15: Ingathering

  • Rav Ezra Bick

 

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This shiur is dedicated by Rabbi Jonathan Morgenstern –
Young Israel of Scarsdale

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Blast on a great shofar for our freedom,

And raise a mast for the ingathering of our exiles,

And gather us together from the four corners of the earth.

Blessed are You, who gathers the dispersed of His people Israel.

 

There is a general tendency to see this blessing as referring to the Land of Israel and our relationship with it. A closer examination reveals that there is, in fact, no explicit mention of the land in the text at all. Now it is clear to me that if God will gather the exiles from the four corners of the earth, they will gather in a specific place, and there can be no question that the place is the Land of Israel. But the berakha itself is not about the Land, nor is it mentioned. (I imagine the Nusach Sefared members of the list are raising their eyebrows – indeed, in Nusach Sefared the berakha concludes, "and gather us together from the four corners of the earth TO OUR LAND." This, of course, merely confirms my point by so clearly trying to correct the absence. It is a smuggled reference - and a not very explicit one either – which does not really change the true focus of the berakha, even as it completes the picture by providing a place for the "gathering" which God will perform).

 

            Reading the text clearly shows us that the principle theme of this berakha is not returning to a particular place from exile, but being gathered together from dispersion. The problem is dispersion all over the world, and the solution is to come together to one place. The crucial phrase is "gather us TOGETHER from the FOUR CORNERS OF THE EARTH." The "chatima" is quite clear – we are addressing God who "gathers the dispersed of His people Israel."

 

            Before we try and understand the significance of this theme, let us, as is our habit, examine the language of the berakha for those telltale signs of irregular or unexpected phrases.

 

1.    The blessing uses very poetic language to describe how God will gather us together – He will blast on a shofar and set up a mast, a standard, around which we will gather. Why? Why not merely request that He gather us together?

2.    What does it mean that He will blast on a great shofar "for our freedom"? The blessing is not about slavery or freedom. What is the connection between ingathering and freedom?

3.    What is a "GREAT" shofar?

4.    The word in the "chatima" that I have translated as "dispersed" is "nidacheinu." It does not actually mean dispersed, but rather displaced; in fact, it suggests the presence of a force which is pushing someone out of where he should be. In a famous verse recited in the Musaf for Rosh HaShana (and sung in countless homes) we find "nidach" used in parallel to "oved" (lost) – "The lost ones of the Land of Ashur shall come, and the nidachim of the Land of Egypt, and they shall bow down to God on the holy mountain, in Yerushalayim." Why are the dispersed people described in this manner in this berakha?

 

            The idea of gathering together scattered members of a unity is a very deep one in Judaism. Especially in the kabbala, we find the idea that the disunity of the world is the antithesis of the unity of God. The world is meant to reflect the kingship and the unity of God. This will be actually true on the day when everything in the world will be unified in the service of God, as we so recently recited in the prayers of Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur -

 

And everything made will fear You

And all creations will bow down to You,

And they will all be made into a single union

To do Your will with a perfect heart.

 

            And on that day, "God will be one and His name will be one."

 

            That message is specifically borne, in the meantime, by the Jewish people. Hence, the actual physical dispersion of the Jews itself detracts from the unity of God in the world. Because we are scattered and disunified, there is no human, social vehicle in the world for the kingship and unity of God. This then is not a problem of the particular place in which the Jews are found, or rather not found (the Land of Israel), although there is one place which we know is chosen to be the locus of the unity of people who serve the One God, but a problem of the physical dispersion itself. We are praying for a solution to this terrible problem, which is a problem not only for us, but for the Divine Presence as well. The individual Jew, or even a collection of Jews separated from the totality of Jewish unity, cannot truly be the vehicle of Divine unity within the world, a concept called by the Sages "merkava la-shekhina."

 

            [Note: There are two earthly vehicles for the unity and majesty of God. One, the human, social one, is the subject of our berakha. The second, a geographical one, is Yerushalayim, which is the subject of a later berakha. Interestingly, the verse which provides much of the language of our berakha, quoted above - "And it shall be on that day, that a great shofar shall be blown, and the lost ones of the Land of Ashur shall come, and the nidachim of the Land of Egypt, and they shall bow down to God on the holy mountain, in Yerushalayim" - emphasizes the latter. The Sages deliberately borrowed the suggestive language of this verse but changed its focus from Yerushalayim to ingathering.]

 

            We now understand the introduction of a "great shofar" at the beginning of this berakha. The shofar, of course, is most closely associated with Rosh HaShana. Delving a little deeper, the section of the Rosh HaShana service called "Shofarot" consists of ten verses mentioning a shofar. What is the common theme of all those verses? - The revelation of God's presence. Specifically, the last three verses all refer to the great revelation and redemption of the future - and there we find the verse cited above as a source for our berakha - And it shall be on that day, that a GREAT SHOFAR shall be blown...." The opening of our berakha was chosen by the Sages to make clear that the ingathering of the exiles is not an event of primarily political importance, but one of religious significance, because it is the basis for the revelation of God's presence in the world.

 

            "And raise a mast for the ingathering of our exiles." The imagery whereby raising a mast leads to an ingathering clearly suggests that the exiled people will gather AROUND the mast.  Since God is raising the mast, this means that we are praying for a gathering with God at its center. The purpose of the gathering is to be the people of God, to help raise God's standard, so that the "great" shofar of the redemption will be heard.

 

            To make this even clearer, the Sages added a word not found in the original verse. "Blast on a great shofar for our FREEDOM...." Simple geographical gathering is not necessarily related to freedom, a spiritual concept. Here, we are not searching for mere proximity, but rather we are seeking to correct a state of spiritual dispersion and Divine obscurity. We are lamenting the fact that we cannot hear, in this dark and unredeemed world, the great shofar of revelation. If the exiles are ingathered around the standard of God, in response to the sounding of the great shofar, the result is not only social, but spiritual freedom and redemption. The ingathering of the exiles is the first step of redemption, not merely politically but spiritually, on the individual level, as well. While only a hint, the berakha's choice of words identifies dispersion as being a form of slavery, with the shofar a call of liberation (compare the shofar of Yovel, the Jubilee year, which results in the emancipation of slaves).

 

            We now come to the last of the phrases which drew our attention at the beginning.  The chatima is addressed to God who "gathers the dispersed-displaced of His people Israel." The word in Hebrew is "nidach." This word suggests that there is a force "pushing" the people apart. The obvious implication is that the natural state of the Jews is being forcibly overcome. Now if the focus of this berakha were exile from the Land of Israel, we could reach the conclusion that the natural state of the Jews is in Israel. But since, as we have seen, this berakha is about dispersion from unity, we reach the conclusion that the natural state is one of unity and togetherness. It takes a force, a "madiach," to keep the Jews dispersed and displaced in the four corners of the world. This strengthens the idea I have been advocating. We are not primarily dealing with social unity, but metaphysical unity. It is not merely convenient or pleasant to be unified, it is metaphysically a reflection of the true unity of God. We are, therefore, not asking God to put a diverse group of people in close proximity, but rather to restore a true oneness. The Jewish people form an organic whole, a living organism, and the physical dispersion is a tearing apart of that whole, which yearns to be restored. That is the subject of this berakha, and therefore we turn to God, who "gathers together the displaced of His people Israel. And therefore, when God will return us to such a state of unity, we will be returning to "OUR FREEDOM" as well. Being in the unnatural state of dispersion is a form of slavery; by being gathered together, we return to our true selves, which is freedom.

 

            Now, you will ask me, why indeed is there no berakha about the Land of Israel in the Shemoneh Esrei, especially since there is a berakha about Yerushalayim? I think the answer is clear. Our focus here is on creating a vehicle for the shekhina, for the Divine Presence. As I stated previously, there are two components in supporting the shekhina in this world, a social base, and a geographical base. The geographical base is NOT the Land of Israel, but Yerushalayim, and we shall get to this point in a later berakha. The social base is the Jewish people, taken as a unity. The Land of Israel is the place of the Jews. It is, literally, the land of Israel. (We have grown accustomed to calling the land by the name "Israel." My master, the Rav zt"l, would not address letters to "Israel," but always the "Land of Israel." Israel is not the name of the country, but the name of a people.). Hence, the place of the land is within this berakha, about the restoration of Jewish unity. Since tefila is "avoda," the service of God, it is primarily concerned with the kingship of God. We are maintaining the majesty of God in prayer. For that purpose, the Land is a part of the component of the people, and is therefore included in it. The independent component of location as a seat of God's kingdom will be found in the berakha about Yerushalayim.

 

            One final question. What is the cause of Jewish dispersion, or rather, what needs to be corrected? The usual, traditional answer is "shiabud malkhuyot," the subjugation of the nations. But our berakha gives a different answer, one especially appropriate to our times of little shiabud malkhuyot. The answer is - the lack of revelation, the absence of gilui shekhina, the want of a CALL from God, the great shofar and the mast high up around which to gather. This berakha includes a prayer for the reawakening of shekhina so that we will be gathered about it. This is a theme explicitly found in several of the chapters of Yeshayahu dealing with redemption. For instance:

 

Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of God;

Awake as in the days of old, in the ancient generations.

....

Then the redeemed of HaShem shall return'

and come to Zion with singing, and everlasting joy on their heads;

They shall obtain joy and gladness, sorrow and sadness shall flee. (Is. 51,9-11).

 

            Similarly, the opposite process, described in Eikha (the Book of Lamentations) begins with, "How does the city of MANY PEOPLE sit IN SOLITUDE." The beginning of the destruction is the dispersal of the people.

 

            With this berakha we are beginning a series, all of which deal with redemption, in different aspects. The order is also crucial. The first step in redemption is to have a functioning, organically whole society. The second step, predicated on the first, is to have that society exhibit justice - the subject of the next berakha. In other words, first comes the people of Israel as a society, then the institutions of society, afterwards the victory of the just and the rebuilding of Yerushalayim and the kingdom of David.

 

 

            Which brings us directly to the next berakha... next week.