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GRABBING ONTO THE TREE OF LIFE





Pesach is still several long, cold months away, but this does not mean we cannot take some time to study the story of the Egyptian bondage and learn the lessons it conveys.  In fact, it seems that this is precisely what we should be doing this month.  Our Sages instituted our annual Torah reading cycle, which has us reading the first section of the Book of Shemot, which tells the story of our ancestors’ enslavement and the Exodus, during this time of year.  So although we are still months away from Pesach cleaning, it is appropriate already now to examine these chapters of the Torah and extract some of the practical lessons they have to teach us.

Moshe, Rabbi Akiva, and the 50th Level

There is a well-known Kabbalistic tradition that describes Beneh Yisrael’s spiritual deterioration during their period of enslavement in Egypt.  Submerged in ancient Egypt’s culture of paganism and decadence, our ancestors plummeted to the “49th level of impurity.”  Had they fallen any further, they would have sunken to the 50th level, from which they would have been unable to recover. 

The Arizal, the renowned Kabbalist from Safed (1534-1572), explained that this is the reason why Beneh Yisrael were rushed out of Egypt and needed to leave so quickly.  As we read in the Biblical account of the Exodus (Shemot 12:39), the Egyptians forced the slaves out of the country and did not even allow them time to prepare proper provisions.  (This is why Beneh Yisrael ended up baking their dough before it had time to rise, thus resulting in matzot.)  The Arizal commented that if Beneh Yisrael had remained in Egypt even a moment longer, they would have fallen from the 49th level of impurity to the 50th, and they would then have been unable to recover.

For this reason, it was necessary for Moshe, and only Moshe, to lead Beneh Yisrael from Egypt.  The Arizal taught that the lower one sinks in the depths of impurity, the higher the level of sanctity needed to lift him from his quagmire.  Just like a strong magnet is needed to draw a heavy piece of metal, similarly, the highest level of kedushah (holiness) is needed to pull somebody from the lowest depths of spiritual contamination.  Moshe Rabbenu reached the 49th level of sanctity – just one rung before the 50th and final level.  Actually, the Arizal teaches, the moment when Moshe Rabbenu died, he reached the 50th level which he was unable to attain during his lifetime.  This is why he was buried on a mountain called Nevo, which could be read as a combination of the letter nun and the word “bo” (“in him”).  When Moshe died, he had achieved nun – which represents the number 50.  Only somebody on this level, who achieved the greatest heights of sanctity, could extricate Beneh Yisrael from the lowest depths of impurity.

This concept helps explain an obscure and enigmatic Midrashic passage relevant to the Exodus story.  When the time came for the process of redemption to begin, Gd appeared to Moshe at the burning bush and commanded him to return to Egypt, assume the mantle of leadership, and approach Pharaoh to demand that he release Beneh Yisrael from bondage.  Moshe initially refused, giving several reasons why he felt he could not accept this responsibility.  At one point, Moshe said to Gd, “Shelah na beyad tishlah – Send, please, whomever You send” (Shemot 4:13).  This verse is interpreted differently by different commentators, but a particularly perplexing explanation appears in Midrash Peli’ah, a collection of enigmatic commentaries by the ancient rabbis.   The Midrash Peli’ah explains that Moshe refers here to a figure that would be born many centuries later – the great sage, Rabbi Akiva.  He was the one whom Moshe wanted the Almighty to send to Pharaoh and lead Beneh Yisrael from bondage.

This comment seems very peculiar.  Although it should not surprise us that Moshe had prophetic vision and foresaw the emergence of Rabbi Akiva, why would he nominate a future sage for the position of leader?  Did Moshe really want to extend the Israelites’ bondage for another thousand years, so that Rabbi Akiva could lead them to freedom?

The explanation is provided by one of the greatest Sephardic luminaries, the Hida (Rav Haim Yosef David Azoulay, 18th century).   The Arizal, as the Hida cites, made a remarkable statement about Rabbi Akiva, teaching that he surpassed even the exalted stature of Moshe Rabbenu.  Astoundingly, Rabbi Akiva, who until age 40 was a simple, ignorant shepherd who did not even know the Hebrew alphabet, reached heights that even the greatest prophet of all time never reached in his lifetime, climbing to the 50th level of sanctity.  And this, the Hida writes, is why Moshe recommended that Rabbi Akiva come and redeem Beneh Yisrael.  In essence, Moshe was saying to Gd, “Why do you want me?  The people have sunken so low, why not find somebody even greater than me to pull them out of the abyss?  They are on the brink of the 50th level of impurity, so they need somebody on the 50th level of sanctity.  Why, then, are You choosing me, somebody who is only on the 49th level?” 

The response to Moshe’s question is that Gd’s plan was to rescue the people before they fell to the 50th level of impurity, and so he, who stood at the 49th level of holiness, was the one chosen to lead them along this process and bring them out of exile.

The Final Generation

While this might sound like nothing more than a matter of historical intrigue, or obscure Kabbalistic concepts, it is actually very relevant to our life in 21st-century America.  In fact, it might be the most vital message for us living in
21st-century America.

As mentioned, when the Jewish People find themselves submerged in the depths of spiritual contamination, we need to be pulled up by the highest level of holiness.  The Or Hahaim (Rav Haim Ben-Attar, 18th century) warns that in the final generation before the arrival of Mashiah, the Jewish Nation will fall even lower than it did in Egypt, and will sink

to the 50th level of impurity.  As spiritually contaminating as the environment was in ancient Egypt, it will be even worse in the final generation.  In fact, it has been noted that the word “hageulah” (“the redemption,” referring to the final redemption) has the numerical value of 50, alluding to the fact that our nation’s redemption will arrive only after we’ve sunken to the lowest possible depths – all the way down to the 50th level of spiritual contamination.  The situation will become so dire that some might assume there is no hope, that Am Yisrael would never again be able to rebuild itself.

The obvious question then arises, how will we be able to be redeemed after sinking to this level?

The Or Hahaim explains that there is one way to climb up from the 50th level of impurity, and that is through Torah learning.   Torah is the source of sanctity, and thus it has the ability to lift us up from even the 50th level of impurity.  Indeed, the Torah was given on Shavuot, the 50th day of the omer, signifying that it exists on the 50th level of kedushah (sanctity) and thus can extricate us from even the 50th level of impurity.  Beneh Yisrael’s enslavement in Egypt occurred before the Torah was given, and thus they would not have been able to be saved had they fallen to the 50th level.  But in the generation before Mashiah, the Or Hahaim writes, we will have the Torah as our “lifeboat” that can and will save us even after we’ve sunken to the 50th level.

The Illness and the Cure

There can be little doubt that we are now living in the final generation.  And frankly, I wonder if the Or Hahaim knew just how bad the 50th level of impurity could be, if, even with his Torah-inspired foresight, he could envision the depths to which society would fall. 

One by one, long-standing norms of decency and acceptable behavior are being discarded, and the trend continues steadily and unabated.  Standards of dress, speech and conduct have been consistently declining, and just when we think they can sink no lower, they do.  We have an entire generation of people who carry in their pockets all day, every day, more impurity than an average person just a generation ago would be exposed to over the course of an entire lifetime.  As much as technology has helped mankind progress, it has, to at least the same extent, spurred mankind to unimaginable moral decline.  It is consuming enormous chunks of time that could be used for productive and meaningful endeavors, drawing people’s attention to gossip, slander, immorality, and all other forms of sin.  Materialism continues to dominate as our generation’s chief religion, with people prostrating themselves before the newest fashions, the most cutting-edge gadgets, the fanciest cars, and the most luxurious vacations.  One shudders to think that the impurity of ancestors in Egypt was mild compared to what we have to contend with in today’s day and age.

On the other hand, just as the Or Hahaim predicted, we are also witnessing an equally stunning resurgence of Torah.  With every new level of impurity to which society falls, a new yeshiva, or several new yeshivot, open.  With the launch of every internet site promoting decadence, there are dozens of new Torah books published, and new Torah lectures made available online.  For every soul that is lost to our culture of unrestrained indulgence, countless new chairs and desks are added to religious schools.  For every Jewish youngster who falls prey to the secularist forces that abound in contemporary society, untold numbers of students enroll in institutions of advanced Torah learning.

As He always does, Gd sent us the cure even before the illness.  The process of forming the foundations of Torah learning on these shores was a long, difficult and grueling one, an achievement owed to the Herculean efforts of our parents and grandparents, but the process succeeded and the foundations were set in place just in time.  Thanks to their hard work and sacrifice, and with the help of Gd’s unmistakable assistance, the explosion of Torah learning in our generation was well underway by the time we found ourselves mired in the shocking (let’s hope we still find it shocking…) abyss of decadence and immorality in which society finds itself. 

It is no coincidence that the number of Daf Yomi participants has grown exponentially specifically in the last two decades.  It is no coincidence that the Talmud was translated into a readily accessible English format – and into other languages – specifically in our generation.  It is no coincidence that the internet, the same tool that is used to spread the very worst aspects of mankind, has also been instrumental in spreading Torah throughout the world and inspiring Jewish souls far and wide.  It is no coincidence that the same technology that is luring people off the path of Torah is being harnessed to learn, teach and disseminate Torah at the very highest levels.  It is no coincidence that specifically our generation boasts yeshivot consisting of thousands of students diligently and passionately poring over sacred texts day and night.  And it is no coincidence that specifically in our generation we are blessed with an unprecedented level of affluence that has enabled generous donors to support Torah study and dissemination on a scale that the world has never before seen.

This is not some quirk of history.  There is no irony whatsoever.  This is precisely what the Or Hahaim foresaw: a generation that has fallen to the 50th level of impurity, saving itself by hanging onto its “lifeboat” – its sacred Torah tradition.  Just as Gd sent Moshe Rabbenu to save our ancestors from the spiritual quagmire of Egypt, He has facilitated a remarkable resurgence of Torah to save our current generation from the spiritual quagmire of contemporary society.  He has given us precisely what we need to rescue ourselves and bring the final redemption.

King Shlomo famously called Torah an “etz haim – tree of life” (Mishle 3:18).  When a person is being swept away by a powerful current, and as he feels himself starting to lose strength, he suddenly sees a large log floating in the water, he will use every last bit of energy he can muster to reach that log. 

He knows that as long as he grabs hold of that piece of wood, he can survive the raging waters.  This is precisely the function which Torah serves.  We are in a raging current of secularism, materialism, and decadence.  We need to muster every bit of strength we have to grab hold of our eternal “tree of life.”  Even if this means making difficult sacrifices, such as by denying ourselves certain comforts to which we’ve grown accustomed, we have no choice.  Living as we do in the turbulent waters of 21st-century immorality, we need our “tree of life” now more than ever.  Whatever time, energy and resources we can muster for supporting and learning Torah must be used for this purpose.  There are no legitimate excuses.

The Wonder of Torah

King David pleads in Tehillim (119:18), “Open my eyes that I shall see wonders from Your Torah.”  Yeshiva students to this day recite this prayer each day when they begin studying.  

The word “niflaot” can be read as a combination of the letter nun and the word “pela’ot” (“marvels”).  King David prays that Gd should show him the wondrous effects of Torah, its ability to rescue students from even the 50th level of impurity. 

I myself have been privileged to witness this phenomenon firsthand.  I have seen many disaffected youths who had lost their way, who had fallen into the lowest depths of sin, make their way back through the power of Torah.  It may have been one class, one speech, one recording, or one book – but just a brief exposure to Torah triggered a process that resulted in their return to their roots.

Of course, like all medication, Torah must be “administered” properly and with professional guidance.  Each individual must be taught the right way, by the right people, and in the right “doses.”  Torah is most certainly not a “one-size-fits-all” solution.  But there is a Torah solution for every soul.  There is something for everybody.  No matter where a person currently finds himself, on any level he or she is, Torah can do wonders.

The aforementioned verse in Mishle concludes, “vetomecheha meushar – those who support it are fortunate.”  There is no greater satisfaction than saving lives.  Fundraisers will tell you that the easiest campaigns are for ambulances, hospital wings, and medical equipment.  People rush to generously donate to life-saving causes, and we should feel very proud of the extraordinary generosity shown by our community members for these causes.  We must remember, however, that spiritual life is no less important than physical life.  The “tree of life” must continue to be supported to allow more and more Jews throughout the world access to Torah so they can protect themselves from the turbulent cultural waters that rage all around them.  Let us strengthen our “tree of life” so it can strengthen us, and allow us to withstand the hostile pressures that abound and usher in our long-awaited national redemption, speedily and in our days, amen.