The Midrash to Koheles (7:15) relates the following parable: A group of bandits was locked up in jail. One of them dug a tunnel, and they all escaped, except for one who stayed behind. When the warden came by, he began beating him with a rod and said, “What terrible mazal you have! The tunnel was before you and didn’t escape!”
The nimshal concerns a sinner who refrains from doing teshuvah until he dies and the opportunity to “escape” from his wrongdoing is lost.
Our generation does not need a nimshal, however, for we are the characters in the parable. For thousands of years, we were imprisoned in exile, seemingly without any hope of escape. We prayed and pined for the opportunity to be free and return home. That opportunity has finally been presented to us – nearly any Jew on earth who wishes to escape the prison of exile can do so.
Many have heeded the divine call and done just that. There have been difficulties to be sure – crawling through a tunnel is not an easy path to freedom – but they have continued moving forward, always facing forward.
But there are some who have grown used to prison. It’s all they’ve ever known. Prison life isn’t always pleasant, but it’s familiar. They know the ropes, they have grown used to their role and identity, and their most basic needs are provided for. Prison is safe, stable, even comfortable at times. Prison is home.
Freedom is unknown and frightening. Crawling through the tunnel to freedom means learning how to live differently, to deal with different challenges and dangers, and even getting dirty while you crawl. The prisoner who stays behind cannot bring himself to escape, even when there is nothing stopping him but his own free will.
The warden sees this pathetic person who has lost his very essence and is filled with scorn. He too spends much of his life in prison – but as a free person. He knows the difference between prison life and freedom; he understands that losing one’s freedom is the greatest catastrophe that can befall a person, and he can only heap scorn on one who voluntarily chooses imprisonment over real life.
The voluntary prisoner thinks he will be rewarded for his “good behavior,” but the warden cannot respect someone who actually prefers to be there.
Exile from our homeland is the worst punishment that could been decreed upon us short of total destruction. Life outside of Israel is life in prison, even in the best of times, even if we are not being persecuted and the prison is beautiful. A true Jew understands that he does not belong there and he does not want to be there any longer than necessary. If he can burrow his way home, he won’t think twice.
Millions of Jews have returned home. G-d made an oath to bring us home, and He is fulfilling it before our eyes. You don’t need to be a prophet or a sage to recognize the incredible miracles and clear expression of divine will rapidly unfolding in our time. Those who have been anticipating this moment are embracing the opportunity, even if the journey home is bumpy at times.
Tragically, half of our people are willfully blind to what is happening, though they cover their blindness with rationalizations. Prison life has become comfortable for them, or tolerable, or the tunnel looks too daunting, or inertia is simply too powerful. Perhaps it is the sitra achara that is seducing them to reject the opportunity, knowing that when the Jews return home the game is over and we win.
Those who do not return home from inspiration will return from desperation. Those who prefer to stay behind even in times of desperation will find that escape tunnels don’t remain open forever.
The warden is coming.