Rav Kook Torah

Vayeishev: The Nature of Exile


“They took Joseph and threw him into the pit. The pit was empty, without water in it” (Gen. 37:24).

When the brothers threw Joseph into the pit, the exile began — not just Joseph’s personal exile from his father’s house and the Land of Israel. From that dark, empty pit, began the exile of the entire Jewish people to Egypt.

Joseph’s pit is a metaphor for Galut, for each exile of the Jewish people from their land.

Three Types of Pits

There are, of course, different kinds of pits. There are pits filled with water, wells that provide life to those living near them. One must be careful not to fall in and drown, but these are productive, useful pits.

Then there are empty pits. They serve no purpose, and are dangerous. Nonetheless, even empty pits have a positive side to them. With effort and skill, they may be filled with water and transformed into useful pits.

And there is a third type of pit. The Talmud (Shabbat 22a) quotes Rabbi Tanchum that Joseph’s pit belonged to this third category. It was empty of water, but it contained other things — snakes and scorpions. Such a pit is of no use — neither actual nor potential - for humans.

Some mistake the pit of Exile for a well of water. Yes, one must be careful not to drown in it; but overall, they claim, it is a positive experience. If Jews are careful to act in a manner that will not arouse anti- Semitism, they can dwell comfortably in their foreign homes.

But the true nature of Exile is like Joseph’s pit, full of snakes and scorpions. It is a dangerous and deadly place for the Jewish people. Such a pit has only one redeeming quality, intrinsic to its very nature: it will never mislead the Jews into mistaking it for their permanent homeland.

Snakes and Scorpions

Rabbi Tanchum spoke of a pit containing snakes and scorpions. What is the difference between these two dangerous animals? A snake bites with its head, while a scorpion stings with its tail. The snakebite is a planned and intentional act, executed by the directives of the snake’s brain. A scorpion stings from its tail instinctively, without thought.

Exile is accompanied by both of these “blessings.” There are times of intentional and malevolent persecution, such as those perpetrated by the Crusaders, Chmielnicki’s Cossacks, Nazi Germany, and other sinister snakes of history. These are dark hours for the Jewish people, but they are also times of shining heroism and self-sacrifice.

Worse than these intentional snakebites are the continual, unintentional scorpion stings which are an intrinsic part of Exile. Cultural dissonance, intermarriage, and assimilation take their slow, unintended toll on the Jewish people and their connection to the Torah.

The afflictions of Exile are by heavenly decree, lest we confuse a temporary resting place in the Diaspora for a permanent home for the Jewish people. The only true remedy for these snakebites and scorpion-stings is to rescue the Jews from the pit, and restore them to their proper homeland.

(Gold from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. III, pp. 67-68)

Illustration image: ‘The Flight of the Prisoners’ by Jacques Joseph Tissot (1896-1902)