Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Torah and Slavery - the Pesach Story - Rebb. Devorah Heshelis

Rebbetzin Heshelis, the author of The Moon's Lost Light ,offers this exploration of the fact that the Torah does not completely prohibit slavery, although it has laws regarding the proper treatment of Jewish and non-Jewish slaves. I cannot say her explanation will satisfy everyone, but it is a brave effort to tackle a subject which is difficult especially to modern people. This is a continuation of a series she started here.

Rebbetzin Devorah Heshelis
A continuation of "on slavery"…

Our next encounter with slavery in the Torah, is the slavery of the entire Jewish People. Here we see the evil, cruelty and injustice that we generally ascribe to slavery. We know that this slavery was basic to Hashem's plan for the development of the Jewish People because Hashem informed Avraham Avinu in the bris bein habsorim (covenant between the parts) that his children would be enslaved and afflicted in a land which was not theirs. From the context of that prophecy, it seems that the enslavement of the Jewish People was a necessary prerequisite to inheriting the land of Israel. But why would Hashem, who is only good, make suffering a prerequisite to inheriting the land?

Before answering this, let us look at the introductory passage to Pirkei Avos. This passage states: "All of Israel have a share in the world to come, as it says, "And your nation are all tsaddikim, forever they will inherit the land, the branch of My orchard, the work of my hands, to be proud of."
This is certainly very comforting, but are all of the Jewish People really tsadikim? And if this is assured, then where is free will?  And why is the assurance that they will forever inherit the land (of Israel) proof that they all have a share in the world to come? Is there an intrinsic connection between being tsaddikim, inheriting the land of Israel, and having a place in the world to come?

The answer, of course, is yes. Chazal tell us that three great presents were given to the Jewish People, which are acquired only through suffering. They are: the world to come, the Torah, and the land of Israel. These three gifts are all connected and are actually different aspects of the same thing; our connection with the Shchina.

Chazal say that olam habo – the world to come - is the place where "tsadikkim sit with crowns on their heads and enjoy the the shine of the Shchina".  Chassidus says that in olam habo we actually unite with the Shchina. This is the greatest pleasure that exists and is the ultimate purpose of our creation.

(The term olam habo as used here, is not referring to the soul's temporary enjoyment of Gan Eden which takes place after a person's death. It is referring to the ultimate olam habo which the entire Jewish People experience after the revival of the dead, and the great Day of Judgment.)

And there is an intrinsic connection between olam habo and Eretz Yisrael, because Eretz Yisrael is the Shchina's place in this world. Because of this connection, Chazal said that "Anyone who lives in Eretz Yisrael it is as if he has a G-d, and anyone who lives outside of Eretz Yisrael it is as if he has no G-d", for living in Eretz Yisrael means being directly attached to the Shchina. Furthermore the nefesh (lower soul) of every Jew comes from Eretz Yisrael, even if that Jew was never physically present in Eretz Yisrael. This is because the lower Shchina is the essence of Eretz Yisrael and every Jew's nefesh comes from the lower Shchina. If we forever inherit the land of Israel this means that we forever have a connection with the Shchina, which means that we are assured a place in olam habo.

(The fact that we do not always feel the presence of the Shchina in Eretz Yisrael is because there are klipos - impure, hard barriers - both surrounding our hearts and covering up the inherent holiness of Eretz Yisrael. Nevertheless, even now, despite the presence of the klipos, we see Hashem's clear hashgacha in a way which is rarely seen outside of Eretz Yisrael. Outside of Eretz Yisrael is it very rare for people who are not tsaddikim (according to our terms) to experience miracles. In Eretz Yisrael the entire country has again and again experienced miracles, especially during the wars, may Hashem continue to protect us and show us His presence.)

And there is also an intrinsic connection with the Torah, because the Torah is the means through which we become tsaddikim, so that we can be attached to the Shchina. Hashem told us very clearly and very strongly that our presence in Eretz Yisrael is dependent upon our keeping the Torah.
But what happens if the Jews do not keep the Torah? How, then, will they have an eternal connection with Eretz Yisrael? This was Avraham Avinu's question when he asked, "ba'meh eidah ki irashena" – with what will I know that I will inherit it? The answer Hashem gave him was: exile. If the Jewish people sin they will go into exile, but they will never lose their intrinsic connection with Eretz Yisrael, and when the sins are atoned for, they will return.

But why are all of am Yisrael tsaddikim, even though they sometimes don't keep the Torah? And if they are, then where is free will?

All the Jewish souls, including those who were as yet unborn, agreed to accept the Torah of their own free will. This was especially great because the Jewish People signed an unread contract, not knowing what Hashem would require of them. They did this simply out of their love and belief in Him, their desire to do His wishes, and to be His people. Their acceptance of the Torah made them tsaddikim, and assured them of a share in olam habo. This applies to true converts as well, who agree to keep the Torah, come what may.  

(Most commentaries add that one's share in olam habo can be lost through especially severe breaches of the Torah, but Chassidus says that if a Jew loses his share in olam habo in one lifetime, Hashem will bring him back again and again until he regains it. The merit of sincerely accepting the Torah lasts forever. By accepting the Torah we received a Jewish soul which is a "chelek Elokah mima'al, a part of Hashem above, and as so, is never lost. This is true of a sincere convert as well.)   

So now we see the connection between Torah, Eretz Yisrael and olam habo. Through accepting the Torah we acquired an eternal connection to the Shchina which is the essence of both Eretz Yisrael and olam habo.

But why must these three great presents be acquired only through suffering?
Hashem's plan for creation was to give goodness and pleasure to His creatures. But He wanted them to do something to deserve this awesome goodness, for in the world of truth, if one receives great gifts without earning them one can never fully enjoy them. Chazal explain that one who receives free bread is embarrassed to look at the face of his benefactor.

Furthermore, Hashem wants to give us the ultimate gift of being His equal, His partner, so to speak. This is what Shir HaShirim is about, and is also referred to by the prophets who call the Jewish People Hashem's wife. The reward of olam habo is not like a material reward which is outside of oneself, but rather it is a rewards of being, of who you, yourself, are. And what you are, is what you made yourself into. We have to create ourselves spiritually, by withstanding tests of evil, and so become Hashem's beloved partner in creation.   Originally we were given a chance to acquire all three great presents without suffering, through passing great tests. The problem was, that we failed.
The first test was the prohibition of eating from the Etz Tov Vi'ra (tree of knowledge, good and bad) in Gan Eden. What took place there was much, much deeper than one would imagine, and was truly an awesome test. Adam and Chava had in them all the souls of all mankind. Had they withstood this test, the first Shabbas would have been olam habo. But they did not pass this test, and neither did we, whose souls were in them and all took part in this sin.  Therefore, the six days of creation turned into six thousand years of world history, and the all inclusive souls of Adam and Chava separated into many, many separate souls, each with it's own mission in this world. Since that time, to achieve the purpose of creation and bring ourselves to the level of olam habo, it is necessary to first correct the sin of eating from the Etz HaDa'at tov vira.  

And that is why the Jewish People had to go through the Egyptian Exile. The purpose of the Egyptian exile was to cleanse us of sin of eating from the Etz HaDa'at, which now could only be accomplished through suffering.

Nevertheless, the level of suffering was still able to be determined by our own behavior. The prophecy was that the Jewish People would be in a foreign land, enslaved and afflicted for four hundred years. (Four hundred is the number of negative klipot – impure barriers – that spiritually attack a person and separate them from Hashem. Apparently, each year in exile was to remove one level of klipah.)

But not all of those four hundred years were passed with great suffering. Hashem began counting the four hundred years from the birth of Isaac, who was expelled by the Plishtim and had his wells stuffed up by them. This was considered as part of the necessary suffering of those four hundred years. Ya'akov's lifetime was also included in the four hundred years, with his suffering included as well. The suffering of the Jewish People as a whole started in Egypt with the death of Ya'akov, as Rashi wrote, after the death of Yaakov Avinu, "the eyes and hearts of Israel were clogged from the enslavement". But at that time the Jewish People were not literally slaves. Yosef was still alive and ruling. Even so, because the Jews were not free to go and come as they wished, and perhaps had to pay special taxes, or had special limitations placed upon them, this was considered being enslaved, i.e. being subjected to the control of others. Yet at this time, when they were still tsaddikim, the subjugation was nowhere near what came later.

Had the Jewish People continued as they were then, and remained completely faithful to their own laws and traditions, the truly harsh part of the exile never would have materialized. However, many of the people stopped making bris milah. The Sfas Ems on Parshas Shmos says that if the Jews would have not stopped making bris milah the Egyptians could never have enslaved them. Rashi, based on Chazal, tells us that many of the people went out of the perimeters of their own area, the land of Goshen, and began to take part in the Egyptian social life, going to their theatres and circuses, till "the land became full of them".  Had they stayed quietly unseen in Goshen, rather than filling up the rest of Egypt, the Egyptians would not have felt threatened and would not have enslaved them. This is a very important lesson for us to remember. When in exile, don't assimilate, don't adopt the cultural pastimes of the host country, and don't act as if the country belongs to you. Stay quietly on the sidelines, leading your own Jewish life. Don't give anyone room to suspect that you are taking over their country.

But why did the suffering the Jewish People had to endure specifically take the form of slavery?
Perhaps part of the answer is that Adam and Chava - who included within them all our souls - did not recognize the necessity to submit to Hashem's will in all circumstances. One of the lessons of the Egyptian exile was that if you do not subject yourself to Hashem's will, you will be subjected to the will of tyrants. It is not always easy to obey Hashem's laws, but if we realize that we must always do Hashem's will, as if we were a slave to Hashem (who only wishes good for us, and will greatly reward us) than we will be saved from slavery under evil people. The Torah says that after the redemption, "Hashem will circumcise your heart to love Hashem your G-d with all your heart and all your soul for the sake of your life" (Dvarim 30:6). At that time we will no longer need to feel that we are "slaves" to Hashem's will for the yetzer will be removed. That is why the  navi Hoshe'a prophecied that after the redemption we will serve Hashem with love rather than fear. Now, however, in the world of tests, when the yetzer hara is still strong, we must remember that we are subject always to Hashem's will. We must make the yetzer hara a slave to the yetzer tov, and if not, cholila, we ourselves will become slaves.

There were also deep rooted personality benefits that were gained from the Egyptian experience. The Torah tells us to be considerate of geirim (aliens or converts) and to love them "for you were geirim (aliens) in the land of Egypt. In the aseret hadibrot (ten commandments) we are told that the slave must rest on the Shabbos,  remembering that "you were a slave in the land of Egypt".  This lesson remained deeply ingrained in the Jewish character. It is part of Jewish nature to prevent the perpetration of cruelty and injustice to the weak and downtrodden.

Furthermore, the Jewish People will eventually rule over the entire world. This will happen with the coming of the full redemption. It would have happened shortly after the Egyptian redemption if it hadn't been for the sin of the golden calf. The Egyptian experience was a preparation for a position of rulership. Anyone who becomes a ruler, must first feel what it means to be subject to others in order to assure that they will only help raise others and not hurt them.

So now we know why the Jewish People needed to go through the suffering and slavery of the Egyptian exile, yet the intensity of the suffering is still incomprehensible. Innocent baby boys were thrown into the Nile. If a man didn't finish his work load, his baby was put into the walls to suffocate. When Pharoh was stricken with leprosy he bathed in the blood of slaughtered Jewish children. Why did Hashem allow all this terrible cruelty?

Moshe Rabbeinu asked the same question. The Ari z"l gives us a glimpse into the answer, which is more amazing than we could possibly have imagined.

The generation of the flood had very high souls, but they had a very great yetzer hara, as well. They sinned and sinned terribly until Hashem brought the flood upon them and they were drowned. However, they were given another chance, being reincarnated in the generation of the tower of Babel. Once again, they sinned, the tower of Babel was destroyed, and they were dispersed. Then they were reincarnated in the people of Sdom, who were even worse. Avraham prayed for the people of Sdom to be saved. His prayer did not go unanswered. Although Sdom was destroyed for its evil, the people Avraham prayed for were brought back again as Avraham's own descendents, this time, in Egypt! The suffering that these children went through was to totally expiate them from their previous sins, in the flood, in the tower of Babel, and in Sdom, so that they could come back again as pure souls of the Jewish People!

There is yet another reason why the Jewish People needed to go through the Egyptian exile and enslavement. They needed it to receive the Torah.

The Torah is the goal and purpose of our lives; indeed it is the purpose of all creation, but it was not a simple thing to be given a chance to acquire the Torah. The Torah is the Etz HaChaim, the Tree of (Eternal) Life that was in Gan Eden, but after sinning, Adam was sent out of Gan Eden and Hashem set up fearsome guards to make sure he would not return to partake of the Etz HaChaim. After eating from the Etz HaDa'as eternal life would only be harmful, because if people would not die, the evil which they absorbed from the Etz Hada'as tov v'ira (Tree of Knowledge [of] good and bad) would remain in them forever. The Torah gives eternal life, and indeed, says the Medrash, had the Jewish People not sinned with the golden calf, their acceptance of the Torah would have caused them to live forever.

And so Hashem would not allow mankind to eat of the Etz HaChaim – the Torah – until they would be purified from the sin of the Etz HaDa'as. Otherwise, the evil would have remained inside of them forever, and the Torah itself would have been contaminated by this evil.

But how can one be so purified? How can the effects of eating of the Etz HaDa'at be nullified? The answer was, the Egyptian exile. The three stages of the Egyptian exile that were told to Avraham Avinu - being aliens in a foreign land, being enslaved, and being afflicted - all served to remove different aspects of the evil that was acquired from the "infection" of the snake, who carried the Satan on him. Kabbalah says that there are three main evil klipot (from which the others stem). It seems that these three klipot had to be expiated through the three stages of the Egyptian exile; being an alien in a foreign land, being slaves, and being afflicted. After those three aspects of evil were removed, the Jewish People could then go on to receive the Torah, the Etz HaChaim.

As mentioned above, all the Jewish souls were contained within the souls of Adam and Chava, and so all these basic souls had to repair the damage caused by their sin. Chazal tell us that particularly the women brought about the redemption from the Egyptian exile, for it was in the merit of righteous women that our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt. This was the perfect tikun (correction) because it was Chava who originally convinced Adam to eat from the Etz HaDa'at and now it was Chav'a extension, the Jewish women, who saved Adam (the Jewish men) from the effects of the Etz HaDa'as.  

And so we went through the Egyptian exile and received the Torah – only not completely. The sin of the golden calf caused Moshe Rabeinu to break the first luchos, which, after the sin, we could not receive. Had we received those luchos, our knowledge of Torah would have been complete, totally accurate, and never forgotten. It would have come easily, with great joy and pleasantness, while living in comfort. Furthermore, we would have had the inner dimension of Torah, now called kabbalah, which we are now missing. The little bit of kabbalah which we have now is only a tiny taste of what we will have in the future. Kabbalah explains the true reasons and inner meanings behind the mitzvohs, and the deeper explanations of the stories, which we now only understand on a superficial level. Because of the sin of the golden calf, we lost all this and it will be regained only with the coming of Moshiach.

And Eretz Yisrael, too, was not fully achieved because of the sin of the spies which caused the Jewish People to cry that they did not want to go to Eretz Yisrael. Although the next generation did enter the land, it was not the same as it would have been; Moshe Rabeinu did not build the Beis HaMikdash, and the permanence and full glory of connecting with the Shchina will be only after the full redemption.

So the sin of Etz HaDa'as, the sin of the golden calf, and the sin of the spies, caused us to lose the easy way to olam habo, Torah, and Eretz Yisrael, respectively. Now they can be gained only through suffering. The sins committed by later generations caused this suffering to become so much more intense. Yet, although we cannot feel this while still in the galus, in the end it will come out even better this way. All the merit of our suffering through the exiles, all the sacrifices we made to be Hashem's people, will be added on, and this merit it so extremely great that it will add so much more, lasting forever and ever.

[Author's not: If a reader wants the source for any idea mentioned here, they can be in touch with me at my email address:]

To be continued…

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