Shaya Cohen -


The Benefits of Being in Exile

#2 Son was in the Arctic this past week, spending time in an Inuit settlement of a few hundred people. It was an eye-opening experience in many ways (and I have encouraged him to write on it himself). But one thing in particular stood out to me: he spoke of a people that live a life without meaning.

Decades ago, the Canadian government, with the best of intentions, decided to ensure that Inuit no longer had to kill their babies or expect their old to walk out into the cold in order to ensure that the rest of the family could survive. So they offered the Inuit homes, and all the material comforts that a person needs: heat, food, clothing, etc. In other words, the Inuit were put on welfare.

The results have been as disastrous as they were predictable. An indigenous people holding on by their fingernails on the very edge of the world at least had a common goal: survival. But once that went away, so did the accompanying customs and various ways of making sense of the hostile environment – all the trappings of a primitive pagan existence. When the Inuit no longer had to spend all their time worrying about making it through the winter, they no longer had anything to worry about at all.

#2 Son reported that what is left is depressing beyond words: girls get pregnant as soon as they reach puberty. Alcoholism and drug use and suicide are rampant. There is no industry, no work ethic. In short: life holds no meaning beyond whatever might be considered hedonistically interesting in the short term.

It occurs to me that this is hardly unique to native Inuit. Native Americans in the United States have similarly blown their minds on drugs and alcohol – so much so that the Ivy League schools like Cornell and Dartmouth which were chartered on the basis of educating native Americans find it next to impossible to find any able-minded candidates to admit. (I also know this from personal experience. Out of curiosity, I ticked “Native American” on one of my PSATs many years ago, and was offered automatic admission and full tuition, regardless of need, to Dartmouth, Stanford, West Point, and Cornell.)

Indeed, if one looks around the world, it is striking just how few people actually seek, and find, meaning in their existences. Modernity, along with its material wealth, has exposed this gap. When you give people whatever they need to live, they find themselves unable to explain why they exist. And so they then need to find outlets for their natural energies – from spectator sports to drug use to gang violence.

Inner city Black Americans, just like poor dysfunctional white people dosing themselves with meth, enjoy more material wealth than have 99% of humanity through all recorded history. We have eradicated true poverty in the West – starvation has been unknown in the US for well over a century now, and the last major plague was in the aftermath of WWI. But there is no doubt that our underclass are not so different from the Inuit: lacking the desperate fight to survive and any framework to their lives that give them meaning, there no longer is much purpose.

People don’t understand what is wrong with their world, so they blame anything else that presents itself – white people, “the system”, free trade, global corporations. Any target will do, as long as it does not require hard work and sober self-assessment. Constant sensory inputs from music and media, combined with physical distractions like drugs and pornography all serve to help the person avoid the cold, hard truth: their lives are a wasted opportunity.

Religion, on the other hand, has played a profound role in human history. By providing a reason for each person’s existence, religion has guided and shaped our decisions and the resulting outcomes. In times of scarcity and plenty, the non-pagan religions have given people a sense of purpose, an understanding that the good life is not futile or empty.

The Torah is the founding text of Western Civilization, the enabling document for worldwide societal and technological development.

As Rabbi Sacks puts it:

Our vocation is to be God’s ambassadors to the world, giving testimony through the way we live that it is possible for a small people to survive and thrive under the most adverse conditions, to construct a society of law-governed liberty for which we all bear collective responsibility, and to “act justly, love mercy  and walk humbly”[4] with our God.

Which brings me to exile. Two thousand years ago, the Temple was destroyed, and Jews were exiled into the world, into the diaspora, which is what we call galus. We have mourned this exile ever since it took place. Surely we are supposed to be in Israel, connecting with G-d through temple service?

Well, yes and no. It is nice to be a shining city on a hill. But it is also good – and important – to be spread out around the world.

Perhaps, before we were exiled from our land, Jews and Judaism had reached a point of stagnation (it was an environment from which both Sadducees and Christianity had emerged, after all). Personal and familial and national growth in Torah and achievements were demonstrably higher after the destruction of G-d’s own home in Jerusalem than before.

In one sense, this has been about internal development: Maybe – just maybe – G-d exiled us from our land so that we would be forced to grow. And grow we have! The number of texts that Jews produced (and preserved) from before the destruction of the Temple was a very, very small fraction (much less than 1%) of the creative work that has been produced since then, in the gigabytes and gigabytes of Jewish texts on law and thought.

And our growth has come in connection with others: Judaism “cast upon the waters” may have achieved far more than we could have ever done had we remained in one country, in one environment. Jewish contributions to innovation and creativity in every manner of human endeavor speaks for itself, but it is more than just, “Did you know that a Jewish person invented X?” (For those who may not know, here is a list.)

Jews do not seek to convert others to Judaism, but “merely” to inspire other people to be creative and productive in their own ways. Leadership is good, but partnership is good, too. So is merely identifying and applauding all the good things that others do; showing appreciation goes a long way toward overcoming the natural envies and fears that makes it harder for people to take their own risks.

That connection can be (and usually should be) through personal connections, through conversations. The gap between observant Jews and 14 year-old Inuit welfare queens may seem impassable, but every opportunity we have to connect with others, to show them that life can be so very much more than empty loneliness punctuated by drugs and sex, is an opportunity to reach out to mankind.

You shall diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and His testimonies and His statutes, which He has commanded you. And you shall do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord… (Deut: 6:17)

Why, if we do all that we are commanded to do, does the Torah also need to add that we should do “what is right and good”?

In the Torah, the word we translate as “right” forms part of the word for “Israel” and it comes from a word that means to “strive” or “engage” (as when Jacob strove with the angel).

And the first time something is called “good” is when G-d creates light.

In addition to the commandments and the testimonies and the statutes, we Jews are always enjoined to push forward – to engage with each other and with G-d and with the world around us. And we must always seek to create positive things, things that, like light itself, had never existed before. The Torah is commanding us to be imitatio dei, to imitate our Creator by creating in turn, and connecting with the world.

Indeed, Judaism surely is a precursor to Christianity, and Christianity has done far more than any other faith to bring the notion of a meaningful life to the world of once-pagan indigenous people who otherwise end up like the Inuit or inner city gang members. Religion is powerful: The world has been profoundly changed for the better through the power of nothing more than disseminated ideas.

Perhaps Jews are out here in the world because one cannot be “a light unto the nations” from faraway shores; we need to constantly interact and work with everyone, to help people find their own productive ways to contribute to the world around them: “what is right and good in the eyes of the Lord.”

Comments are welcome!

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