Diligence in Torah Study Enables Personal Growth
It is written, “And he dreamed, and behold, a ladder was set earthward and its top reached heavenward. And behold, angels of G-d were ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28:12). The Midrash comments on this verse as follows: “Rabbi Berachiah said in the name of Rabbi Meir, ‘This teaches us that G-d showed Jacob the ministering angel of Babylon ascending and descending, the one of Media ascending and descending, the one of Greece ascending and descending, and the one of Edom ascending. … Jacob was then overtaken with fear and asked, “Just as they have fallen, will I fall?” G-d told him, “Do not fear, Israel. If you ascend, you will not fall.” But he did not have faith and he did not ascend. … G-d then told him, “If you had had faith and ascended, you would not have fallen. However, since you did not have faith and you did not ascend, your children will be enslaved in this world to these four kingdoms” ’ ” (Bereshith Rabba 68:21).
Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler of blessed memory, author of the book Michtav Me-Eliyahu, asked the following question: “How is it possible that Jacob, raised among the Patriarchs, did not have faith in G-d’s word? For in the end G-d Himself guaranteed Jacob that if he would ascend he would not fall, and that he would not be like the other nations of the world that ascended and fell. Why did Jacob not have faith in G-d and in His word?”
Another question must be raised. Concerning the verse that states, “And Jacob settled in the land of his father’s sojournings” (Genesis 37:1), Rashi cites the Midrash as follows: “Jacob wanted to live in peace, and this is why the tragedy of Joseph was brought upon him. G-d said, ‘Is the reward reserved for the righteous in the World to Come not enough for them, that they also demand to live in peace in this world?’ ” (Bereshith Rabba 84a). In fact, “Jacob suffered all the days of his life, and barely had the suffering caused by Dinah abated, that the tragedy concerning Joseph occurred, and then that of Shimon. … Jacob endured great suffering” (Tanhuma Mikeitz 10). Why was he struck by the tragedy of Joseph? Why did G-d not allow Jacob to live in peace for a short time in this world? Why overwhelm him with the loss of Joseph?
If G-d did not want Jacob to experience tranquility, why did He make him suffer a tragedy like that of Joseph as opposed to another one, for finally G-d has many means available to Him. Hence why choose that one in particular? What is the meaning of this?
We must understand that G-d had His reasons for preventing Jacob from living in peace in this world.
Concerning the verse that states, “If you follow My decrees…” (Leviticus 26:3), the Sages say that this refers to Torah study (Torat Kohanim ad loc.), and concerning the verse that states, “The working spirit works for itself” (Proverbs 16:26), the Sages say: “He works on one hand, and the Torah works for him on the other” (Sanhedrin 99b). In other words, a man should strive to understand Torah, and this will allow him to advance in the attainment of the most sublime traits. It will also prevent him from forgetting what he has learned, as it is written, “The one who studies but does not review what he has learned is like one who sows but does not reap” (ibid. 99a); that is, he forgets what he has learned. G-d knew that Jacob yearned for a little tranquility in this world in order to study Torah in peace, without effort. He did not allow this to happen because Torah is only retained if one diligently strives to learn it, not if it is easily acquired. Hence Jacob was struck with the tragic loss of Joseph, and because of the tragedies and losses that he suffered, he reflected upon his own ways, as the Sages have said: “If a person cannot attribute the cause of his misfortune to his deeds, let him attribute them to his neglect of Torah study” (Berachot 5a). Thus Jacob reflected upon his ways and, having found no fault therein, he attributed his suffering to a neglect of Torah study, meaning an absence of diligence in study. Far be it from us, however, to suggest that an actual lack of diligence was found with Jacob – he whom the Torah testifies was “a wholesome man, abiding in tents” (Genesis 25:27) – and who never in his life abandoned Torah. Yet given his greatness, if he studied it in ease, it is as if he acquired nothing, for “G-d is very demanding with those close to Him” (Yebamot 121b). This is the reason why G-d struck him with the tragic loss of Joseph, and it explains why G-d did not want Jacob to live in tranquility in this world (which answers our second question).
When G-d invited Jacob to ascend the ladder, He assured him that he would not fall if he climbed up. Jacob understood that G-d would help him and give him the strength to continually progress, but this also meant that he would not be climbing on his own. This is because Jacob took after his grandfather Abraham, concerning whom it is said, “Walk before me and be perfect” (Genesis 17:1). This means that Abraham progressed on his own, contrary to Noah, of whom it is said: “Noah walked with G-d” (Genesis 6:9). The Sages explain this to mean that “Noah needed help, encouragement, and support, but Abraham progressed by himself, with his own strength” (Bereshith Rabba 30:10). This is because a man’s primary efforts should be devoted to advancing by his own means, without counting on G-d’s help. Similarly, the Vilna Gaon refused to learn Torah with Elijah the prophet, preferring instead to learn by himself.
This is also what Jacob thought. He wanted to ascend the ladder on his own. And G-d, seeing that Jacob refused His help in order to bring his own strength into play, said to him, “Your descendants will be enslaved to four kingdoms.” They would be exiled, for it is in exile that one is pursued, and it is then that a person must learn to overcome all obstacles and elevate himself through his own strength, without G-d’s help. This explains the question raised by Rav Dessler of blessed memory. We see that Jacob in fact strived to study Torah throughout his life despite the fact that he was constantly pursued.
We can now answer our third question. Why was Jacob struck by the tragedy of Joseph, rather than by another misfortune? It was precisely because G-d said to Jacob, “You have chosen to advance by means of your own effort, without My help? In that case, what do you need with a life of tranquility? Joseph’s disappearance will mark the beginning of the exile. The exile will begin right now, and henceforth you can serve G-d with your own strength, just as you desired.”
We find a confirmation of the need to advance by means of our own effort with Joshua, the servant of Moses our teacher. It is stated, “Three thousand paragraphs of the law were forgotten during the time of mourning for Moses” (Temurah 15b, 16a). Why did this occur? It was because Joshua wanted G-d’s help. He yearned to receive the abilities of his teacher Moses, and he did not seek to elevate himself on his own. We also find the following in the Midrash: “When Moses passed away, Joshua mourned excessively and cried bitterly. G-d told him, ‘Why are your mourning? It is I Who should mourn. As for you, go and lead the people in the way of Torah’ ” (Yalkut Me’am Loez, Devarim 34:5). Although it is necessary to mourn for the righteous who have passed away, we know that prolonged mourning can potentially make us lose hope in G-d. On the contrary, immediately after seven days of mourning, a person should arm himself with courage and pursue the study of Torah. The one who mourns for too long loses more than he gains, as was the case with Joshua, who forgot 3,000 paragraphs of the law.Mourning must not be carried on for too long. Neither should one rely on the support of upright men who are like guides and Divine helpers, for each person should advance by himself and elevate himself through his own effort and practice. It is in this way that one will merit all good things, in this world and in the World to Come.