The Paradox of Exile

Perhaps the most difficult dimension of exile is the way it dominates our thinking processes. After many years of en­slavement in Egypt, our ancestors had difficulty imagining any other type of existence. When Moshe Rabbeinu’s promise of redemption did not immediately materialize, the Jewish people “did not heed Moshe because of broken spirits and hard labor.”1 Today as well, after thousands of years in exile, many Jews find the concepts of Mashiach and redemption foreign.

A deeper look at the concepts of exile and redemption, however, reverses this position and raises a question about the very possibility of exile. The soul of every Jew is a spark of G‑d, a limitless potential that reflects G‑d’s infinity. Fur­thermore, wherever the Jews go in exile they are accompa­nied by the Shechinah, G‑d’s Presence.2 How can G‑d’s Infinity be enclosed within the restrictions of exile? We are forced to say that this paradoxical situation exists only because G‑d wills and desires it. G‑d alone has the power to limit His revelation, and confine Himself and the Jewish people within exile. Surely, He would not choose this course in the absence of a definite purpose which could not be accomplished with­out sending us into exile.

Acquiring the Wealth of Egypt

G‑d’s purpose in creating the condition of exile can be understood by analyzing the first exile in Egypt. In His cove­nant with Avraham, G‑d decreed,3 “Your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs. They shall serve them and they shall be afflicted by them for four hundred years.... I will also judge the nation that they serve, and afterwards they will leave with great wealth.” This decree was fulfilled when the Jewish people descended to Egypt.4

The conclusion of the decree, that “afterwards they will leave with great wealth,” is the key to understanding the purpose of exile. Before the Exodus from Egypt, G‑d commanded Moshe,5 “Speak, please, in the ears of the people, and let every man ask his fellow, and every woman ask her fellow, for vessels of silver and vessels of gold.”

The word “please” indicates a request. Our Sages explain6 that with this request, G‑d was saying: “Let not that tzaddik (Avraham) say, ‘The prophecy that they shall serve them and they shall be afflicted by them was fulfilled, but the promise that afterwards they will leave with great wealth was not ful­filled.’ ” The acquisition of Egypt’s wealth was thus an objec­tive not only for the Jews, but also for G‑d Himself, as it were.

Revealing the G‑dliness Within

The acquisition of Egypt’s wealth is part of the compre­hensive spiritual mission of the Jewish people in the world, and helps to explain the purpose for exile. The G‑dly life-force which sustains the world’s existence is concealed within its material substance. The Jewish people have been assigned the task of revealing that inner G‑dliness by utilizing material objects for G‑dly purposes. As a classical chassidic prayer asks, “G‑d, grant Your people material blessings and they will show You how they can transform them into spirituality.”7 By using our material blessings in order to serve G‑d, we make the entire world a dwelling for Him.

At every stage in history, the Jewish people were given a specific dimension of the world to elevate. Through their servitude in Egypt, they were able to reveal the G‑dly life-force latent within the land of Egypt.8 Once this task was completed, they acquired the entire wealth of Egypt.

A similar mission has been given to the Jews in subse­quent exiles. Our Sages state9 that G‑d exiled the Jewish peo­ple in order that converts should be enabled to join them. Chassidus 10 extends the word “convert” to mean not only in­dividuals who accept Judaism, but also the sparks of the G‑dly life-force which are hidden within the world’s material substance and are revealed through the service of our people. Accordingly, the Jews have wandered throughout history from country to country fulfilling a unique G‑dly mission, revealing the sparks of G‑dliness in different lands by utiliz­ing their physical substance in the fulfillment of mitzvos.

Preparing the World for the Era of the Redemption

Every Jew has been charged with a personal mission — to reveal G‑dliness in that portion of the world which Divine providence has assigned to him. Since this mission is neces­sary for the ultimate purpose of the world, our souls are not fulfilled until we have completed this task. When a person isolates himself from involvement in the world, even if he de­votes himself to a life of study and prayer, he ignores this fundamental G‑dly intent.

What good are the spiritual heights he may attain, if G‑d’s will has not been fulfilled? The goal for which a person should strive is not his individual refinement alone, but rather, the refinement of the entire world.

Clearly, involvement with worldly matters presents a challenge, creating the possibility for self-indulgence and spiritual decline. Nevertheless, by remaining conscious of the purpose for which G‑d sent us into exile, we can overcome that challenge and achieve both spiritual and material success.

The many years of slavery in Egypt were a necessary stage in the process that led to the Exodus. Similarly, the purpose of the present exile is the ultimate Redemption.11 Since, in the Era of the Redemption, G‑dliness will be revealed in all places and all things, the service that prepares for that revelation must be likewise all-inclusive.

For this reason, then, our people have been dispersed throughout the world and have become involved in every as­pect of existence. Ultimately, each individual’s efforts in making his environment a dwelling place for G‑d, will pre­pare the entire world for the era when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of G‑d as the waters cover the ocean bed.”12

Adapted from Likkutei Sichos, Vol. III, p. 823 ff.