Explaining the Sufferings of Exile

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Sermons of the Aruch HaShulchan, Week Two: Explaining the Sufferings of Exile

As I noted last time, I have to fit 23 sermons into 21 weeks, and this week seems as good as any to combine two into one. That’s because two of the sermons deal with the sufferings of exile, trying to understand the possible value in the suffering of the Jewish people. This and other sermons suggest that his community struggled with the despair that comes from a difficult exile. Poverty was one element of that, as we’ll see in sermons to come.

Sermon 4 argues that those sufferings are preparation for redemption, while Sermon 19 is about how the sufferings are necessary to purify the Jewish people. Seeing them together will, I hope, show us how Aruch HaShulchan tried to encourage his listeners to grapple with their lot.

How It Could Have Been Worse, and Why It Should Have Been

Sermon 4’s opening text is Sotah 49a, that without a prayer by David HaMelech (Rashi identifies that as Tehillim 9;19-21), the Jews would have been doomed to sell disgusting items for a living. Only because David pointed out that non-Jews would then have no respect for them did Hashem provide them with some amount of wealth.

To explain why that should have been, Aruch HaShulchan starts with the claim that greater final products take more time to produce. It takes longer to build a palace than a hut, gestate a calf than a worm, and so on. He also argues that that process involves ruining what was there (a seed is destroyed in the process of growing into a new plant), and the more ruined it is, the closer its time to being completed.

[His most extended example is an egg, which can be eaten until the hen sits on it. After that, it’s ruined, until the chick hatches. In this, and other examples, we have to remember that he may make claims about nature we no longer accept. Sometimes, it affects the point; here, his general point seems to stand independent of whether it’s an absolute rule– building complex and important items can be slow and, until completed, leave the components in disarray.]

The Burning Bush

Moshe’s experience with the burning bush took that one step further. The bush was a thorn bush, the thorns a symbol of how low the Jewish people needed to be brought in order to be rebuilt; thorns are both low and, when stepped on, cause problems for people.

The bush’s not being consumed by the fire added another element, that the Jews’ redemption wasn’t going to be purely natural. That was also why Moshe had to remove his shoes. Ordinarily, we need shoes to protect us from stepping on thorns; Hashem was telling Moshe that he, Moshe, did not need that, and that, similarly, the Jewish people would be redeemed supernaturally.

For another example of the Jewish people’s functioning beyond nature, Parashat Bechukotai speaks of rain coming at the right time when the Jewish people observe the mitzvot. By the laws of nature, there’s no connection, the point being that Jews don’t live fully naturally [he’s implying that it’s an error to rely only on our understanding of history for insight into the fate of the Jewish people; that they’re currently languishing in Eastern Europe, he wants them to understand, doesn’t mean that redemption might not be very close].

Apples, Wheat, and the Progress of the Exile

As one more piece of background to understanding the Jewish people’s position in the world, Aruch HaShulchan notes that wheat is much more necessary for human survival than apples, yet apples are much more easily accessed. They grow on trees which, once planted, need relatively little tending, and harvesting apples involves plucking and eating (maybe washing). Wheat has to be replanted each year, and then painstakingly processed into bread, leaving aside much chaff along the way, before it’s eaten.

That’s because of Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden, and the curse of be-ze’at apecha, by the sweat of your brow. When that sin is finally atoned (in the Messianic future), Aruch HaShulchan claims, we will be able to enjoy wheat much as we now enjoy apples, getting all the nutritional value out of it by plucking and eating [while that sounds utopian even today, it strikes me that technological advances have made the process of farming wheat much easier than in his time; if he were to see farming today, to him, it might look almost like we’re just plucking and eating].

I am skipping a piece about how other nations hate us because we’re so opposite to them, and another one showing that Hashem means to sustain our hope by always including in Scripture a reassurance of redemption before speaking of punishment. We’ll instead stick with his insights into wheat, jumping to Bereshit Rabah 83;5, which speaks of the parts of the wheat stalk arguing about which was more important.

Throughout the process, it’s easy to confuse other parts as more important, which was the claim they made (in the Midrash). The kernel that would become flour and bread could only say, wait for the harvest. Once again, that’s because producing great results takes a process, destroying the material that will eventually turn into the desired product.

Bringing Eliyahu By Sending the Mother Bird

That explains one last Midrash, Devarim Rabbah 6;7, which says that observance of the mitzvah of shiluach ha-ken, sending away the mother bird before taking the chicks or eggs, will hasten the arrival of Eliyahu, harbinger of Mashiach, who will restore the hearts of sons towards their fathers and father towards their sons. That’s a puzzling thing to say, since won’t Eliyahu bring much more good than that?

Aruch HaShulchan says—and now he reveals what seems like crucial contemporary background to this whole discussion—that the length of the exile might lead newer generations to lose faith. The mitzvah of sending away the mother will remind them, however, of the process of turning an egg into a chick, in which the egg was ruined, first, as a source of food and then had to be waited upon until it hatched. Those who remember that will also know that the exile and its sufferings are a similar process, and will then return to the faith of their forefathers.

This suggests that this sermon is addressed to people bothered by the length and troubles of exile, aware of a new generation whose fidelity to Torah is not assured. He is arguing that the exile is not as bad as it might or even should have been, that producing something as great as redemption takes time and effort (like any complex, valuable project), and that our believing this will itself hasten the redemption.

Barley as a Symbol for the Jewish People in Exile

The second sermon I wanted to cover will take us less space, because much of it goes into a Midrashic reading of why Haman offered 10,000 talents of silver, and how Mordechai’s study of the laws of the Omer offering counteracted that. In addition, he spends much time on the fifteen mitzvot the Jews were given in Egypt and fifteen that characterize each Jew daily, as part of how we maintain our covenant with Hashem.

In the name of brevity, I’m going to leave those aside, and focus on where he takes his opening verse. Hoshea 3;2 has the prophet telling us he followed Hashem’s command and married an unfaithful woman. As her bride-price, he gives fifteen pieces of silver [hence the analyses of fifteen that I’m skipping] and some measures of barley. The barley piece [which we’ll see again in later sermons in this series] will help Aruch HaShulchan offer some explanation for, and condolences about, the exile they’re experiencing.

Animal Food and Where It Appears in Halachah

His key to all this is that the Gemara refers to se’ora, barley, as ma’achal behemah, animal food. That’s why it’s part of thesotah ceremony, the test of whether a woman has committed adultery. She indulged animal urges (in not staying faithful), so her sacrifice is animal food.

That analogy raises the question of why the Omer, the first offering of the new harvest, comes from barley. Aruch HaShulchan is more interested in what that says about why Mordechai chose to study it than the issue itself. In his reading, Mordechai understood that Omer is a reference to fidelity to Hashem, or the lack of it. Since the Jews of Mordechai’s time stayed faithful to Hashem—in Aruch HaShulchan’s reading [a somewhat problematic one, since they went to Achashverosh’s party; also, a clearly programmatic reading, since we know that he worried about the Jews of his time], the Omer could serve as a sign of that.

The Difference Between Hashem’s Power and the Recognition of Hashem

Then he has an interesting digression about the difference between referring to Hashem as Elokim or as Melech, King (based on a Midrash we don’t have space to analyze). Melech is a Name that’s sometimes related to the nations in general (Melech HaGoyim), sometimes just the Jewish people (Melech Yisrael), and sometimes the whole world (Melech HaOlam).

Elokim, on the other hand, is what it is [although that ignores when Hashem is referred to as Elokei so and so].  His answer is that Melech refers to the honor given to Hashem, the realization of Hashem’s sovereignty, whereas Elokim refers to Hashem’s power. There is never any change in Hashem’s power, but there are shifting tides in who notes that power, and to what extent.

That’s why, he argues, Ya’akov said the phrase Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuto (Blessed is the Name of the Honor of His Kingship—note the phrase connects kingship to the honor given it, as Aruch HaShulchan suggested) and Moshe didn’t. In the former’s time, the Jewish people had ten tribes and seventy souls, all faithful to Hashem. Moshe’s Jews worshipped the Golden Calf, challenged Moshe’s leadership (Korach), and cried about the spies—the honor for Hashem’s kingship was not as clear.

That explains the compromise about saying it quietly. In the Gemara’s time, some people were strongly faithful to Hashem, as in Ya’akov’s time, but others had abandoned faith, as in Moshe’s. So we say it to ourselves.

Back to the Barley

I have, I hope it’s clear, presented these ideas out of the order in which Aruch HaShulchan did. But at the very end, he comes back to barley. He notes that Gidon is symbolized as barley as well, in Shoftim 7;13, where he overhears a Midianite telling his friend a dream, in which a barley bread rolls through the camp, destroying it.

It’s barley, Aruch HaShulchan closes, because we’re in exile, for having not stuck as fully by Hashem as we should have. The way back, Hashem tells Hoshea, is for us to do the fifteen mitzvot, and then to be like the sotah who didn’t actually commit adultery, and to stay faithful to her husband, even without their living together, for a long time.   Maintaining fidelity is the way to restoration, redemption, and all the great bounties awaiting them at the end of this trouble.

The Exile, For Aruch HaShulchan

The second sermon seems to me to have been written before the first, since it is more positive about the behavior of the Jewish people, in particular their fidelity to Hashem. But they share the sense of exile as greatly difficult (next time, when we look at a sermon about how Hashem gives the Jews the financial support they need, we’ll see that poverty was one pressing problem that confronted him and his listeners). Almost as bad as the suffering itself was the confusion it engendered, the why of that suffering.

Aruch HaShulchan has offered two answers. First, valuable results—great buildings, wheat, large animals—always need a long process to produce. During that process, they look like they’re being ruined. Second, this is also part of our proving our fidelity to Hashem (after having failed to do so earlier), so that the prophecy in Hoshea can come true, that Hashem will take us back, restore our relationship to how great it used to be.

Key to all of that, for Aruch HaShulchan, is patient forbearance, seeing that Hashem is doing this for His reasons, to stay faithful to Hashem as this historical process works its way to the great outcomes the prophets have shared with us.

About Gidon Rothstein

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