Imitation Increases Wisdom
Joseph was not crying on the shoulders of his father because he had missed him for 22 years. He cried in reflecting upon the greatness of Jacob’s soul and the degree that he had reached in his service of G-d. Joseph sensed just how far he was from that level, and realized that he still required much time, practice and contemplation before ever reaching such a high state.
At that moment, Joseph learned that in the service of G-d, “imitation increases wisdom” (Bava Batra 21a). This is a positive kind of emulation, a type that makes a person more enthusiastic. Someone who sees his fellow serving G-d in a completely unselfish and enthusiastic way feels, no doubt, like lamenting over not being able to do as much. Only this type of regret and jealousy allows a person to gain wisdom.
In expanding on this notion, it seems that the evil inclination can also provoke in a person authentic jealousy for his fellow. If a person’s fellow serves G-d better than he does, the evil inclination can incite that person to serve G-d in the same way, with an intention that is pure, and perhaps even better, than his fellow. The evil inclination thus loses what it thought to have gained by this incitement.
The Sages said, “I have learned many things from my teachers, from my companions …” (Taanith 7a), which means that a person learns to serve G-d neither through imitation nor by jealousy. After having eliminated selfish feelings – after having wept before G-d – we don’t become jealous of our fellow, but instead continue to love this person, one who has taught us a chapter, a law, or a verse, and who merits being called our teacher (Perkei Avoth 6:3).
What we have just mentioned explains the first verse in Parsha Beshalach: “G-d did not lead them by way of the Philistines, because it was near, for G-d said, ‘Perhaps the people will reconsider when they see a war, and they will return to Egypt’” (Ex 13:17).
This verse shows us that G-d advised men not to cross the country of the Philistines, meaning that a man should not try to seek out and face trials, nor should a man think that he can affront dangers with impunity. The Talmud relates that two Sages were discussing with each other whether it was safer to travel near an area where there were idolaters or near an area where there were prostitutes. It’s a mistake to think that one can mix with wicked people without being influenced by their behavior or without having improper thoughts. We are forbidden to “shut [our] eyes from seeing evil” (Isa 33:15) and, because the risk of sinning is great, “if there is another way, we err not to take it” (Bava Batra 57b). The evil inclination lurks in the heart of man (Sukkah 52b) and sets traps for him. It is the evil inclination that inspires such improper thoughts and that advises man to court danger precisely in places where wicked people are found, all while making him think that he won’t sin. But in such areas there is a war going on, a difficult war between man and the evil inclination, and so “they return to Egypt,” which means that man risks falling again under the hold of the evil inclination.
The man who wants to stay connected to G-d should not expose himself to unnecessary danger. If he is tempted to take chances without weighing the risks, he should remember that such thoughts are inspired by the evil inclination. One must not listen to advice to serve G-d while taking risks or through jealousy of one’s neighbor. One must serve G-d solely because He commands us to do so. If we envy our neighbor, be it only because we want to better serve G-d, increase our wisdom, or have a better understanding of the Creator, the evil inclination will eventually take advantage of this envy and lead us down paths that are not conducive to our spiritual health.