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Torah Attitude: Parashas Acharei Mos-Passover: We grow through struggle and challenge
Egypt and Canaan were more morally decadent than any other nation of the world. Each danger and difficulty refers to a power of impurity that the Jewish people had to overcome. Challenges are like the steps of a ladder that help a person to get to higher levels in his personal growth. In general, the challenge of the situation exceeds the resolution. Every test is another opportunity for a person to grow in his service of G'd. People often become disillusioned when they have difficulties in their service of G'd. Our purpose in this world is to grow from level to level, and this growth can only happen through the struggles and challenges we encounter. When there is no challenge, there is no purpose to stay in this world. The exodus and the subsequent 40 year sojourn in the wilderness brought about new challenges. "Seven times the righteous falls and he will rise". We all have our personal Egypt we need to leave.
Unprecedented low moral level
In this week's Torah portion (Vayikra 18:3) it says: "Do not perform deeds like the deeds of the land of Egypt where you lived, and not like the deeds of the land of Canaan where I am bringing you." Rashi quotes the Toras Kohanim that explains that Egypt and Canaan were morally more decadent than any other nation of the world. The Toras Kohanim adds that the areas of these countries where the Jewish people lived were worse than any other area. And the periods, when the Jewish people dwelled there, were the worst of all. It is apparent that there was a connection between the presence of the Jewish people in Egypt and the low moral standard of their host country at that time. Similarly, it cannot be by chance that the land of Canaan was on an unprecedented low moral level when the Jewish people came there.
In addition to this we find that the Jewish people encountered many difficult challenges throughout their sojourn in the wilderness. The Kabbalists explain that these challenges were due to extreme levels of impurity wherever they went. This, says the Kabbalists, is the deeper meaning of what it says (Devarim 8:11-15): "Be careful lest you forget HASHEM your G'd … Who took you out of the land of Egypt from the house of slavery, Who leads you through this great and awesome wilderness [full of] snakes, serpents, scorpions and thirst where there is no water." Besides the simple understanding of these dangers and difficulties each one refers to a power of impurity that the Jewish people had to overcome.
Opportunity to struggle
This seems strange. Why would G'd constantly put the Jewish people in situations where they could stumble and be influenced by the negative surroundings they lived in? The Chassidic literature deals extensively with this. The truth is that these challenges are like the steps of a ladder that help a person to get to higher levels in his personal growth. The Kotzker Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morganstern, once told his disciples that G'd specifically puts us in situations of challenge. We are not necessarily expected to succeed; rather, the purpose of the challenge is to give us an opportunity to struggle.
Challenge exceeds resolution
We can illustrate this with a personal recollection of mine. When I applied to the Gateshead Yeshiva as a young boy I was warned by one of the students of the Yeshiva not to be intimidated when I would be interviewed by one of the rabbis. Very possibly I would be asked questions that I was not yet capable of answering. The purpose of the questions was to determine to which class I would be suited. The rabbi would evaluate this by observing how I would deal with the questions rather than whether I was able to give the correct answers. The same principle applies with the challenges G'd proposes for us. In general, the challenge of the situation exceeds the resolution.
Right from the beginning, our history is full of challenges. As the Mishnah says in Pirkei Avos (5:4): "Our forefather Abraham was tested with ten tests." And so our other Patriarchs were tested by G'd. However, G'd knew in advance the outcome of the tests, so the obvious question is, what was the purpose of these tests? The commentaries explain that, as we mentioned above, every test is another opportunity for a person to grow in his service of G'd. This is actually hinted to in the Hebrew word for test "nisayon". This word is closely connected with the word "nes" which means "a tall pole". The purpose of the test is to elevate and help a person to grow.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov writes (Likutei Maharan 1:25) that people often become disillusioned when they have difficulties in their service of G'd. It seems as if they have fallen from the level they were at, and they get upset and confused why this should happen. Says Rabbi Nachman, this is a mistake. They did not fall at all. On the contrary, it is because they are growing and ascending from level to level that old obstacles reawaken and attack again. If a person realizes that his difficulties are really a sign of growth, they actually turn into an encouragement for the person.
Our sages teach us that our purpose in this world is to grow from level to level, and this growth can only happen through the struggles and challenges we encounter. In the beginning of Parashas Vayeishev (Bereishis 37:1) Rashi quotes the Midrash Rabbah (84:3) where it says: "The righteous wish to dwell in tranquility. Says G'd, 'Is it not sufficient what has been prepared for the righteous in the World to Come? They also want to dwell in tranquility in this world?'" Here we are taught that this world is not a world for tranquility but a world of constant struggles. We often find that people who grew up secular and became observant have many unusual difficulties in life. One must always remember that this is part and parcel of growing in one's service of G'd. In the beginning, when they become Baalei Teshuva they may experience a period of grace, so to speak. At that point everything seems to go smoothly, but eventually G'd will give these righteous people their challenges to give them opportunities to grow in their commitment and service.
Moses' final speech
In Moses' final speech to the Jewish people he said (Devarim 31:2) "I am today 120 years old. I can no longer go out and come in." On a deeper level Moses was saying, "I lived to 120. It is time for me to leave this world. I have accomplished my purpose in life and there is no more goings and comings for me to take care of. The time of my challenges is over. When there is no challenge, there is no purpose to stay in this world."
This Saturday night we celebrate the first Seder to commemorate our 210 years of slavery in Egypt, and the miraculous exodus from there. We say in the Haggadah, "a person is obligated to view himself as if he went out from Egypt". Our ancestors went through many challenges during the period of slavery in Egypt, not only the hardships of the physical labour, but also to keep themselves above the decadent society of Egypt. The exodus and the subsequent 40 year sojourn in the wilderness brought about new challenges. More than once our ancestors stumbled only to continue their struggle to reach their goal. Even when they finally reached the Promised Land, they again entered a society with new challenges to overcome.
Seven times the righteous fall
This is one of the messages of Passover. We must always remember not to get disillusioned by challenges, and not to give up when we fall along the way. As King Solomon says (Mishlei 24:16) "Seven times the righteous falls and he will rise". The fall itself could be a sign of growth. Only through the fall do we rise to new heights.
Leaving our personal Egypt
We can use this insight to be directly connected to the exodus from Egypt. We should look at ourselves and our challenges and compare them to those of our ancestors who had to go step by step from slavery to freedom. Every challenge helped them to grow and brought them closer to their goal. We all have our personal Egypt we need to leave. On Seder night we have the ability to rise above the decadent society we live in and work our way towards getting closer to G'd and His Torah. And just as our ancestors eventually entered the Promised Land after all their struggles, so it is our prayer and hope that G'd, in His great mercy, will gather all the exiles and bring us all back with the coming of Mashiach. Amen.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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