Yaakov Fisch

A Wide Open Space

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled on a solidarity mission to Israel. My goal was to bring supplies and strength from America. What struck me most was that while the supplies were in desperate need, the strength was not. The Israeli people have bonded together in unity and faith in an incredible way. Israelis know they are living in dangerous times, but they also know deep in their core with unwavering certainty that their cause is just and they will ultimately prevail with God’s help. As you walk around the country, despite the heavy toll of war, there is an overall sense of conviction. Therefore, in an ironic twist, I left my support mission drawing from their strength rather than the other way around.

What I am particularly blown away by is that usually, in dark times, people experience crises of faith; they wonder where God is and how to connect to Him when feeling so physically and emotionally battered. And yet, it seems that those of us in the Diaspora on the proverbial “sidelines” are experiencing this rather than the “in the game.” Why is this?

In this week’s Torah portion, our patriarch Yaakov prepares to go down to Egypt. He never wanted to go down to Egypt and was somewhat frightened by the dangers of leaving the Holy Land of Israel. A strange detail is included in the ensuing episode where God speaks to Yaakov as he is on the journey to Egypt to offer him support and words of strength. The Torah deems it important to mention that this conversation happened at “B’maarat Ha’lailah” (vision by night).

Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (the Meshech Chachmah), a fascinating Biblical commentator from the pre-war era, explains that the specific mention that this was happening at night was meant to be an allusion to dark times. Yaakov, in general, often connects to God in the night, such as when he wrestles with an angel and has the dream of the heavenly ladder. Moreover, our sages tell us that Yaakov is the forefather who implemented Maariv, our nighttime service of praying to God.

Therefore, in other words, the Meshcech Chachma explains that what we are talking about here is not so much a “time” but a state of mind or even events. The night represents darkness, which further signifies when we don’t see the hand of God so readily. When Yaakov was going to Egypt, God told him that He would be with him even in the dark times. 

Furthermore, it is critical to note that Rashi points out that the reason God came to Yaakov at this juncture was because Yaakov was feeling “Meitzar” (constricted). Although this term denotes stress and anxiety, it also literally translates as “constricted” which is a direct allusion to where Yaakov was headed (Mitzrayim/Egypt). It is not a coincidence that Mitzrayim comes from the word constriction, as it was a dark place devoid of G-d.

In my research for my upcoming Haggadah, a project coming to completion that I have been working on for years, I discovered several beautiful Rabbinic teachings about how Mitzrayim (Egypt) is not just a physical entity but a metaphysical one. Because Mitzrayim comes from the root of maitzar- constriction\confinement, it represents the dark places where we sometimes find ourselves in our minds and emotions. We all have our own personal “Mitzrayim,” and in those times, we must remember that God is with us and will ultimately get us out. 

With this reading, the first of the Ten Commandments takes on a whole new panorama: “I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt, from the house of slavery” can then be read more personally and allegorically to mean, “I am your God who takes you out of your state of personal confinement, and helps you free yourself for what you are enslaved mentally and emotionally.”

Right now, we feel as if we are in a dark place on a national level. But we must remember that in every generation, there is a “Mitzrayim,” and despite those hard times, God is with us just as he was with our forefather Yaakov who was feeling “confined.” 

It is critical to note that the land of Israel has the opposite biblical description to that of “confinement.” Israel is called eretz chemdah, tova, urchava (a desirable, good, spacious land). But hold on for a moment: Desirable- yes. Good-no doubt. But, spacious?! It’s one of the most narrow lands of any country! In fact, when then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon once took then Governor of Texas, George W. Bush, around in a helicopter to see the borders of Israel, and afterward, Bush famously remarked, “In Texas, we have driveways wider than your country.”

Therefore, it’s obvious that spacious is talking about something metaphysical as well. Israel is the opposite of Mitzrayim, because it is the place where we connect to God; it’s the place where we can reach our potential both on a personal and national level. A place where God’s presence is felt in daily life, and God’s stamp has officially been sealed on the land as our inheritance is a place where our faith has no bounds, where the spiritual realm is wide open to us. It’s no wonder the Jewish people in Israel feel emboldened in their sense of purpose and renewed in their faith. They are reconnecting to each other and their heritage as we speak, despite the dark times they are going through. 

When you are a Jew, you are an anomaly able to live in two worlds at once: To be upset at the horror that has happened to our people and still have faith that God has charted the course out for ultimate redemption. You can be both angry and emboldened. As a Jew, it is possible to do both simultaneously. 

When he was 15 and a prisoner at Auschwitz, Elie Wiesel watched as three Jewish scholars put God on trial for indifference to the suffering of his people — and found him guilty. After the verdict, Wiesel said, there was silence, and then the participants all sat down to evening prayers.

We here in the Diaspora should remember this lesson as we watch what our brothers and sisters in Israel are going through. We can send them supplies, but make sure to take note of how they are dealing with everything and draw strength in return. We are in our own state of “confinement” right now, but we must remember that our true heritage is a “wide-open land” in every sense possible. 

About the Author
Rabbi Yaakov Fisch is the Senior Rabbi at Etz Chaim of Jacksonville, Florida. In his tenure of over 20 years, he has focused on building bridges to the wider community through his projects such as founding an outreach kollel, forming the first kashus organization in the area and hosting a podcast where he sends out Torah messages geared to all.
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