The Righteous Feel Like Immigrants

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Akeydat Yitzhak, Sha’ar Thirty

The Misdirection of Excessive Comfort

The speaker in Tehillim 119; 19 says he is a ger, a stranger, in the Land, and then begs Hashem not to hide His mitzvot from him. R. Arama explains we generally share secrets and what we care about with those we see as equals. The Psalmist recognized he in no way could be an equal of Hashem, worried he might therefore be closed off from Hashem sharing the mitzvot. He has to ask for it as a special favor.

In a play on words R. Arama does not need me to applaud as pretty, he says less spiritually alert people are termed am ha-aretz, people of the land, because they think the land belongs to them, think of themselves as “people of the land,” rightful residents, fail to notice, are not sophisticated enough to realize all human beings are at best like resident aliens in Gd’s land.

The wise, on the other hand, have absorbed the message of R. Ya’akov in Avot 4;16, this world is like a hallway to the World to Come. The realization leads such people to accept their lives will in some ways imitate the experience of a stranger far from his/her birthplace. Immigrants do not insist on honor, know they will often have to suffer some poverty, work at menial jobs, not be considered marriage material by the upper classes, focus on the more immediate concerns of survival in their new land.

[For all the US has been a land of immigrants, R. Arama’s description matches the hardship stories immigrants tell even about the US—and in recent years, we have seen immigratioin dramas unfold in many places, with those immigrants subject to many degradations. R. Arama’s pitch here seems aimed at an audience who might have been insisting on/striving for a higher standard of living than he found palatable, especially because the standard we decide we “need” affects many other decisions we make.]

A last familiar indignity is the challenge of language, either not speaking it at all or being mocked by native speakers for the immigrant’s accent. Part of the warning in the tokhaha in Devarim 28;49 tells us abandonment of Hashem can lead to invasion and subjugation. The verse adds that the Jews will not know their invaders’ language, telling R. Arama they will have to bear the indignities of having to learn and try to speak a foreign tongue.

The Reason to Immigrate

To choose the hardships of immigration just for money [I assume he means extra money, above the reasonable living the person was making in the first place; many immigrants move looking either for subsistence, a different discussion, or because they prefer the new society as a whole, again not what R. Arama was denigrating] strikes R. Arama as a poor choice, because money is fleeting, can be taken from us at any moment.

Gdly people forego wealth and honor, like immigrants (in the lands of their birth as well, he means; he is taking immigration from literal to metaphor). He singles out R. Eliezer b. Harsom as an example, whom Yoma 35b tells us ignored his vast wealth to be able to study Torah without being distracted by business interests. Torah study is a better reason to be treated like an immigrant because the person is guaranteed to retain the value for him/herself (where money can be stolen), as verses in Tehillim and Mishle stress, our good deeds and wealth in Torah will be ours forever, where money certainly will not (you can’t take it with you, Tehillim 49;17-18 already says).

The Look of “Immigrant Status” in Service of Gd

People who care about Gd’s service and learn these lesssons will not adopt the concerns of most people– wealth, possessions, status– because s/he will know success as judged by people of this world is illusory, with no lasting value [I have met people who honestly seek more money to be able to change the world for the better, ease the burdens of the poor, advance medical research, etc. Similarly, I still believe there are people who seek power primarily to effect positive change. That’s not whom R. Arama is addressing, and even in our times, I think they are the exception.]

Proper awareness of the world and its role should lead to less complaining as well. The Torah tells us Hashem looked at the world and considered it tov me’od, exceedingly good, where many carp about its various slacks. They may be right, but R. Arama believes those of proper attitude would not focus on the flaws, would recognize them as par for the course of a world that’s only a prelude to the truly desired existence. Those overly troubled by the problems of this world, who insist they want a quiet, trouble-free life, misunderstand the nature of this life. [The hallway, I think he means, always forces us to travel a road to get to the Palace, and the road of this world must include challenges and times of trouble.]

How the Righteous See Life

Instead of focusing on what’s wrong, we should concentrate on opportunities we have been given. A person who finds an item, enjoys it for some time and then is forced to relinquish it should be grateful for what s/he had, not complain about the loss. Iyyov showed us this attitude early in his story, when he reacted to losses by blessing Hashem even after much of his bounty had been taken away.

The perspective provides more equanimity, because setbacks are always on a background of this world as a staging area for the next. In a life of no ultimate values, the loss of fleeting pleasures for more long-term profits should be an easy choice of investment.

R. Arama frames Bereshit Rabbah 84 in this light. The Midrash has R. Aha says the righteous (R. Arama thinks it’s only some righteous) seek serenity in this world, and Satan complains about their greed, how they want quiet here in addition to what they will receive in the World to Come. The idea mistakes the hallway for the palace, in R. Arama’s view, is why verses in Yeshayahu speak of death as the time of peace, because only there do the righteous reach their true reward.

To make the point, both for the righteous themselves and for others who stress serenity in this world as vital, Hashem does not let the righteous get too comfortable (the Midrash put the idea at the beginning of Parashat Va-Yeshev, Ya’akov reached a brief moment of peace). As part of their continued growth towards better shares in the World to Come, Hashem brings bumps in the road to work to overcome.

The peaceful life itself doesn’t produce the problem, the attitude does. Ya’akov lost his sensed immigrant status (both literally, in Canaan, and in the broader version of this whole physical life being a temporary migration on the way to the World to Come).

The Language of Human Immigrants

R. Arama previously pointed to language issues as one of the ways immigrants show their uneasy fit in their world. The righteous’ native language focuses on the intellect and what it tells us is good, where ordinary people speak of (and care about) their more animalistic needs and pleasures.

Ordinary people match animals in opting for force, power, and control where language fails them, where the concerns of the righteous are always amenable to speech and thought. True, the Torah required physical punishment for some crimes, lashes or even death, but that is to restore the recipient to his/her overall awareness of the proper balance between the physical and humanly intellectual. Mishle 26 speaks of corporal punishment for a fool as similar to the whip for the horse or goad for a mule, ways to bring a being unable to see the bigger picture back to better compliance with the necessary.

[Although obviously a sensitive subject, I think we can make the mistake of gliding over it too quickly. R. Arama—and Rambam has similar comments in the Moreh—thinks people’s levels of awareness of Gd and the true purpose of the world distinguish them from each other, along a continuum from barely different from the animals to barely different from the angels. The people at the more animalistic end of the spectrum are not quite as fully human as the others, in R. Arama’s mind, and therefore open themselves up to harsher and more physical punishments.]

Next time, we’ll bring the immigrant discussion, the righteous’ sense of being strangers in the world, to the story of Miketz and Va-Yigash, the brothers’ encounters with Yosef.

About Gidon Rothstein

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