THE POWER OF PLACE
When a righteous individual departs from a city, he leaves an indelible impression upon that place (see Rashi on Genesis 28:1). However, just as the righteous invariably leave their mark upon their surroundings, the environment rubs off on their human character as well.
When a righteous individual departs from a city, he leaves an indelible impression upon that place (see Rashi on Genesis 28:1). However, just as the righteous invariably leave their mark upon their surroundings, the environment rubs off on their human character as well. Our sages teach us that changing one's place of dwelling has the ability to affect one's destiny. In fact, when the Talmudic sage Rav Yossi Ben Kisma was offered a great sum of money to move from a city of great Torah scholarship to a town of lesser spiritual stature, he replied, "If you would give me all of the silver and gold and precious stones and gems in the world, I would still only dwell in [this] place of Torah" (Ethics of Our Fathers 6:9). Not only did Rav Yossi Ben Kisma have a great appreciation for his home, but he understood the great spiritual peril in leaving it.
If indeed location has such a terrific effect on the psyche and spirit, we can only imagine the impression left by Egypt upon the Jews after so many years of horrific slavery. Yet, why was this exile in Egypt harsher than any other exile in our history? The Maharal of Prague, one of the seminal figures of Jewish thought in the last five centuries, explains that the spiritual climate of Egypt runs parallel to its physical climate. Unlike any other agrarian land in the world, Egypt depends solely on the Nile River for nourishment (see Rashi on Genesis 41:1). Whereas rainfall is a prerequisite for stability in other crop-based civilizations, Egypt has the sole security of the Nile River to feed its people. The Maharal explains that when all of one's physical needs are taken care of, why lift one's eyes into the realm of spiritual support? Although the Egyptians were famous for their sorcery and deification of Pharaoh, at the core they had no need for a Creator. The religion they ultimately mastered was worship of the self. This relationship is even found in the Hebrew name of Egypt Mitzrayim, its etymological root meaning a narrow strip or an enclosement. In spiritual terms, Egypt was limited and narrow, almost completely self-contained. Such a G-dless society is virtually impossible to escape. The Jewish people were in Egypt for 210 years, but they were enslaved to this Egyptian mentality for many more years after that.
What would it take to shed the residue of this bitter exile? On a physical level, we would imagine that the Egyptian exile ended spontaneously, at the moment that the Children of Israel crossed through the Red Sea. Certainly, a nation touched by the miracles of G-d would shed its slave mentality in little time. Yet the Ramban, one of the leading Torah scholars of the Middle Ages, clearly states in his introduction to the book of Exodus, that even as the Children of Israel encamped in unity at the foot of Mt. Sinai, the exile mentality continued on. What action would facilitate our final redemption?
Rabbi Yerachmiel Chasid, a Talmudic lecturer in Israel, touched on this point through an analogy from Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz, one of the towering Torah figures of the past generation. When an adult travels from city to city, he is cognizant of his change of surroundings. If you ask him where he is today, he will respond "Atlanta." When you ask him tomorrow he responds, "I am in Jerusalem." However, when an infant travels with his mother, he only recognizes that he is by his mother's side. On a similar journey from Atlanta to Jerusalem, when asked at any junction where he is, the child will respond, "I am with my mother." In a similar vein, the Children of Israel, in their embryonic stage of nationhood, needed a dramatic shift from the ever-present darkness of exile. The Ramban explains that we were only fully redeemed when the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was built for the Jewish people. On a metaphysical level, the Mishkan represented the presence of Hashem which traveled with the nation for 40 years in the desert. Yet, on a symbolic level, the Mishkan reconfirmed our relationship with Hashem. With Hashem literally dwelling in the camp of Israel, it no longer mattered where we were going it only mattered with Whom we were going.
No natural sequence of events could have removed us from Egypt. Traces of Egypt still permeated the nation by the sin of the golden calf, even after Mt. Sinai. Only the recognition of our spiritual potential, which manifested itself in the presence of Hashem, would alter our paradigm from the remnants of a bitter exile. May we be worthy of a similar salvation in our times.
David Appelrouth, who hails from Atlanta, is studying at the Yeshiva Bais Yisroel in Jerusalem.
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