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The Value of Toiling

Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

Bereishit, 25:22: "And the children crushed within her..."

Rashi, Bereishit, 25:22, sv.: And [the children] crushed: When she would pass by entrances of places of Torah study of Shem and Eber, Jacob would run and toss about to go out of his [mother's womb]...when she would pass by entrances of idol worship Esau would toss about to go out...

After Rebecca finally conceived after many years of barrenness she faced a new challenge - the drastic movements of the babies inside of her caused her intense pain. Rashi, quoting the Midrash, explains that when she passed by batei midrashot (places of Torah learning), Jacob would try to get out, whilst Esau would try to exit when she passed by places of idol worship.(1) The commentators find difficulties with Yaakov's behavior. They point out that the Gemara explains that when the fetus is in the womb he is taught the entire Torah by an Angel.(2) That being the case why was Yaakov so desperate to enter batei midrashot to learn - he was already being taught the whole Torah in the womb?! (3)

Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz's teachings with regard to this Gemara can help answer this question. He notes that when the baby is born, the Angel strikes him on the mouth and he forgets all the Torah that he learnt. He asks why the Angel performs this final action - why does he not leave the baby to enter the world with all the Torah that he has already been taught? He answers that the purpose of creation was to work and toil of his own volition in order to attain closeness to God. One of the main ways of doing this is through learning Torah. Accordingly, one cannot compare the Torah that is learnt without exertion, with that which comes about after intense toiling.(4) Therefore, the baby forgets all the Torah he was taught so that he can have the opportunity to learn it himself.

We can now understand why Yaakov wanted to leave the confines of the womb even though it meant losing the gift of being taught the holy Torah by an Angel. Jacob was more attracted to the challenging prospect of having to struggle and earn any Torah that he would know.

Rav Shmuelevitz applied this idea to explain the custom to have a Shalom Zachar, the festive occasion on the first Shabbat after a baby boy is born. One of the commentaries suggests that the reason for this custom is to console the newborn baby for the loss of Torah that he has just suffered.(5) Rav Shmuelevitz argued and said that in fact this is a celebration for the fact that he lost the Torah. For now he has the opportunity to begin the far more rewarding task of earning knowledge of Torah through hard work.

The principle brought out by Rav Shmuelevitz is not new to most people yet it is easy to forget it in practice. When a person struggles to understand something and perhaps does not gain full clarity he may feel like he did not fully succeed. Whereas when he may feel great satisfaction when he learns through a piece of Torah with great ease and has a clear understanding of what he has learnt. However, as the Chofetz Chaim wrote, the toiling in Torah is more important than the outcome - even if one does not see tangible results he has accomplished a great deal. The following story involving Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz further demonstrates how the toiling is more important than the accomplishment.

"Once, after raising a number of questions about a topic and struggling many hours to answer them, he (Rav Leibowitz) finally understood the entire topic clearly. During those very days, a Torah scholar came to visit and spoke to Rabbeinu (Rav Leibowitz) about the same topic. During the discussion, the visitor said, "and if you ask such-and-such..." It was the main question that had troubled Rabbeinu! The visitor continued, "...then we can answer such-and-such," off-handedly answering the very answer that Rabbeinu had given. R'Boruch Ber was very impressed by this visitor's brilliance and depth of understanding, but reacted as follows. "Granted, without much effort you answered the question basically as I did, but I struggled over that question for days! Therefore, my answer has the elevating element of ameilut (toiling) in it." (6)

We have seen the value of toiling in Torah is to the degree that Yaakov preferred to give up the privilege of being taught Torah by an Angel and struggle himself. This lesson applies to all aspects of spiritual growth - any area that comes easily to a person is of limited value unless the person strives to improve his performance further. And those areas that provide great challenges are the very areas where one can attain the most success - by working and struggling he uses his own free will to bring himself closer to God.


1.Bereishit Rabbah, 63:6.

2. Niddah, 30b.

3. See Ayelet HaShachar, Bereishit, 25:22.

4. Sichot Mussar, Maamer 102, p.334. One may ask then, why it is necessary at all for the Angel to teach the fetus Torah, if he causes him to forget it. The answer given is that the Torah he learns does not disappear, rather it goes deep into his subconscious - without this internal connection he would not be able to learn Torah at all when he is alive. (Vilna Gaon, Kol Eliyahu, #240)

5. Drisha, Yoreh Deah, end of Simun 264.

6. Reb Boruch Ber, pp. 215-216.


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