It’s easy to live life with the assumption that G‑d has forgotten about you. After all, there are scores of other people out there already doing His bidding, so why would it matter if little old you fell by the wayside?
I think that I’ve had the ebbs and flows of this feeling throughout my life. Sometimes I feel so close to G‑d that I can almost touch Him; other times I feel like more of an empty shell, rather than someone with a G‑dly soul. I think that one of the major contributing factors to this cacophony of mixed emotions is a plain, yet enormously significant five-letter word: exile.
Each one of us creates our own exiles The simple definition of exile is prolonged separation from one’s country or home. I like to think of it as just living on the outside. In today’s world, there are so many obstacles in getting closer to G‑d, and they all always seem to point back to exile. That’s not to say that exile is the same for everyone. Each one of us creates our own exiles, and only we can discover and learn the correct path to righteousness.
For me, exile is threefold. The most obvious is my current geographic location. I live in Bethlehem, Pa., better known as X‑mas City. And, not surprisingly, when I visit the supermarket, finding kosher food is no small task. Just last Sunday, I found myself standing in the “kosher” section, which is more like a kosher shelf where the usual fare consists of some pareve cookies, jarred gefilte fish, matzah meal and candles. Every week, I stand in that tiny section, scanning that one shelf, searching for signs of life. Breadcrumbs, yahrtzeit candles, maybe a piece of meat? I always arrive with hope, and often leave defeated. Even on the drive home, with my several packages sitting in my trunk filled with as many kosher varieties as I could find, I pass a myriad of churches with large billboards painted with words like “community” and “salvation”—and it is a bold reiteration and reminder of my exile.
Living life as a “work-at-home” mom is also a form of exile from potential coworkers and friends. I do work part-time, but I am fortunate enough to have the opportunity to telecommute from my home office. Thus, I can spend more time with my two children, and also keep tabs on them while they are with the babysitter. It leaves enough time in my day for cooking, laundry, dropping off and picking up from preschool, bath and bedtime, among other things. However, I do miss out on those impromptu conversations with coworkers at the water cooler; donning attire that’s more business casual rather than comfy and convenient; and enjoying a sushi lunch out with other adults, instead of yogurt with the kids. It is hard not to get lost in an endless list of tasks and fall victim to your own routine. In fact, I often find it difficult to have time for anything else. And so, I am in exile. Not only do I anyway feel exiled from both my Creator and myself, but now also from my peers.
We are each our own MosesLastly, and possibly the most difficult for me, is the exile from my family. The feeling generated from this exile is so tangible that it’s painful. Ever since I began my learning and felt comfortable enough to share with others the discovery of myself as a Jew, with some people things have changed. We still get together, we talk, and we buy each other birthday gifts. The connections are there, but that mutual understanding between us has disappeared. The greetings and emotions are no longer genuine. This is the hardest. Being an outsider with those who are supposed to know you best. This is exile.
With that said, how can we better understand and cope with exile? First, I thought about Moses. He was in the same predicament, and even after he led the Jewish people out of Egypt, they ended up wandering around the desert for forty years. In exile, that is. Although Moses led a nation, and my personal struggle is considerably less daunting, it is nevertheless the same idea. We are each our own Moses. Only we can create the paths, and utilize the paths that we encounter throughout our lives, in order to point ourselves in the direction of home.
In other words, we make our own exile, and we can bring ourselves out of it and closer to G‑d. We do this through lighting Shabbat candles, eating kosher food, and giving tzedakah, charity. Doing mitzvahs and learning and living Torah are the vehicles that bring us one step closer to ending our exile. However, the journey is not the same for all of us. For example, the path is starkly different for someone brought up in an observant home, as compared to another who just today read a passage from Exodus for the first time. And yet, no matter who we are or where we live, we all will always have that one thing in common: we are Jews living in exile.
A few days ago I needed some milk, and I stopped in at the supermarket, one closer to my house. For fun, I went to the kosher section to see what was there. I found the two shelves with all the Jewish goodies, and to my utter amazement, there stood a lonely package of tiny kosher soup macaroni shaped like the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, the alef-bet. Well, if someone were looking at me at that moment, they probably would have thought I found gold. There it was, a fun, edible, kosher product that I had never seen before in the Lehigh Valley—waiting there just for me. It gave me hope, purpose, and the strength to keep forging ahead on my journey to ending this dreadful exile.