LEARNING ON THE WAY
by Rabbi Heschel Greenberg
After Joseph discloses his true identity to his brothers, as the Torah relates in this week’s parsha, Vayigash, Joseph them to return to Cana’an and bring their father to Egypt. One of his specific instructions concerning their trip was: “Don’t argue on the way.”
The Talmud (Ta’anis 10b), cited by Rashi, comments that he meant that they should not discuss matters of Halacha.
The Midrash (cited by the Tosphos commentary on the Talmud), however, maintains the opposite view. Joseph’s admonition to them was that they should not cease learning Torah on their way back home.
The Rebbe (Likkutei Sichos volume 35. P. 198-205) explains that the Midrash is consistent with the Torah’s own commandment to speak of the words of Torah “when you go on your way.” In addition, when we travel we need added protection. Indeed, in recognition of this, there is a special prayer specifically for travelers – Tefilas Haderech. Torah study itself provides the ultimate protection at the time it is most needed.
Torah Study on the Road to Exile
The Rebbe analogized the Midrash’s approach to the way we must approach Galus. There was a special need for Joseph to tell his brothers to continue learning on the road. After all, their road was to take them back to Cana’an with the objective of bringing their father and all of his descendents to Egypt. When we travel into Galus, it is imperative that we do not cease Torah study. The rationale for this, the Rebbe explains, is that Torah study unifies us with Torah and empowers us to overcome the darkness of exile. Indeed, our Sages state: “There is no free person other than one who is engaged in Torah study.”
Thus, the Rebbe continues, Jacob sent his son Yehudah to Goshen to establish a center of Torah so that the Jews could toil in Torah study. Only total immersion in Torah study can endow the Jewish people with the capacity to exercise control over Galus and not vice versa.
This, the Rebbe explains, is why one of Moshiach’s qualifications is: “he will meditate on Torah.” Notwithstanding Moshiach’s primary role as a leader, his capacity to redeem the Jewish people out of exile derives from his toil in the study of Torah. His entire being is Torah. And since Torah preceded (read: transcends) the creation of the world, it does not have any of the constraints and boundaries of Galus. Thus, Moshiach will be the one to influence all Jews to follow in the path of Torah.
Cease and Desist from Torah Study?!
In light of the Rebbe’s analysis, we may ask what conceptual basis exists for the Talmud and Rashi’s approach that Joseph actually admonished his brothers not to toil in the study of Torah while they travelled?
In simple terms, the admonition not to engage in protracted discussion of complex Halachic matters was intended to protect them from the kind of mishap that can occur on the road if when travelers are distracted.
However, in light of the spiritual understanding that their trip was to bring Jacob to into exile, why would Joseph want to preclude their intensive engagement in Torah? Why should travel on the path to exile exclude their total immersion in Torah study?
Don’t make Peace with Galus!
One may suggest that Joseph’s concern was that a preoccupation with in-depth Torah study could make his brothers forget what their mission was. A person can approach going into Galus fortified with Torah the wrong way. One might even think that Galus is not so terrible. If Galus were to erode one’s ability to study Torah, it would send a message that Galus is not the true place for a Jew. Galus, even in its most benign form—i.e., no persecution, etc. and ample opportunity for unhindered study of Torah, as appears to exist today—is still Galus. We must never make our peace with it.
Rashi, who instructs us in the simple, literal level of Torah interpretation, speaks to the simple Jew, one who could otherwise be led astray by the notion that Galus is bad only because we cannot study Torah properly. While everyone can appreciate that Galus imposes certain limits on our Torah study, no matter how much effort we expend on it, a simple person might not see the extent of what he is missing in Galus.
Joseph, the first Galus leader, therefore wanted Galus Jews to recognize that Torah study in exile is inherently lacking.
The Midrash, by contrast, is geared to someone on a higher spiritual level who is able to see things from a deeper perspective. From that vantage point, there is no danger that a person’s assiduous preoccupation with Torah study will signal that Galus is not so bad after all. A Jew with the Midrashic perspective probes deeper beneath the surface and recognizes that even the most profound and penetrating engagement in Torah study in Galus is deficient compared to the Torah study of Moshiach.
Indeed, the Midrash on Ecclesiastes declares that our Torah study is hevel-vanity compared to the Torah that will be taught by Moshiach. The “Midrash Jew” recognizes that distinction, and can comfortably understand that in-depth Torah study is not simply desirable in Galus, but is imperative because it empowers us to get out of Galus. It is what paves the way and prepares us for the new levels of Torah learning that Moshiach will teach.
How can we reconcile Rashi and the Midrash? Are we to learn Torah in depth because we are in Galus or desist from it because we must not forget that we are in Galus? Second, how can we possibly be counseled not to learn Torah on a deeper level? Torah study is a Mitzvah which we cannot shirk just because we might approach it with the wrong attitude.
The answer is that even when we put all of our resources and energy into Torah study, we must recognize that we are merely skimming the surface of the Torah’s treasures. Its deepest secrets are elusive for us while in exile because Galus does not allow us to fathom the Torah’s true depth.
One may still question the analysis of the Midrash and Rashi that sees Joseph’s brothers’ trip as one into Galus. If they were simply returning from Cana’an to Egypt we can understand the Galus message inherent in the admonition to continue study (the Midrashic approach) or not engage in in-depth study (the Rashi approach). However, Joseph’s instructions to them about Torah study came before they left for Cana’an and were not explicitly about their subsequent trip back to Egypt. If the message was intended for their travel into Galus, shouldn’t he have given it to them for their return to Egypt?
The True Nature of Galus
We may answer this question by understanding the true nature of Galus and the role of the land of Israel vis-à-vis Galus.
There is a mistaken notion that Galus is exclusively about living outside of our homeland, out in the Diaspora. While this is certainly true in one sense, it does not accurately state the ultimate meaning of Galus. It is a profound state of alienation from the place where we belong. As Jews we certainly belong in Eretz Yisrael. However, return to the physical land itself is not the whole story. We are, as a result of our physical alienation from the Land of Israel and the Beis Hamikdash, also spiritually alienated from the Divine presence. Galus causes us to lose touch with G-d, the Divine essence of Torah and Mitzvos and our own souls. Galus tempts us to do self-destructive things because we have become desensitized.
Living in Israel is a great privilege. However, living in Israel prior to Moshiach’s rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash does not take one out of Galus. Indeed, in some respects the Galus can be felt more acutely in this holiest of places. When a Jew stands in front of the Kotel, the Western Wall, he or she can feel mixed joy and grief at the same time. Joy, for G-d’s great miracle that has given us access to this holy place. But there is also a sense of sadness when we look beyond the Wall and cannot see the fully rebuilt Beis Hamikdash with the Divine presence resting there in its most revealed state.
We can now understand that when Joseph admonishes his brothers to either continue learning Torah (according to the Midrash) or desist from its intense study (according to Rashi) because they were on their way into Galus, his admonition included the first leg of their trip, back to Israel because it would be a prelude to exile and would be the same as being in Israel as it exists today.
There is a paradoxical lesson that we can derive from all of the above. On the one hand, we must put great effort toward in-depth Torah study. Moreover, as the Rebbe stated on many occasions, it is imperative that we not only study Torah, we must also search for new insights (Chidushim) in our studies. The discovery of new meaning in Torah prepares us for the time when G-d will reveal new vistas of Torah through Moshiach. Indeed, our generation is witness to the greatest explosion of Torah study and new commentaries in all areas of Torah scholarship.
On the other hand, we must humbly recognize that our greatest Torah achievement pales in comparison with the knowledge that we will attain in the future, at which time the entire world will be immersed in the deepest Torah secrets.