Kenneth Cohen
Kenneth Cohen

Defining Galut

We are now approaching the fast of Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, when we remember the destruction of our two temples. It is the saddest time of year, and we mourn as though we were sitting “Shiva” for a loved one. The tragedy that followed these events was that the Jewish people were banished from the Land of Israel, and were scattered among the nations. This expulsion from the land was known as “Galut” commonly translated as “exile.”

It represented a clear message that G-d was not happy with His people, and no longer wanted them close to Him. Their sins angered Him, and He allowed the forces of the Babylonians and Romans, to destroy that very place where Jews worshipped their G-d and felt His closeness. No longer would all appear in Jerusalem during the pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot, and Succot, when the entire nation rejoiced and were able to feel Divine protection. The majestic structure of the Temple gave every Jew a feeling of pride and being at home in their land. It was a glorious time in our history. And suddenly, all of that glory was gone.

All of that ended when the Jews went into Galut. They were strangers in strange countries, and were often not welcome. It became difficult to practice their religion as they were able to do while living in Israel. As a result, Jews began abandoning their religion, and many intermarried. As time went on and ignorance grew, many Jews were unaware of what once was. Often the situation was unbearable because of the persecution Jews suffered, and it was a struggle to survive.

This explains why during this nearly two thousand year period of exile, the word Galut became associated with persecution. Therefore, when Jews were welcomed by many countries such as the United States and England, and they were able to practice their religion without any hindrance, they no longer saw themselves as being in Galut. If they lived affluent lives and had synagogues, restaurants, and kosher food readily available, this was very positive. It was anything but Galut.

But here lies the real tragedy. This is a serious misconception. Galut does not mean persecution. It is the name given that defines our being cast aside by G-d and being distant from Him. This is Galut, being distant from G-d. The only place where we can truly feel G-d’s Presence is in Israel. Many believe that the “Shechina,”or Divine Presence, dwells in Israel. There is something unique and magical about the Land of Israel. The Rabbis say that even the air of Israel makes one wise. There is no Torah like the Torah of Israel. The Kotel, Western Wall, never lost its sanctity.

Judaism is not the same because we have a Jewish homeland. We do not yet have a Temple, but G-d has decided that it’s time for His children to come home, and renew that closeness. Even today we feel that bond, when we witness the special blessings of the Kohanim on Pesach and Succot in front of thousands of people. We see the country solemnly observe Yom Kippur, when the whole country shuts down in observance of this holy day. Nearly seven million Jews have decided that they don’t want to be in Galut, and have come home.

We mourn on Tisha B’Av for the millions of Jews who have lost their way. They know so little about our beautiful heritage. They are assimilated and see no problem marrying outside of the faith. Had we not gone into Galut, this would not have happened. We also mourn for those Jews who do not appreciate the gift of the State of Israel. They choose to substitute Jerusalem for a city outside of Israel that allows them to have total religious freedom. They don’t see themselves as being in Galut, but they are.

As long as the choice is to be in a place or state of mind that does not afford that individual to be closest to G-d, he is in Galut. Why else would someone who professes to observe the commandments of the Torah, not want to be in the singular place where he can “feel” the holy Presence of the Al-mighty? Kosher bakeries and restaurants, do not create spirituality. And even when there are Yeshivot, where there is great devotion to Torah study, these become institutions of Galut, as well. There is no Torah like the Torah of Eretz Yisrael, for the simple reason that this alone is G-d’s dwelling place.

So instead of focusing on Tisha B’Av on persecutions and anti-semitism, we should focus on what we have lost when we were sent into exile. We should once again long for the glory of our past to come alive again. We should appreciate how G-d is reaching out His hand for His children to come home. And most important of all, is to long for that closeness we once had. As the prophet Ezekiel once said, “There will come a time when you will be my people, and I will be Your G-d.” This is the essence of Tisha B’Av, and this is the real meaning of ending the Galut.

About the Author
Rabbi Cohen has been a Torah instructor at Machon Meir, Jerusalem, for more than twenty years. He has been teaching a Talmud class in the Shtieblach, Old Katamon, Jerusalem, for the nearly seventeen years. Before coming to Israel, he was the founding rabbi of Young Israel of Century City, Los Angeles.
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