Torah: The Key to Redemption
The Children of Israel were to be found everywhere, as we have read. They were in the theaters, the circuses, etc., completely neglecting the study of Torah, and “they [the Egyptians] became disgusted because of the Children of Israel” (Ex 1:12). If they had frequented the synagogues and yeshivas that our Patriarch Jacob had prepared for them, the Egyptians would have neither seen them nor have “embittered their lives with hard work, with mortar and with bricks” (v.14). Moreover, they would have repaired the error of Abraham, who used those who studied Torah to wage a war. The tribe of Levi was the only one that devoted itself solely to the study of Torah.
As we have said, the Children of Israel were certainly capable of rising to great levels as a result of intensive Torah study, but “he who does not increase [his knowledge of Torah] decreases it; he who does not study deserves death” (Perkei Avoth 1:13; Taanith 31a). Thus, because they hadn’t intensified their Torah study, a harsh exile was decreed for them.
To that end, the Ramban asks the following question: Why, “when the days of his abstinence are completed,” must a Nazirite offer “one unblemished sheep in its first year … one unblemished ewe … and one unblemished ram” (cf. Num 6:10-14) as an offering? What sin did he commit? It’s because, the Ramban answers, during the entire time of his abstinence he was consecrated to the Eternal (v.8), and he had to constantly perfect his purity and holiness. In light of this, he should have remained a Nazirite all his life. However, as soon as he wanted to return to his impure desires for this material world, he was required to offer a sacrifice to atone for his sins. Not being able to intensify and increase his holiness and purity, he was made to seek atonement through a sacrifice.
Once, we asked our young students at the yeshiva the following question: Those of you who are leaving to go into business – if you make it successfully in the business world, it’s no doubt because you’re very talented. Why then not devote all these opportunities to the diligent study of Torah, and elevate yourselves in the fear of Heaven? Why quit the yeshiva? Isn’t this what your Creator asks of you?
There as well, the accusation is the same, namely that not increasing or intensifying one’s Torah study proves to be damaging.
It’s ultimately because the Children of Israel neglected the study of Torah that they nearly crossed the fiftieth gate of impurity without realizing it (Zohar, Yitro 39a). But the Holy One, blessed be He, never wrongs any of His creations (Nazir 23a; Bava Kama 38a). He liberated them from Egypt because they, as we have seen, were careful to retain their language, their names, and their manner of dress. Nevertheless, if they had devoted themselves to the study of Torah with the same fervor that the members of the tribe of Levi had, they would not have been made slaves in Egypt and would not have crossed through forty-nine gates of impurity. However, their slavery at least helped them to purify sparks of holiness, sparks that the bread of affliction in the Passover Haggadah alludes to. Now that a repair has been affected, “may all who are hungry come eat,” explains Rabbeinu Arizal.
Nevertheless, if the Children of Israel had invested more effort into studying Torah, they would have corrected these sparks without being enslaved by the Egyptians. For, as the Zohar explains, the Torah is able to liberate us from exile, to bring the Redemption closer, and to protect us from the attacks of the evil inclination (Zohar III:270). We see in this something that is stunning: On one hand, the Children of Israel managed to repair the sparks of holiness despite the mediocrity of their spiritual state, and on the other hand they zealously watched over three fundamental tenants of Judaism. How can this be explained? It’s due to the fact that they didn’t fully exploit the spiritual strengths that they inherited from our Patriarch Jacob. As our Sages say, “The acts [and the strength] of the parents determine the conduct of their children” (Sotah 34a). Not having sufficiently engaged themselves in the study of Torah, and not having drawn from their souls this Divine element – the strength that comes from the intensive study of Torah – they almost crossed the fiftieth gate of impurity. And yet the Eternal, in His mercy and kindness, freed them from slavery despite everything. And if He acted this way, it was not because He was accommodating (Bava Kama 50a), but because He probed the hearts of the Children of Israel and saw that they wanted in all sincerity to be corrected. He therefore helped them and brought them to true redemption.