In this week’s portion, the Torah describes a series of blessings and curses which are linked to the faithfulness or faithlessness of the Jewish people regarding the Covenant with God. These curses conclude with the admonition that “the Lord will scatter you among all the peoples, from one end of the earth to the other…” (Deut. 28:64). Exile is the culminating curse, the ultimate metaphor for the ruptured relationship between God and Israel.
Following the destruction of the First Jerusalem Temple in 586 BCE, the issue of exile became central in Judaism. The quest for “home” — for restoration to the Land of Israel with the implied safety and stability of the Jewish people — became a defining metaphor not only for the biblical writers, but for successive generations of Jews living in often very different but no less disruptive circumstances.
In Jewish tradition, the theological coordinate to exile (galut) is redemption (ge’ula). For the Jews of the biblical period, redemption most often had a this-worldly meaning: the reestablishment of the 12 tribes under Jewish political sovereignty, ruled by a king of the line of David in the Land of Israel.
Although exile began as a corporate concept, as Judaism developed it took on a more personal interpretation as well. Exile remained, of course, the tangible situation of the Jews living outside of the Land of Israel. The Jewish prayerbook canonized liturgy that prayed for the ingathering of exiles, the coming of the Messiah, the restoration of the Temple, and a king from the House of David.
But in rabbinic and medieval Judaism, and especially in Jewish medieval mysticism, exile became a personal rather than a national metaphor: of the estrangement of God from the world; of the soul from God; and of the self divided against itself.
Modern Zionism, which rejected the Reform reading of exile, represented a return to a this-worldly biblical view of national redemption: the restoration of political sovereignty to the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. But modern Zionism rejected the traditional theological view that anticipated restoration only as a consequence of God’s miraculous intervention in history, seeking instead to employ secular political tools in pursuit of a Jewish state.
Common to all these perspectives on exile and redemption is the question of “home.” Whatever “exile” is, it is understood as being “away from home.” Whatever “redemption” may be, it is understood as “returning home.”
When we gather in a few weeks for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, these ancient issues reanimate us. We become aware of the distance between where we are and where we should be. We are sensitized to the alienation we experience when we think of where we want to be and where we have placed ourselves.
Teshuva is thus much more than “repentance.” It is rather a turning, which implies an action. It is not enough to be sorry about where we are, as the Jews in Babylonia lamented when they cried, “By the rivers of Babylon there we sat and wept” (Psalm 137). We are required to make an active effort to reorient ourselves so that we can travel “home.”
Each year at this season leading to the High Holidays we are given the opportunity to choose: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; choose life…” (Deut. 30:19). If, as Deuteronomy suggests, exile is the ultimate curse, then teshuva, or “coming home,” may represent the ultimate blessing.