Humility and Confessing Our Sins is Worthy of Praise

It is written, “And he [Jacob] sent Judah before him to Joseph, to show the way before him to Goshen” (Genesis 46:28). The Midrash states that this was “in order to prepare a house of study from which Torah teachings would emanate” (Bereshith Rabba 95:3).

The following questions may be raised:

1. Why did Jacob send Judah rather than another of his children to set up a house of study? It is written, “To learn Torah, a man should see himself as a bull that carries a yoke or like a donkey that carries a load” (Avodah Zarah 5b). Issachar is compared to a “strong-boned donkey” (Genesis 49:14) and “the children of Issachar [are] men with understanding for the times, to know what Israel should do” (I Chronicles 12:33). If such is the case, Jacob could have sent Issachar first. Furthermore, if we want to say that he sent Judah because he had precedence with respect to the kingship (Bereshith Rabba 92:5), and that Judah alone was capable of preparing a house of study for the dissemination of Torah, we should realize that it was not necessary to send someone with the qualities of a king for this specific task. Any son could have fulfilled this mission.

2. We also need to understand why Jacob had to send someone before him to set up a house of study. Apparently, he could have waited until coming to Egypt himself before deciding where the best place to build a yeshiva would be. In such a case, he could have benefited from even greater Heavenly assistance, since G-d specifically promised him: “I shall descend with you to Egypt” (Genesis 46:4). With G-d’s help, he could have easily found a place for his yeshiva, even more so since the Sages have said, “During their entire lives the Patriarchs did not stop studying, even when they were in Egypt” (Yoma 28b).

The basis and foundation for acquiring Torah is to realize that if we want to gain wisdom, we must lower and humble ourselves. The Sages say, “Torah is compared to water. In the same way that water flows from a higher place to a lower one, so too is Torah only acquired by one who lowers himself” (Taanith 7a), meaning that it abandons haughty and arrogant people and remains only with those who are modest and humble. The Torah is figuratively called water (Bava Kama 17a), as it is written: “Everyone who is thirsty, go to the water” (Isaiah 55:1). We have seen that Moses our teacher received the Torah because he was extremely humble (Numbers 12:3), and Mount Sinai had the merit of being chosen for the giving of the Torah precisely because it is a low mountain (Sotah 5a).

Why is the Torah acquired only in humility? When a modest person sees that he has sinned with respect to a particular law or teaching, he is capable of immediately recognizing his sin. He is not ashamed by his lack of knowledge, and with G-d’s help he progresses in his Torah study. It is only by admitting his sins that he can rectify them, and his views that were at first erroneous will later allow him to deeply probe the words of the living G-d. It is only by recognizing his sins that he is capable of correcting them, not repeating them again, and sanctifying G-d’s Name in public. One of the 48 ways in which a person acquires Torahs is by “knowing his place” (Perkei Avoth 6:6), meaning to recognize his sins. The Sages say, “A person only grasps a Torah concept after having erred in it” (Gittin 43a), and acknowledging errant ways guarantees success.

It is nevertheless very difficult for a person to acknowledge his sins. If this person is a teacher, admitting in public that he has erred is incomparably harder still. If he does not acknowledge it, “his advantage is cancelled by his disadvantage” (Perkei Avoth 5:12), however if he pays no heed to his personal feelings and admits the mistake he committed in his study, his reward will be great in this world and the World to Come. The greatness and importance of the School of Hillel lay in the fact that they first taught the opinion of the School of Shammai, and only afterwards did they teach their own opinion (Eruvin 13b). We also find in the Talmud a discussion concerning the status of a person who is half-slave, half-free (Hagigah 2b). The School of Hillel retracted its own opinion and taught the law according to the School of Shammai’s decision, something that shows us that they behaved with extreme humility. For having done so, the Sages say: “The law goes according to the decision of the School of Hillel, not according to the School of Shammai” (Eruvin 6b). Besides this, we know that Hillel himself was a descendant of Judah.

Judah possessed this trait of “acknowledging his sins without shame” (Sotah 7b), especially after Joseph’s rebukes. This is why he was sent beforehand to look for an appropriate place to set up a yeshiva where students would acknowledge all their sins and not be ashamed to have their opinions scrutinized. This would allow them to attain a level of perfection in the study and practice of the commandments, similar to Judah, who admitted his sins without shame and retained the teachings of the Torah.

It is possible to say that this is precisely the sense of the verse: “He sent Judah before him to Joseph,” meaning that each Jew, a descendant of Jacob, should feel that there is always someone “before him” in yeshiva, one who is greater than him. The one who learns Torah or teaches it, who acknowledges “his sins without shame,” and who knows that others are greater than himself, acquires Torah and puts it into practice with all humility. This is an eternal teaching from our holy Patriarchs.

We must add that by Jacob having sent Judah before him to Egypt, we learn an essential principle for a person’s spiritual well-being, wherever he may be. When someone wants to live in a certain town or country, he should first of all make an effort to see if there is a place of Torah, a mikveh, and a religious school in that town or country. He should not settle down first and then try to find a place of Torah, for before actually finding a place of Torah to quench his soul (which thirsts for spirituality), he risks falling prey to multiple temptations. A place lacking a synagogue and house of study is no doubt without the Divine Presence, for the Divine Presence abides only in a holy place (see Perkei Avoth 3:6). A person puts himself in great danger by living in an area devoid of Torah study. This is why, even before going there, a man should determine whether the Divine Presence is found there, and only then should he go. As for children’s education, if that place has no Jewish school, the situation is even worse. Rabbi Yosai ben Kisma said, “I would dwell nowhere but in a place of Torah” (Perkei Avoth 6:9). We learn from Jacob that a man should first concern himself with his spiritual life, and only then should he worry about his material needs. Before leaving for the land of Goshen, which was the most fertile of lands in Egypt – as it is written, “I will give you the best of the land of Egypt” (Genesis 45:18), and we know that this refers to Goshen – Jacob first concerned himself with setting up a place for Torah where he would immediately be able to go. If he were to have looked for a place of study once he got there, several days would have passed, perhaps even months, and it is wrong to waste even a single moment. Moreover, that would have put Jacob’s descendants in danger of coming to a prosperous and pleasant area that was devoid of Torah, an area where they would partake of the good things of the earth, and this could have had a negative influence on them. As the Sages said, “The wine of Perogaisa and the waters of Diomisis were the ruin of the Ten Tribes” (Shabbat 147b), for they were led astray by the pleasures of this world.

We know that “if you encounter that scoundrel [the evil inclination], drag him to the house of study” (Sukkah 52b). Yet for this to happen, we must live in an area where there are houses of study to which we can drag the evil inclination and subjugate it. Jacob feared for his children in Egypt, a land of immorality and perverted individuals (Shemot Rabba 1:22). He feared that some of them would be swept away by the evil inclination.

Today there are people who are concerned first and foremost with a beautiful, spacious home. They care primarily about living in a place where the air is clean and pure, even if no mikveh or house of study is found nearby. It is impossible to describe the danger that this represents, for when entrapped by the evil inclination, that detestable scoundrel, to where can they escape?

Even during vacation time, a period when we travel to areas of rest and relaxation, we must try to spend them in towns where there are houses of study, and to set ourselves fix times for Torah study. Rabbi Elazar ben Aruch, who went to Perogaisa and Diomisis and allowed himself to be seduced by its wine and waters, ended up forgetting what he had learned (Shabbat 147b). It is certain that by going to a place of Torah, we can conquer the evil inclination.

What is the right path to follow?

The Torah is acquired by humility, which is why one should learn how to appreciate a person who is greater than himself, and to acknowledge his own sins. Similarly, wherever we decide to live, we must make certain that a place of Torah study exists there, and that we live in a place filled with holiness. Even when on vacation, we must look for a town with a place of Torah study, one that we can go to and subjugate the evil inclination, that scoundrel, and conquer him at all times.


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