The Importance of Exiling Yourself to a Place of Torah
Our parsha states, “The children struggled together within her, and she said: ‘If so, why am I thus?’ ” (Genesis 25:22). Rashi cites our Sages in explaining the nature of this struggle: “When she passed the doorways of Torah study of Shem and Eber, Jacob would run and struggle to come out. When she passed the doorway of idolatry, Esau would run and struggle to come out.” The verse continues by stating, “She went to inquire of the L-RD.” Where did she go? The Sages say, “Surely she went only to the academy of Shem and Eber” (Bereshith Rabba 63:6), going there in order to learn of her fate. This is surprising, for why would Rebecca’s unborn children, especially Jacob, not struggle while she was in the home of Abraham and Isaac? Why did Jacob not want to get out when Rebecca was there, for there he could study Torah? We are familiar with what the Sages said in the Mishnah: “Exile yourself to a place of Torah” (Perkei Avoth 4:14), which means that a person only retains the Torah he studies by going elsewhere, to a yeshiva, and learning there under difficult circumstances. Such is not the case when a person studies at home, in peace and tranquility, with all the material comforts of home. In that case it becomes difficult for him to acquire Torah. Such is the path that our fathers transmitted to the entire Jewish people: Exiling oneself to a place of Torah. We find something similar regarding Rabbi Elazar ben Arach, who did not want to exile himself with his friends to a place of Torah, but instead went to a place that was pleasant to live in. The result was that his learning vanished, for when he was called upon to read from the Torah, he erred by misreading every word (Shabbat 147b). In fact the Sages have said, “Do not rely on your own understanding” (Perkei Avoth 4:14), meaning that we should not think that we will do better by learning at home. Instead, we must leave for a place of Torah.
Assuming this to be correct, we can understand the story concerning Rabbi Yossi ben Kisma. He was asked by someone to come and live in his town, and as a reward he would be given a million golden dinars, precious stones, and pearls. Rabbi Yossi ben Kisma refused, however, saying: “Even if you were to give me all the silver and gold, precious stones and pearls in the world, I would dwell nowhere but in a place of Torah” (Perkei Avoth 6:9). This means that if he had been asked to go and live in a place of Torah, and to open a yeshiva and houses of study, mikvaot and Torah institutions, then perhaps he would have agreed. However he would not go and live in a place where the inhabitants only wanted the honor of saying that a great Torah figure lived among them, without acquiring Torah and the fear of Heaven from him. In that case their intention would only be to glorify themselves or exalt the fame of the wealthy individual who brought the tzaddik to them. He would not live in such a place, for that would not constitute an exile to a place of Torah. In fact nothing good would come of it, and it fuel a neglect of Torah, even more so if an abundance of wealth were involved. It is impossible to buy a great Torah figure with money.
Since we have reached this point, we can understand the matter of Rebecca’s two children struggling within her. Jacob did not want to emerge in the house of Isaac, his own home, because he wanted to fulfill the teaching, “Exile yourself to a place of Torah.” That is, he did not want to study in his own home in peace and tranquility. This is why it was precisely when Rebecca passed by the academy of Shem and Eber that Jacob struggled to emerge, for he wanted to exile himself there to learn Torah and elevate himself. [The Midrash states: “Jacob wished to live at ease in this world, whereupon he was attacked by Joseph’s Satan [i.e., by troubles concerning Joseph]” (Bereshith Rabba 84:3). Actually, it was in his mother’s womb that Jacob decided to exile himself to a place of Torah, not to live in peace. So why change course?]
Furthermore, from the time he was in his mother’s womb, Jacob understood the meaning of the soul’s exile from the supernal world by living in this world. This also constitutes an exile. He therefore realized that he could fulfill the primary aspect of exile by leaving his home and going to study in a yeshiva. Hence he struggled to emerge in order to fulfill both exiles: The exile from the supernal world to this world, and the exile from home to study in yeshiva. It is not without reason that the Torah says, “Jacob was a tam [upright] man, abiding in tents” (Genesis 25:27), for the letters of the word tam are the same as those of met (“dead”). That is, he was constantly like one who killed himself for the Torah by exiling himself to a place of Torah, toiling in its study with great effort.
We have already heard of cities that were devoid of Torah, yet by the merit of a tzaddik who exiled himself there, opened Torah institutions, and led people to repentance, many became Torah observant. This is perhaps what the Sages meant by saying, “Exile yourself to a place of Torah,” That is, exile yourself there and teach people Torah in order to lead them to repentance, that everyone should become Torah observant. Or they may have simply meant that we must exile ourselves to a place of Torah, for there we will have an opportunity to elevate ourselves even more.
The path that Esau took was diametrically opposed to Jacob’s. Esau did not struggle to emerge from his mother’s womb when she was at home precisely because it was a house of Torah, for he did not want to live in one. Thus even when his mother passed by the academy of Shem and Eber, Esau did not struggle to emerge. He only wanted to be a hunter, as it is written: “Esau was a man skilled in hunting, a man of the field” (Genesis 25:27). Hence even in the home of Abraham, Esau did not struggle to emerge from his mother’s womb, for he did not want the Torah of Abraham. He only yearned to emerge near places of idolatry.
At this point we can say that the main reason Rebecca went to consult Shem and Eber was to ask them about her destiny. She had no difficulties with regards to Jacob, for he did not make her suffer much. On the contrary, she rejoiced in the pains that came from her unborn child struggling to emerge near a yeshiva, proving that he was a tzaddik and desired to exile himself to a place of Torah, not to live in comfort. In fact there is no greater satisfaction for parents than to see their sons becoming Torah scholars, yearning to acquire Torah in a yeshiva by working for it, as the Sages have said: “The more sitting down [to study], the more wisdom” (Perkei Avoth 2:7). Thus in self-annulment and scarcity they take upon themselves the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven.
From here we learn just how important it is to exile ourselves to a place of Torah. When we go elsewhere to learn, the heart becomes more open to the Torah, and in turn the Torah becomes easier to attain. May Hashem help us in opening our eyes to the Torah and to serve Him with all our hearts. Amen, may it be so.