This week feels like longest night of the year. There’s a heaviness here, like everything that’s meant to be close is far away: family, friends, that “normal” life, the 2020 I thought I would have, the 2021 I thought I would have, the future I thought I would share with friends and family who are no longer here. Whether cut off by the pandemic of COVID or the pandemic of addiction, disconnection hangs heavy in the air. This is the experience of exile. And it seems as the pandemic drags on and as Fentanyl becomes the leading cause of death for Americans aged 18-45, it seems like this oppressive exile will never end. But, my friends, the story doesn’t end in exile. Exile is where the story begins.
This week we begin Shemot, the book and story of the Exodus, when Charleton Heston – uh, I mean Moses – leads the Israelites out from slavery into freedom. It is a grand narrative that begins in exile in Egypt under a great oppressive force and ends with the Israelites learning how to be in relationship with God through the Torah. It is a story of redemption. It’s our story: from the slavery of addiction to the redemption of living well in recovery. And the story starts in exile.
The Israelites live in exile and then slavery for over 400 years. “Bitter life” and “harsh labor” were their normal (Exodus 1:13). So enslaved were they that generations didn’t even know they were enslaved. So in exile were they that they didn’t even know they were in exile. But then, something changed:
A long time after that, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites sighed because of their bondage, and they cried out! And their cry rose up to God because of the bondage (Exodus 2:23).
In his commentary on this verse, the Sefat Emet teaches from his grandfather, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Rothenberg, that until the king died, the Israelites were so deeply sunk in exile that they did not even feel it. He says, “But now the process of redemption began, and they became aware of their exile and started to sigh.”
Sometimes, we get stuck in the slavery part of the story as if it were the whole thing: this one feeling is the end of all feelings; this addiction is the end of me; this suffering and misery and loneliness are all there is to life. But when we also understand that this thinking itself is exile, that these thoughts are our experience of disconnection, then we can actually begin the process of redemption, of living better in recovery.
Where does this understanding come from? How do I become aware of my own exile?
There is some part of all of us that has never submitted to bondage, that remembers and calls out for freedom.
Redemption does not require that the pandemic end, and it cannot require that addiction goes away – it won’t. Redemption does not require the people we miss be present at our holiday table, or that the nights be shorter and the daylight longer. These are things outside of our control.
What does redemption require of us today? It requires only this: a soul that remembers or imagines and calls out for freedom. And yes, all of us have this soul, however long we’ve been enslaved or in exile.
The Sefat Emet also teaches that exile is less a matter of proximity, and more a matter of heart. He says: “Exile is only a hiding. If you can manage to remove that hiding from yourself by making your heart pure and clear, you will be able to see the community’s consolation [that comes after its suffering].” In other words, if you can understand that you are hiding your heart, then you can come out from that hiding. And even that recognition is a renewed connection with yourself and the Divine.
When we understand that exile is hiding, we know that we can do something about it. We can recognize it and come out of hiding. The disconnection, then, that I feel even in a crowded room becomes no longer a perpetual state of loneliness. The disconnection I feel from my own self, my own body, becomes not a prison, but how I get free.
Recognition of my exile becomes my way to get free.
So yes, exile of the heart means that I can still be in exile even when surrounded by friends and family. Alone in a crowded room, as we commonly say. And it also means this: I do not have to be in exile even when I am not with the people I want to be with. It means I can connect beyond distance, beyond the pandemic, beyond even the veil between the living and the dead. If I let my soul sigh and cry out.
A single sigh gives voice to the soul. A single sigh can lift heavy air.
Connection in 2022 may not look like what we expected it to look like, but as long as we are listening to our freedom-loving souls – even by just naming our state of exile openly and tenderly – we are moving towards redemption. And as long as we are moving towards redemption, we are connecting.
And so we begin to leave exile by acknowledging our exile – in addiction, in this pandemic, in our own thoughts. Not alone. And very much together.