Torah Exists Even in Exile
“So now, write this song for yourselves, and teach it to the Children of Israel, place it in their mouth, so that the song shall be for Me a witness against the Children of Israel” (Devarim 31:19)
Hashem commanded Moshe to tell Bnei Yisrael to commit the Torah, called a “song,” to writing. This would serve as a constant reminder that Hashem was the One Who brought them salvation, redeeming them from bondage and bequeathing them the Land of their forefathers. When people have it good, they tend to forget where their good fortune comes from. This is in line with the pasuk (Devarim 32:15), “Yeshurun became fat and kicked.” Since Hashem is all too familiar with man’s mind, He ordered that the Torah should be written before Bnei Yisrael entered the Land. In this manner, the wealth and blessing in the Land flowing with milk and honey would not blind them to the Giver of all good.
Adam Harishon had everything he could want. But he disobeyed the command not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge. In order not to feel complacent and conceited, due to abundance of materialism, tzaddikim throughout the ages separated themselves from it all.
The parashah continues (Devarim 31:20), “For I shall bring them to the Land that I swore to their forefathers… and if they turn to gods of others and serve them, it will provoke Me and annul My covenant.” This song is evidence that Torah will not be forgotten from Am Yisrael, and Bnei Yisrael will not fall into the clutches of the Yetzer Hara. At times, people think that they owe nothing to Hashem. Their wisdom and their destiny are their own doings, they aver. In truth, it was Hashem alone Who created us with wisdom, understanding, and intellect. Therefore, we must heed His commands and fulfill His Torah. One should never yield to the suggestions of the Yetzer Hara, who disguises himself as our creator.
The Gemara relates a fascinating incident (Bava Kama 117a): Rav Kahana, who lived in Bavel, once killed an informer. He took upon himself the burden of exile and relocated to the yeshiva of Rabbi Yochanan in Eretz Yisrael. Before his journey, he visited his teacher, Rav, to receive his parting blessing. Rav instructed him that for seven years, he should listen to all of Rabbi Yochanan’s divrei Torah without asking questions. Only after seven years, did he have permission to ask questions and offer explanations of his own. Rav Kahana accepted these words and went on his way.
Upon Rav Kahana’s arrival, Reish Lakish told Rabbi Yochanan, “A lion has ascended from Bavel.” Hearing of Rav Kahana’s erudition, Rabbi Yochanan sat him among the seven front rows of disciples. Rabbi Yochanan wished to evaluate his new disciple’s level of learning, so he asked him something. But, true to his teacher’s instruction, Rav Kahana did not reply. When the Torah scholars saw this, they assumed that Rav Kahana was not as learned as they had thought, so they placed him further back. Rabbi Yochanan plied him with question after question, but Rav Kahana kept his peace. And each time he did not answer, he was moved further and further away from his mentor, until he sat at the very back of the Beit Hamidrash.
Rav Kahana prayed, “May the seven rows which I was removed from occupying serve the place of seven years of silence.” From then on, when he was asked a question, he responded accordingly. With each response, he was brought one row closer to his teacher, until he finally sat at the very front. Rabbi Yochanan was very old and his eyebrows covered his eyes. He asked that his eyebrows be lifted so that he might gaze at the lion that had ascended from Bavel.
We might insert here an interesting fact. Rabbi Yochanan had the strength to teach Torah and offer his own insights, but he did not have the strength to raise his own eyebrows. Regrettably, we have energy for all sorts of materialistic pursuits, but when it comes to spirituality, we are suddenly overcome with weakness.
When Rabbi Yochanan looked at Rav Kahana, he noticed a slight smile playing on his lips. He felt somewhat slighted, and in punishment, Rav Kahana was decreed to die. The next morning, Rabbi Yochanan’s disciples explained that Rav Kahana had not been smirking at all. He had a natural cut in his lip, which gave the impression that he was grinning. Rabbi Yochanan visited the grave of Rav Kahana and found a snake entwined around it. Rabbi Yochanan commanded it, “Let the mentor see his disciple,” but the snake did not give way. Rabbi Yochanan commanded it, “Let the friend see his comrade,” but the snake still did not move. Then Rabbi Yochanan said, “Let the disciple see his teacher,” and the snake moved immediately. Rabbi Yochanan cried out, “My mentor! My mentor! Arise and come study Torah with me!” Rav Kahana replied, “Since so much time has elapsed, I no longer desire to return to Olam Hazeh.”
Why did Rav Kahana consider the seven rows from which he was removed to be the equivalent of seven years of silence? Let us use the exhortation of Pirkei Avot (4:14) to understand this topic: “Exile yourself to a place of Torah.” When a person abandons his home and family and all that is familiar in order to learn Torah, he is demonstrating a tremendous level of love and dedication to the Torah. Rabbi Akiva left his home for the duration of twenty-four years in order to grow in Torah and establish disciples (Ketubot 62b). Moshe Rabbeinu left the luxuries of Pharaoh’s palace to dedicate himself for Hashem and His nation. Therefore, he deserved to serve as their faithful shepherd. There was a famous Rabbi who would spend three months traveling to his mentor, spend one day in his presence, and spend another three months returning home (Chagigah 5b). Because exiling oneself to a place of Torah is so significant, Hashem told Avraham (Bereishit 12a), “Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house.”
Rav Kahana originally left home in order to fulfill the dictum “Exile yourself to a place of Torah.” His teacher instructed him to remain silent for seven years to indicate that greatness in Torah is attained only by unceasing exertion. The method of the Yetzer Hara is to dig a ditch for one who is ascending the ladder of Torah and yirah. This is why the danger of climbing is very great. One must be extremely vigilant not to fall into the pit of doom prepared by the Yetzer Hara.
Rav Kahana’s good name preceded him, as Reish Lakish testified, “A lion has ascended from Bavel.” Due to his fame, his teacher told him to go slowly and carefully, so that he should not, chalilah, suffer negative consequences. But Rav Kahana did not obey this directive perfectly, and allowed himself to transfer the seven years to the seven rows. This was the cause of his downfall. Rabbi Yochanan acted strictly with him, and this caused Rav Kahana’s untimely death. Nevertheless, Rav Kahana’s self-sacrifice in exiling himself to a place of Torah elevated him. Rabbi Yochanan’s words were accepted on High, and Rav Kahana was considered to be his mentor.
Am Yisrael’s zechut to emerge from Egypt with great wealth, receive the Torah, and enter Eretz Yisrael, was due to their privation during the years of living in the galut of Goshen. Immediately before his death, Moshe Rabbeinu specified that the nation should write down the words of Torah. They should never feel that the Egyptian exile was sufficient to keep them on the straight and narrow. On the contrary, when they would live securely in their Land, they must exert themselves in Torah, never relaxing.
Moshe’s message contained an element of consolation for the long, bitter exile which the nation would eventually face. Even when they would be expelled from their Land, they would still be able to grow in Torah, in line with the words, “Exile yourself to a place of Torah.” Moshe knew that with exile would come depression, preventing the people from delving into Torah as they had on their Land. He reassured them that even on foreign shores, Hashem would continue to be with them. If they displayed a true desire to be one with Torah, Hashem would grant them siyata di’Shemaya to grow in Torah even in exile.
Moshe exiled himself, so to speak, to a place of Torah, with his ascent to Heaven. He therefore merited the Torah being called by his name. Yosef merited being called “Yosef Hatzaddik” for he held fast to his father’s Torah teachings even in the defilement of Egypt. He glorified Hashem’s Name in that rancid place of immorality. Before their moving meeting, Yosef sent wagons to his father, to hint to him that he still remembered which sugya they had learnt together last (see Bereishit Rabbah 94:3). The word עגלות (wagons) contains the words ע' גלות (seventy, exile). This alludes to the fact that one who exiles himself to a place of Torah merits understanding the seventy aspects of Torah. Bnei Yisrael merited acquiring Torah after the galut of Egypt in the merit of the Torah studied by Yaakov and the Shevatim in Goshen. Throughout our history, we find Torah giants who illuminated the world with their Torah even from their native countries of darkness and defilement.
Galut is an opportunity for rectification and atonement for sin. Let us utilize exile correctly, repairing whatever is necessary. Hashem holds our hand, so to speak, during our long and bitter exile, as the pasuk states (Tehillim 91:15), “I am with him in distress.” We deserve galut when we do not observe the Torah during times of freedom. The dangers of galut serve as a wake-up call, arousing us to repent and once again sing the praises of Torah.