For many years I had the privilege of being a member of the Queens Jewish Center and of basking in the warmth and wisdom of its then moreh d’asra, Rabbi Joseph Grunblatt, zt”l, who for nearly four decades inspired and guided his kehillah with love and unparalleled dedication.
As we approach Rabbi Grunblatt’s fourth yahrzeit and the festival of Chanukah, with its unique historical significance, it is appropriate to think about our life in galut, and I offer the following thoughts based on the teachings of Rabbi Grunblatt and in his memory.
Rabbi Grunblatt was an accomplished talmid chacham and a brilliant thinker who fused the world of the traditional yeshiva with a modern perspective, utilizing a remarkably broad intellectual palette to tackle the issues of the day. Rabbi Grunblatt did not shy away from the big questions, and both in his derashot and writings struggled relentlessly with the existential questions of religion and the fundamentals of emunah: free will and determinism; why bad things happen to good people; and the origins of cruelty and evil in the world.
He reserved much of his intellectual stamina for his ongoing effort to make sense of Jewish history, particularly the sui generis events of his lifetime. With his breadth of vision, he saw the Jewish nation in its epic context, spanning millennia and continents. In his only published work, Exile and Redemption: Meditations on Jewish History (Ktav, 1988), Rabbi Grunblatt delved into the sugya of galut and ge’ulah, culminating with an attempt to explain the two most significant events of modern Jewish history: the Holocaust and the founding of the state of Israel. He deliberated extensively on these themes, using his vast knowledge of Tanach and Chazal, as well as the theories offered by contemporary philosophers and Gedolei Yisrael, before offering his own novel approaches.
The reality is that the Jewish people have spent more time in exile than in our homeland. Indeed, we emerged as a people outside of our land, in Egypt, and received the Torah in the desert. Unlike other nations, who developed naturally in their indigenous environments, we developed in the wilderness, and had to merit entry into our land. After Joshua brought the Israelites into the Land of Israel, they had to earn the merit to remain; when that merit was lost, they were driven into exile. After our return in the days of Ezra, we remained yet again, only as long as we deserved to. As Rabbi Grunblatt points out:
No other nation of the world had to worry about whether they “deserved” their land. Only the Jewish people had to “earn” their rights… [Exile and Redemption]
Our exile is unique in other ways as well. While we have suffered enormously throughout the millennia, we have also been remarkably successful in attaining spiritual greatness. Even in the desert, we received the Torah and reached the greatest of spiritual heights. In Persia, we merited the miracle of Purim, which Chazal teach us was tantamount to a second acceptance of the Torah (Shabbat 88a). In Babylonia, Torah sheb’al peh was deepened and popularized with the redaction of the Talmud. And throughout the centuries we have witnessed religious and spiritual growth, the flourishing of Torah and learning, and material achievement unknown for a nation in exile. We have spent years wandering the earth, suffering persecution, and yearning for a safe and secure homeland, and yet we have flourished.
How do we make sense of this? Is exile merely a punishment for our sins – “u’mipnei chata’einu galinu ma’artzeinu” – a wholly negative experience, or are there didactic and spiritual components to it as well? Moreover, how do we explain this fundamental component of our history, of God’s blueprint for his people, which incorporated the certainty of exile in the Brit bein habetarim and the two tochachot?
Rabbi Grunblatt’s response to this theological conundrum lies in our unique mission in the world. The mission of the Jewish people is not solely comprised of our personal service to God; we are destined to be a source of guidance to the rest of the world as well. The Jews at Sinai are referred to as a “kingdom of priests.” Just as the kohanim and leviim were to teach Torah to the Jewish people so, too, the entire Jewish nation is to serve as kohanim, teachers, to the rest of mankind. We are here to serve as “a light unto the nations” (Isaiah 49:6), a beacon of morality and justice for the world.
This fundamental mission can be accomplished in two ways: by living in our eternal homeland and focusing on the particularistic expressions of our service to the Almighty, or by entering into exile and exerting a universalistic influence on the nations of the world. Both have their challenges.
Living as a “regular nation” without the constant assaults of an alien culture, causes us to become complacent, and to let our guard down. We settle into the comfortable life, and forget the mission, as the Torah predicts: “Vayishman Yeshurun vayiv’at – and Israel grew fat and revolted (Deuteronomy 32:15).”
In galut, the forces of diaspora life that surround us can sometimes serve to encourage us to be better, to refine us as “quality is intensified when contrasted to its extreme opposite.” That of course has its own danger as well, including the constant concern that we may assimilate and be swallowed up by our hosts.
Historically, we have had the opportunity to identify with both expressions of our mission. At times we were successful, and at times we failed. We live now at the nexus of galut and ge’ulah, with half of our people living in our historic homeland, and the other half in the diaspora. Both conditions are, for the moment, part of God’s plan for our people.
As we mark the yahrzeit of an extraordinary rav and intellect, a man of unbridled passion for the welfare of all his congregants and indeed for all of Klal Yisrael, let us pray that wherever we may be situated, we fulfill the mission that God expects from each of us.