Torah Study in Exile

It is written, “And Jacob dwelled in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan” (Genesis 37:1). Rashi relates the statement of the Midrash on this: “Jacob wanted to settle down in peace. It was then that he was struck by the tragedy of Joseph” (Bereshith Rabba 84:1).

The following questions may be asked:

1. It is difficult to believe that Jacob could have made the mistake of wanting to live in peace, for in fact Jacob is described as “a wholesome man, abiding in tents” (Genesis 25:27), meaning “in the academy of Shem and Ever” (Bereshith Rabba 65:15). The word .; (wholesome) is formed by the same letters as ;/ (death), in the sense of labor, as it is written: “Only one who labors [literally “kills himself”] to learn Torah retains its teachings” (Shabbat 83b). Thus if Jacob “killed himself” in the house of study, without respite, how is it possible to say that he sought peace, and why would he be struck by such tragedy and punishment? How much more is this in question, since the Sages said of him, “Jacob grew old while in the house of study” (Yoma 28b)? Thus up to his old age, he never stopped studying Torah with devotion. How then can we say that he sought peace?

2. Is it possible to believe that Jacob desired peace in order to devote himself entirely to study? If such is the case, why would he be punished for wanting to study in tranquility, free from all worry?

The study of Torah consists of two things. The first is putting effort into study, as it is written: “If you follow My decrees” (Leviticus 26:3), which the Sages deduce as referring to laboring in study (Torat Kohanim ad loc.). The second is the pursuit of Torah study in exile, as the Sages say: “Exile yourself to a place of Torah” (Perkei Avoth 4:14). The one who exiles himself in order to study elsewhere demonstrates just how precious the Torah is to him, for he has taken the trouble to go to such a point to study it. Actually, most students exile themselves in order to study, and they end up seeing the results because they retain what they have struggled to learn.

Jacob sinned by looking for peace at that time, for during his entire life he had exiled himself in the tents of Shem and Ever. Commenting on the verse that states, “Jacob arrived whole at the city of Shechem” (Genesis 33:18), the Sages have said: “Whole in his body, in his possessions, and in his Torah” (Shabbat 33b). This shows that he exiled himself to a place of Torah in order to perfect his character and to progress spiritually. Yet now he desired to settle down in peace in the land of his father’s sojournings, and to study Torah in peace and holiness there! Someone like Jacob should be a model of behavior for his children and all those who study Torah. In fact, Jacob is called the most perfect of the Patriarchs because he acquired the Torah through strenuous effort and withdrew himself to a place of Torah.

Jacob’s desire to settle down in peace was a mistake, for his descendants would also want to settle down and study in comfort, and then the Torah’s priority would be lost. Even if Jacob did not need to exile himself (for he knew how to dominate his evil inclination, and he would never have arrived at the point of abandoning the path of Torah), his children, descendants, and all the Jewish people would have sought tranquility and not put in the effort necessary to adhere to the Torah. Such is not the way of the Torah; it is not acquired in comfort, but rather through effort. As it is written, “This is the way [to acquire] Torah: Eat bread with salt, drink water in small measure, sleep on the ground, live a life of deprivation and toil in the Torah” (Perkei Avoth 6:4).

Joseph was exiled from his father Jacob’s house for the same number of years as Jacob himself was absent, against his will, from his father Isaac’s house (Megillah 17a). It was precisely by means of Joseph that Jacob was punished, for it was to Joseph that Jacob had transmitted the greater part of his wisdom (Bereshith Rabba 84:8), and everything that happened to Jacob also happened to Joseph (Bamidbar Rabba 14:16). Joseph was exiled precisely in order to fulfill the Torah in exile, a place where he was harshly tested. Joseph overcame these tests, and he attained a great spiritual state, as the Sages have said several times. Let us cite some of these.

(1) “Joseph had the merit of secretly sanctifying the Name of G-d in exile, and one of the letters in G-d’s Name was added to his, as it is written: ‘He appointed it as a testimony for Joseph when He went out over the land of Egypt’ [Psalms 81:6]” (Mechilta Bo 12). In that passage of Psalms, Joseph’s name is written with the extra letter hei.

(2) “Joseph will expose the sins of the wicked on that great day, for if someone wants to plead before the Celestial Court that ‘I was bothered by temptations, I was too good looking,’ he will be told ‘Were you bothered more, or better looking than Joseph?’ ” (Yoma 35b).

Joseph’s greatness is confirmed by the fact that Moses personally carried his remains out of Egypt (Sotah 9a). It is said, moreover, that “the 12 Tribes could have descended from him” (Sotah 36b), and “the descendants of Esau fall prey only to the descendants of Joseph” (Bava Batra 123b). In addition, Joseph “observed Shabbat before G-d gave this commandment” (Bereshith Rabba 92:4), as it is written: “Then there was an opportune day when he entered the house to do his work” (Genesis 39:11). Now this day was Shabbat, so what work did he need to do? Actually, “he entered the house to review what his father had taught him” (Yalkut Shimoni Vayeishev 146).

For having controlled this temptation, he attained the heights of perfection (Yalkut Shimoni Tehillim 817). How did he succeed? He exiled himself to a place of Torah where he studied day and night. He strived to understand Torah laws in order to practice them, and he had the merit of being emulated by future generations.

When we find ourselves in the presence of good people, their influence makes us inclined to behave properly and honestly. The true test occurs when we are far from a good environment and without support in withstanding temptation. In such cases, if we succeed in following the ways of Torah, we elevate ourselves to the highest degree and enjoy great prosperity. Thus exile has two advantages, one being that it accentuates the importance of Torah study (since we have exiled ourselves to study it), and the other being that in exile a man becomes accustomed to overcoming his evil inclination by himself because he has nobody to help him do so. There in exile, he strives to put into practice everything that he has learned while in his father’s house or in yeshiva. If he performs the commandments in exile and keeps himself from yielding to temptation (like Joseph, who practiced what he learned from his father after having left home), he thereby proves himself. This is also the reason why Jacob was not punished physically or through his possessions for having wanted to study in peace, but rather in that Joseph was exiled to Egypt. This is because Jacob should have wanted his sons to exile themselves to a place of Torah, where they would be able to perfect their traits, not to stay at home where they would have been unable to perfect themselves as required.

We may now explain what the Sages have said, namely: “If a person sees that he is being assailed by troubles, he should review his conduct. If he has reviewed it and has not found a reason for his suffering, he should attribute his troubles to an abandonment of Torah study” (Berachot 5a). This is because all kinds of suffering result when we abandon the Torah. Such abandonment “brings pestilence into the world and causes the death of young children” (Shabbat 32b, 33b). When we are afflicted with suffering, we must first of all check to see if we have not abandoned the path of Torah. If we have examined our deeds and concluded that we have not abandoned the Torah, there should be no reason to suspect that this suffering stems from a slackening in Torah study.

In such a case, suffering is caused neither by sins (since we have behaved corrected) nor by a lack of Torah study (since we have continued to study), but rather by the fact that we have not put enough effort into study and have not exiled ourselves to a place of Torah. It is in these things that we have “abandoned” the Torah.

When Jacob was stuck with the tragedy of Joseph, as well as by many other tragedies (Tanhuma Mikeitz 10), he examined his conduct and was able to note that he remained whole in his body, in his deeds, and in his Torah. The tragedy involving Joseph struck him because he did not exile himself to a place of Torah and did not send his children away to perfect themselves. This is why Joseph was exiled from his father’s house.

If a man does not exile himself to a place of Torah, circumstances will bring him to exile, for without exile he will come to abandon the Torah (G-d forbid). We may add that in the time of the Patriarchs, the sparks of holiness that Adam rendered impure had still not been repaired, and it was the Patriarchs’ task to effect such a repair. It was therefore necessary for Jacob to go down into Egypt to repair these sparks of holiness and to restore them to their supernal source (Ohr HaChayim Bereshith 49:9, among others). If Jacob had stayed in the land of Canaan and studied in peace, these sparks of holiness would have remained scattered in Egypt. It was only after repairing them – after chasing the reign of evil from this world – that Jacob could settle down in peace. These sparks still remained in Egypt, and Joseph went down into that land before Jacob to start effecting this repair. Thus Jacob and all his family could then go down into Egypt to carry out the work of repairing the sparks of holiness, as it is written: “Like a rose among thorns, Israel in Egypt was to blossom and make the sparks blossom, to make the flowers bloom, and to restore them to their source” (Zohar II:189b). It is only through exile, meaning by the pain of finding oneself in a land which is not one’s own, that a person can refine his character traits and attain perfection. How? Solely by exiling himself to a place where he is not known, and there to elevate himself in acquiring Torah in 48 ways (Perkei Avoth 6:5[6]), studying Torah through toil and thus correcting himself and bringing the entire world to yield to G-d’s sovereignty. Amen.


Torah and Love of Others: Reparation of the Egyptian Exile
Bereshit Index
Abandoning Torah: The Cause of the Temple’s Destruction and the Exile


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