My Yearnings in Exile

Dear Friends,


I was born in 1946, and my parents, of blessed memory, were progressive social activists who had grown up during the Great Depression. My parents did not have the benefit of a Torah education, but they had the traditional Jewish passion for justice; moreover, they had a vague awareness that this passion for justice was rooted in the Torah. This passion led them to become involved in various causes on behalf of the poor, unemployed, and the homeless. Like many young American Jews of their generation, they were attracted to leftist groups that were addressing these issues.


My parents were also very concerned about the dangers of anti-Semitism, and my father began to tell me about the Holocaust when I was about seven years old. He served in the American army during the war, and his unit liberated the inmates of a German concentration camp – a traumatic experience which strengthened his bond with his persecuted people that were abandoned by most of the world during the Holocaust. The stories that my father told me about the suffering of our abandoned people gave me the feeling at an early age that Jews were in “exile” in a cruel and cold world.


When he told me stories about his progressive activism, he would take me into a storage room with thick walls, so the neighbors in our apartment building would not hear our conversation! This was because my father had been active in leftist circles, and in the early 1950’s, people active in such circles were often accused of being “Communist traitors” – an accusation which caused many to lose their jobs. That storage room contributed to my sense of exile.


During this period, my parents suddenly decided to buy records with songs from the modern Zionist movement. For example, there was a lively song about working the land, a sad song which described the attack on the Jewish settlement of Chanita, and a song of yearning for Jerusalem. They did not tell me why they bought these records, and it was only when I became an adult that I discovered the reason: When leftists were being ostracized in America, they began to dream of moving to the newly established State of Israel and live on a socialist kibbutz. The records were their way of preparing their children for this possible move. For various reasons, they decided to stay in America; however, they did succeed in preparing me for a move to Zion, for there were certain soulful songs on these records which awakened a yearning for Zion within my soul. I therefore began to think of Zion as the “home” that was awaiting us.


This initial connection with Zion was strengthened and deepened when my mother arranged for me, at age 8, to attend the Sunday School of our local synagogue. The teacher gave our class a book written for children which was about the history of our people during the biblical period, and a central theme of the stories in this book was our relationship to the Land that was promised to us by God. Through reading this book and through later reading the related verses in the Torah, I learned that God told our forefather, Abraham, to journey to the Land, as through this journey a great nation would emerge from him that would become a blessing for all the families of the earth. God also told Abraham that before the people of this nation could inherit the Land, they would first have to experience exile and slavery in a strange land. In another chapter of the book, I learned that this strange land was Egypt; moreover, there was the exciting story of how God sent Moses to take our enslaved people out of Egypt and lead us to the Promised Land. I also learned that before entering the Promised Land, God gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai.


The second segment of the book had stories about our life in the Land, and how God would send prophets to remind us that we were brought to the Land in order to fulfill the Torah, our Covenant with God. These stories revealed that when we abandoned the Torah, we began to get into serious trouble.


The next year, I began to attend the afternoon Hebrew School of the synagogue, where I learned how to read Hebrew and say certain prayers. I will share with you the following story about a spiritual experience I had during that year which awakened a yearning for the Torah within my soul:


One afternoon, our teacher, Rabbi Gabriel Beer, told us that on Shabbos morning, at 10:30, we would pray together as a junior congregation. When Shabbos morning arrived, I couldn't remember the exact hour the junior congregation was to begin, so I arrived at 10:00 – a half hour early. I noticed there was no one in our classroom, and I was wondering what I would do. I then heard people singing in the main sanctuary, and I decided to walk over to the sanctuary and see what was happening. As I arrived in the back, I saw that the Ark of the Torah was open and the cantor had begun to chant the Aramaic words, Ana avda d'Kudsha Brich Hu – “I am a servant of the Holy One, Blessed Be He.” The Cantor sang a haunting melody with great yearning, and the congregation began to sing with him.


Suddenly, a mysterious image came into my mind. I saw endless rows of people standing, and each row seemed to be standing lower than the previous row. I had the feeling that these rows of people were all the generations of Jews standing together. I felt a strong awareness that these were my people, and that my destiny was bound with their destiny.


The Torah was then taken out of the ark and given to the Cantor. He turned to the congregation and with the Torah in his arms, he cried out:


Shema Yisrael, Ado-nai Elo-heinu, Ado-nai Echad! – “Hear O Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is One!”


Overcome with emotion, I joined the congregation as they responded, Shema Yisrael, Ado-nai Elo-heinu, Ado-nai Echad!


When I later joined my classmates at the junior congregation, I felt so much older. I wondered what I was doing with all these children! I wanted so much to stand again among those endless rows of our people and to once again receive the Torah. During the following weeks, I would come to the synagogue early on Shabbos morning, so I could hear the chanting of the congregation and join them in receiving the Torah.


The above experiences of my childhood had a great influence on my life’s journey. They helped me to feel that Zion is the goal of my journey, and that on this journey, I must carry the Torah in my arms.


Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


Related Teachings:


1. According to our tradition, all the souls of our people throughout the generations were present when the Torah was given at Mount Sinai. (Midrash Tanchuma on Deuteronomy – Nitzavim 3).


2. The Torah was given in the morning (Exodus 19:16). The Talmud states that the Torah was given to us on Shabbos (Shabbos 86b); thus, each Shabbos morning, we are reminded of the Divine Revelation at Sinai when we take the Torah from the Ark.


3,When we stood at the borders of the Promised Land, Moses told us:


“See, I have taught you statutes and social laws which Hashem, my God, has commanded me, so that you may act accordingly in the midst of the land” (Deuteronomy 4:5).


Moses is saying that he first had to teach us the statutes and social laws of the Torah “before” entering the land, so that we will know how to live in the land. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch finds in these words of Moshe the following, deeper message:


It is with the Torah in your arms that you now stand as a nation on the border of the land you are to enter, so that you may be able to keep all aspects of the Torah in this land. You are the people of the Torah and the Land of Israel is the Land of the Torah. (From Rabbi Hirsch's commentary to Deut. 4:5)


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