You can't come home if you've never been away.
When I was ready to graduate high school, my mother told me that she expected me to go away to college. Other girls' moms were begging them to stay home, dreading the empty room. We were told that we needed to leave for a couple of years, learn to live on our own, and if we wanted to come home after that, it would be fine.
Well, it worked, perhaps too well. We all went away, only I came back, then left again, then came back-a dance I did a few times. My sisters are still living far away, though one is moving home soon after many years. Were we in exile? Did we find that our new homes weren't "away" anymore? Were we ourselves when we moved away, or are we more of who we are when we come home? Do we grow when we're away in ways we couldn't have done so if we stayed home?
These questions might underscore the core story of being "away"-Exodus. Ramban (13th c Spain) said Genesis, as the book of Creation, tells the story of everything's origin, including the creation of what will be the nation of Israel, but not yet. The Torah, he said, starts a new book, Exodus, to tell the story of what comes from that creation. It starts with being "away."
When Pharaoh says, "…the Israelite people are much too numerous for us…" (Ex 1:9), by naming them as "Bnai Israel," Pharaoh has acknowledged the separate identity of this part of the population in his country. Citing growing numbers, this Pharaoh, "who did not know Joseph" (i.e., how much Joseph had contributed to the country in the past), called out this group as a separate community, and was threatened by them. Often the lesson we tell from this story is that, no matter how long the people had been in Egypt, no matter how much they'd contributed to the country, no matter if they were a minority or growing in numbers, they threatened/were threatened by their host country which wasn't really home.
Things got bad, God heard their cry, and it was time to leave, to go home. Yet for hundreds of years, one might consider, the sons of Jacob were perfectly content in their new land. We don't know how often they yearned for the land back east, or even if they did.
In a recent book, At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora is Good for the Jews Professor Alan Wolfe of Boston College writes that the ever-present tension between Judaism's universalism and particularism is actually a good thing, and one of the ways it plays itself out is in the balance between Israel and the Diaspora. Others, too, have suggested that Judaism is its most creative when lived in the presence of Others. Some of the greatest centers of learning and teaching were outside the Land.
Maimonides and Rashi wrote and taught their greatest works while living among Others. However, before 1948, it was only "away"; it was only Egypt, it was only Others. Wolfe says it is no more one or the other, Israel, or Diaspora. It is both, and both are necessary.
Exodus begins telling of our journey through the wilderness. Through to Deuteronomy, the Torah tells not only of the development of the people of Israel, but of Judaism itself, as a religion. It all happened while we were "away." We need both exile and return, Israel and outside Israel, home and away, to continue that journey.
Anita Silvert is a freelance teacher and writer, living in Northbrook. You can read more of her weekly Torah musings on her blog, Jewish Gems, www.anitasilvert.wordpress.com.