There are four things whose creation G‑d regrets every day. The first is galut (exile) . . . (Talmud, Sukkah 52b)1

To say that G‑d “regrets” something is obviously at odds with our understanding of His omniscience and omnipotence. Regret implies that one now knows something that one did not know before; that one’s earlier decision or deed was flawed or ill-informed; that one has now matured to the point that he can look back and reject a deficient past. None of this, of course, can be related to G‑d. In the words of the verse, “G‑d is not a man that He should lie, nor a son of Adam that He should regret.”2

Attributing regret to G‑d represents a further problem: if G‑d regrets the creation of something, how could that thing continue to exist? As the chassidic masters explain, creation is a perpetual act on the part of G‑d. When the Torah tells us that “G‑d said: ‘Let there be light!’ and there was light,” it isn’t describing a one-time event which took place on the first day of creation; it is telling us that what we experience as “light” is the embodiment of G‑d’s continued articulation of His desire that there be light. In every fraction of every moment of time, G‑d “says” “Let there be light!” and it is this divine utterance that constitutes the essence of physical light. For no being or phenomenon can possibly exist independently of G‑d’s constant involvement in its creation.3

[The story is told of a young man who left his hometown for several years to study under the tutelage of chassidic master Rabbi DovBer of Mezeritch.4 When he returned, one of his friends asked him: “Why did you have to leave your family and community to go study in some distant town? What did you learn in Mezeritch that you couldn’t have learned in our own study halls from our own rabbis?”

“Tell me,” said the young chassid, “do you believe in G‑d?”

“Certainly I believe in G‑d.”

“If G‑d no longer wanted this table to exist, what would happen?”

“What kind of question is that? G‑d can do everything! If He no longer wanted this table to exist, He could destroy it immediately.”

“What might He do?”

“What might He do? Whatever He wants! He could send forth a fire and incinerate it on the spot.”

“But if G‑d incinerates the table, there would still remain the ashes.”

“G‑d can create such a mighty fire that nothing whatsoever would remain.”

“If such is your conception of G‑d,” said Rabbi DovBer’s new student, “you might as well throw yourself, together with this god of yours, into that fire. What is this table, if not the embodiment of G‑d’s desire that it be? The moment G‑d no longer desires its existence, it has no existence!”]

So, if G‑d regrets the creation of galut every day, why are we still in exile? How could galut exist, even as a concept, without G‑d’s continued desire that it be?

The Art of Metaphor

Then again, nothing we say about G‑d can imply quite the same thing it does when applied to a mortal being. For example, when we say that G‑d “hears” our prayers, do we mean that sound waves generated by our vocal chords vibrate a divine eardrum and stimulate a divine brain in order for G‑d to “hear” our request? Do we even mean that our prayers inform G‑d what it is we lack—G‑d who knows our every desire before we are ourselves aware of it, indeed before we were born? Obviously not. When we say that G‑d hears our prayers, we mean “hear” in a purely conceptual sense—“hear” as in “take notice of” and “pay attention to” and, hopefully, “respond to.”

In discussing G‑d, we inevitably use terms whose meaning is colored by the dynamics of our experience—an experience bounded by time, space and our human limitations. Our only other option would be not to speak of G‑d at all.5 So in using these terms, we must always take care to strip them of their mortal trappings and apply only their pure, noncorporeal essence to our understanding of G‑d’s relationship to our existence.

Thus, when the Torah tells us that G‑d regrets something, it expects us to strip the term “regret” down to its bare conceptual bones: to divest it of all connotations of failing and past ignorance—indeed, of time itself—before applying it to G‑d.

Regret, to us, means that something is both desired and not desired—desired in the past, but not desired in the present. Applied to a timeless G‑d, “regret” implies both these states simultaneously: something that is both desired and not desired, with the desire belonging to the more distant dimension of the thing (its “past”), and the non-desire belonging to its more apparent and immediate dimension (its “present”).

This is G‑d’s attitude to galut “every day”—including the very day on which He destroyed the Holy Temple and banished us from the Holy Land.

G‑d desires galut and does not desire it at the same time. He desires its positive functions—the fortitude it reveals in us, the depths of faith to which it challenges us, its globalization of our mission as His “light unto the nations.”6 But He abhors its manifest reality—the physical suffering and spiritual displacement to which it subjects us. Upon our ultimate deliverance from exile, the positive essence of galut will come to light—but then, of course, we shall no longer be in a state of galut. Galut, by definition, is a state in which the externalities of life obscure its inner content. Thus, the state of galut is a state of “regret”: a state whose non-desirable element is manifest and “present,” while its desirable aspect is “in the past”— distant and obscured.

And since a thing’s “existence” is the expression of a divine desire that it be, the state of galut exists only in a very limited sense—only inasmuch as G‑d desires it. Only its “desired” element possesses true existence; its “not desired” element, despite its ostensibly greater, more “present” reality, is a nonentity, nothing more than the illusionary shadow of its truly real, though presently obscured, positive function.

Two Lessons

Today, galut is no longer what it used to be. Although we still suffer the spiritual rootlessness of galut, its more blatant expressions are fading away: today, a Jew can live practically anywhere in the world in freedom and prosperity.

But to feel comfortable in galut is the greatest galut there can be, the ultimate symptom of alienation from one’s essence and source. To feel comfortable in galut—to perceive it as a viable, even desirable, state of affairs—is to live in contradiction to G‑d’s daily regret of galut. The Jew who lives in harmony with G‑d will always regard the galut state as abhorrent and undesirable.7

At the same time, we know that galut, devoid of all but the faintest echo of divine desire, possesses no true reality, no matter how formidable a face it may represent to us. We understand that it is ever poised on the brink of dissolution; that at any moment, its desirable essence can manifest itself and banish the galut “reality” to the regretted past that it is.8