dr. Katzir August 1, 2007

Galut. Galut means not living in Israel. You do not need such a complicated explanation for Galut,
unless you need a justification for being a religious Jew and not living in the Holy Land.
The Mashich did not come yet, the temple in Jerusalem is not built, and on it's place there stands a Mosque.
The article has some nice ideas which I enjoyed
very much, but one of the most important Mitzvot is to live in the Holy Land. Reply

Grant Maserow Johannesburg, South Africa January 18, 2007

Inspirational This article is very inspirational. Knowing that we all have a purpose and no matter how small a mitzvah one does, it all adds up. Reply