Even after the Jews left Mitzrayim, the dangers of their being affected by that corrupt nation remained very real. Accordingly, the Torah commands us: “Do not perform the practices of the land of Egypt, in which you dwelled….” Rashi writes that Mitzrayim was the most decadent nation, and the Jews dwelled in the most decadent areas of the country. Why did Hashem deliberately place the Jewish people in the most corrupt place on earth?
Rav Eliyahu E. Dessler, ztz”l, answers this question in an essay in which he discusses how one should react to negative surroundings. He observes that a negative society can have a very detrimental effect on a person. However, if he is so strong that its negative influences do not harm him, it can actually strengthen his service of Hashem. How so? Rav Dessler explains that when such a person sees the surrounding evil, it becomes more disgusting in his eyes, because he attains a greater recognition of its depravity. This clarity strengthens his appreciation of good. Based on this understanding of human nature, Rav Dessler makes a historical observation that can explain why Hashem placed the Jewish people in the most degenerate place on earth:
Every time a tzaddik has had to rise to an extremely high level, he has been flung into the most lowly and degenerate environments, so he can learn the lowliness of evil and strengthen himself in goodness to the opposite extreme.
Hashem placed the Jews in Mitzrayim so they could develop an intense hatred of its tumah, which, Rav Dessler writes, was indeed their motivation for crying out to Him to free them from this terrible place. This intense disgust catapulted them from the forty-ninth level of tumah to the level of being able to receive the Torah. Had they found themselves in a less immoral environment, they could not have risen to such a high level.
This approach would also seem to explain why the Jewish people had to go to a similarly abhorrent land, that of Canaan. Seeing the immorality of the Canaanite nations was intended to intensify the Jews’ revulsion at evil and, in turn, heighten their appreciation of Torah morality.
Rav Dessler’s principle helps us understand some important aspects of Pesach. We begin the Haggadah by discussing our ancestors who worshipped idols. Rav Dessler asks, how is this ancestry connected to the story of leaving Mitzrayim? He answers that through being surrounded by such negativity, Avraham Avinu rose to such kedushah that its power would never be nullified. The redemption from Egypt sprouted directly from this holiness. Therefore, we talk about our idol-worshipping ancestors to highlight that it was as a direct result of their impurity that Avraham reached such incredible heights, and his greatness in turn planted the seeds of yetzias Mitzrayim.
We can now gain a deeper understanding of why the Haggadah goes to considerable lengths to discuss such negative influences as our pagan ancestors, Lavan, and the Egyptians. Perhaps this focus is intended to arouse our disgust at such immoral people and, in turn, heighten our appreciation of Hashem’s freeing us from them and giving us the Torah.
In today’s world, the challenge of secular influences is unavoidable. Even if we live in observant communities, myriad negative influences bombard us daily. It is, of course, highly advisable to minimize their impact, but it is impossible to eliminate all exposure to them. Rav Dessler’s principle can help us deal with these influences and perhaps even use them positively. By observing the obvious problems of the secular world, we can enhance our appreciation for the beauty of a Torah lifestyle. May we all protect ourselves from negative influences and use them to grow closer to Hashem.