When I was learning in yeshiva I was looking for a healthy physical and emotional outlet. Some of the boys had joined a local gym with hours for men. I was skinny and not very strong. I thought the way to build muscle mass was to lift extremely heavy weights. The gym trainer clarified how it works. I needed to lift weights within my ability and then push a little more, until it hurt somewhat. Do this every time, he said. The pain was muscle fiber stretching, allowing me to really develop myself. Yes, no pain…no gain! The trainer created a workout program for me, added some protein foods, and within a couple of months, I was amazed at the results. My body was energized, and my mind was at rest.
As we learn about the miracles of the Ten Plagues—the Makkos—and how Hashem majestically took us out of Egypt, there’s a burning question: While it was great that Hashem took klal Yisrael out of Egypt, why did He put us in exile in the first place?
The answer is revealed by the Torah’s reference to Mitzrayim: “Hashem took you (klal Yisrael) out from the kur habarzel (forging pit) from Egypt in order to be a nation to Hashem.” A forging pit is used to heat up iron or metal and rid it of all its impurities. For us, as a nation, our road to purity included a long and bitter enslavement. Mitzrayim was our forging pit. Still, what was unique about Egypt compared to all the other countries?
The Maharal explains that the process of developing and refining one’s inner positive qualities is accomplished by having experiences that are contrary to those qualities. Experiencing an opposite environment will bring out the true positive nature of the person.
The Egyptians were highly immoral and led a very licentious lifestyle. Klal Yisrael was holy, pure and guarded in the area of morality. We were the polar opposites of the Egyptians. The conflict of the two opposing lifestyles was already exhibited when the wife of Potiphar attempted to seduce Yosef. Yosef withstood this temptation and risked suffering tough consequences for his refusing Potiphar’s wife. Taking this moral stand in fact led to his imprisonment in a dungeon for 10 years!
We therefore see that Hashem placed klal Yisrael specifically in Mitzrayim—a place of extremely immoral character—to refine the kedusha (sanctity) in klal Yisrael. Indeed, the purity they maintained in Mitzrayim was of such a high standard that when the Torah mentions the names of each family in each shevet (tribe), it is spelled with the letter “heh” as a prefix and the letter “yud” as a suffix. For example, the family of Chanoch is listed as Hachanochi. The letters yud and heh spell Hashem’s name. Hashem was thereby attesting that each family in each tribe had remained pure and faithful to Hashem, surrounded by Him, throughout their exile in Egypt.
Rav Dessler makes a similar observation. When a person is placed in an environment where people lead a different lifestyle, it can have one of two effects: either the person becomes attracted to and influenced by the new lifestyle, or it serves as a driving force to propel him in the opposite direction. We see this with Avraham who was raised in the home of Terach, one of the biggest idol worshipers, yet Avraham chose to follow Hashem.
Rav Wolbe often quoted his rebbe, Reb Yerucham Levovitz, who said that Hashem does not challenge us in our area of our weaknesses—only in the area of our strengths. Hashem is the ultimate trainer/coach, always presenting us with a challenge to help develop our spiritual muscles.
With the start of Sefer Shemos, we begin the period of shovavim (an acronym for the parshios of Shemos through Mishpatim), a period that is designed to work on areas of family purity.
We live in a generation and society with many decadent behaviors. We might feel we are vulnerable in this area and the challenge is overwhelming. In truth, it’s the opposite, for we are inherently kadosh (holy). We are placed in this environment to help us shine. In our generation, a person has access to see the most immoral behaviors with the click of a button. Yet, so many people choose to guard themselves against this choice, to maintain their purity, even installing filters on their phones and computers to prevent access to immoral websites. This is not a sign of weakness. On the contrary, it is a sign of strength by making an active choice to ensure sanctity.
Let us keep refining our quality of family purity and use our society as an instrument to help us refine our own sanctity. Like our time in the gym, the results may not be seen immediately, but after a few months, we’ll be amazed at our spiritual growth.