The Torah tells in Parashat Yitro of Benei Yisrael’s encampment at the foot of Mount Sinai, informing us that upon arriving in the Sinai desert, they encamped “neged ha-har” – literally, “opposite the mountain,” meaning, facing Mount Sinai. Rashi, citing the Mekhilta, comments, “Whenever you find [the word] neged, [it means] facing east.” When the Torah describes a person or group of people’s position with the word “neged,” it indicates that the person or group was facing eastward.
The Rebbe of Kotzk quipped that underlying this seemingly technical remark is a profound insight into the nature of religious life. He suggested that on a deeper level, Rashi is teaching that whenever a person experiences “opposition” (“neged”) and struggle, then he can rest assured that he is facing “eastward” – the direction commonly associated with holiness and virtue. If a person finds himself struggling to do the right thing, regularly confronting difficult challenges and obstacles in his efforts to live righteously, then he can be certain that he is living the right way, that he is doing precisely what he is supposed to do – trying to be the best he can.
If we wish to find some connection between the Kotzker Rebbe’s creative reading of Rashi’s comment and the context of this comment, we might point to the fact that Benei Yisrael’s journey to Sinai was not an easy or simple one. Tradition teaches that Benei Yisrael were steeped in the pagan culture of Egypt during their period of bondage, as indicated by the description of the prophet Yechezkel (20). Reaching the point where they were worthy of beholding God’s revelation and receiving the Torah entailed a long, difficult process. Naturally, then, the trek from Egypt to Sinai was fraught with hardship, with Benei Yisrael bitterly complaining and even rejecting Moshe’s leadership on several occasions – at the shores of the Yam Suf, in Mara, and later when they demanded food and then water. And Chazal teach that Amalek’s attack at Refidim served to punish Benei Yisrael for their lack of faith expressed when they doubted God’s ability to provide water (as cited by Rashi, 17:8). This period marked a critical time of growth, a process which did not go smoothly. Benei Yisrael failed on several occasions, but eventually reached the point where they stood and proclaimed in unison their unbridled devotion to God’s law.
It is to this model, perhaps, that the Rebbe of Kotzk seeks to draw our attention in his clever interpretation of Rashi’s comment concerning the word “neged.” Just as Benei Yisrael’s process of growth from Egypt to Sinai was fraught with struggle and hardship, similarly, our lifelong journey to “Sinai,” our continuous quest for growth and achievement, will, necessarily, meet obstacles and challenges. If we find religious observance to be easy, undemanding, convenient and perfectly smooth, then we are not “facing” the right direction, and we will not reach “Sinai.” The lifelong trek to excellence should resemble Benei Yisrael’s journey to Sinai, bringing us struggles and requiring hard work and effort. If we expect religious life to be simple and straightforward, then we will either delude ourselves into thinking we’re leading a religious life when we aren’t, or we will simply give up when we face real challenges. The Kotzker Rebbe reminds us that struggle and difficulty are part of the process of growth, and thus when we confront struggles and difficulty, we should feel encouraged, rather than despair, as this is the greatest indicator that we are headed in the right direction.