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THE MIRACLE OF EXILE

by Michael Alterman    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

"A fire of elation burns within me when I recall in my heart what happened when I went forth from Egypt; but I shall arouse lamentations so that I will remember what occurred when I went forth from Jerusalem" (the opening verse of Kinah 31 in the Tisha B'av liturgy).

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"A fire of elation burns within me when I recall in my heart what happened when I went forth from Egypt; but I shall arouse lamentations so that I will remember what occurred when I went forth from Jerusalem" (the opening verse of Kinah 31 in the Tisha B'av liturgy).

For twenty-two painful stanzas the Kinah (mournful poem) contrasts the triumphant exodus from Egypt to the tragic exit from Jerusalem, and what a stark contrast it is! On one hand we joyously recall the miraculous and glorious redemption, highlighted by its innumerable wonders: the ten plagues that brought Egypt to its knees; the splitting of the Red Sea and the drowning of the Egyptians; the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai amidst thunder and lightning; the heaven-to-door daily delivery of the all-purpose, all-tasting manna; the clouds of glory surrounding and protecting the entire nation; the pillar of fire providing direction; the traveling well supplying water; the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and its vestments; and the list continues. Simply put, the ultimate manifestation of Hashem's presence was the hallmark of the exodus from Egypt.

On the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, the second part of each stanza tearfully remembers the rioting and ransacking of Jerusalem by the pagan Babylonians and Romans: the fire and smoke of devastation; the tears and sorrow of families being torn apart; the debilitating famine and starvation; the captivity and servitude; the spilling of blood and the tragedies of war; the sickness, the death, and the mourning; the utter destruction of the Temple. In short, we grievously describe the concealing of Hashem's presence. Tisha B'av is the day that we mourn how far the Jewish people have sunk - from the greatest of heights to the deepest of depths.

There is, however, another way to look at the relationship between the exodus and the exile. Consider the amazing fact that, nearly two thousand years after the destruction of Jerusalem and the beginning of the exile, the Jewish people are still around to talk about it. Gone are the Babylonians and the Romans, the cultures and civilizations that dominated the entire world for hundreds of years. As time passed, nations arose to oppress us in every generation, only to disappear from the world scene. Yet a tiny people dispersed across the four corners of the globe, surrounded by nations which wished to destroy her, remains alive and well. Truly remarkable! The survival of the Jews is nothing less than one hidden miracle after another, an illustration of hashgacha pratit (constant Divine intervention) of unequaled proportions.

From this emerges a deeper understanding of the juxtaposition in the Kinah. Hidden in the destruction and the exile, Hashem's strength and wonders can be recognized just as much as in the redemption from Egypt.

Similarly, this "miracle" of exile also serves as a source of comfort for the Jewish people, as the Talmud demonstrates in the final passage of Tractate Makot. Rabbi Akiva and three other sages were walking in Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple. When they came to the Temple Mount, they saw a fox emerging from the ruins of the Holy of Holies. Overwhelmed by the tragic destruction, they immediately began to cry. Yet, Rabbi Akiva laughed. Why? When questioned, he told them about two prophecies which are connected to each other. One foretold that Zion will be plowed over like a field, the other that Jerusalem will once again be inhabited by the Jewish people, young and old alike. Said Rabbi Akiva, "As long as the first prophecy was not fulfilled, I was afraid that the second one would also go unfulfilled. However, now that I have seen the fulfillment of the first prophecy, I know that the second will also be fulfilled!" At this point, Rabbi Akiva's companions responded: "Akiva, you have comforted us; Akiva, you have comforted us."

Our sages tell us that the Mashiach (Messiah) will be born on Tisha B'av. Out of our despair will come our redemption, and in the future Tisha B'av will be celebrated as the most joyous of holidays. Fittingly, the Kinah ends in hopeful prayer and belief that this long exile will one day come to an end. "Torah and Testimony and the cherished vessels accompanied me when I went forth from Egypt; gladness and joy, while anguish and sighing will flee, when I return to Jerusalem!"

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Based on the writings of Rabbi Chaim Friedlander, the great mashgiach (spiritual advisor) of the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Israel of the past generation.

Michael Alterman who hails from Atlanta, is enrolled in a joint program with Ner Israel Rabbinical College and Johns Hopkins University, both in Baltimore.

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