I would like to dedicate the shiur to the memory of my dear mother Margola Chana bat Yissacher Dov v’Perel, whose yahrtzheit is the 8th of Tevet. She constantly tried to teach me what to learn from the world around me. She was partially successful.
It can sometimes be a challenge to read the Torah when we know what happens next. Often we find ourselves begging the characters not to do or say something that we know from previous readings will bring very challenging circumstances. As we finished the parsha last week, we should have been left hanging on the edges of our seats in suspense, but honestly we were around for the last few years and know what happens in parshat Vayigash.
This sense of knowing too much also makes a particular verse in Devarim very challenging:
“Do not despise an Edomite, for he is your brother. Do not despise an Egyptian, because you lived as a foreigner in his land.”
This is said at the end of the 40th year after the exodus from hundreds of years of slavery. The Torah is asking us to see Egypt as our gracious host? The simple answer is, Yes – the details are a bit more complex.
Rashi, in his comments on that passuk, says that rationally we would despise the Egyptians and that is precisely why we are being told not to. After all they threw the males into the river, amongst other atrocities. However we are told to keep a very important fact in mind – Parshat Vayigash.
We are asked to focus on this week’s parsha and note the incredible opportunity that was provided to Yaakov and family. The Midrash clearly understands this in a very non-naïve manner, pointing out that the Egyptians were not acting altruistically at all, and still we are to be appreciative.
We are to be appreciative even though we know the whole story and understand that the salvation in this parsha is actually not redemption but rather the first steps of exile. So when we add all of the elements that we know we find that a self-centred, evil nation lured our ancestors into a life of slavery and suffering and it is that nation that we are told to appreciate.
I think that we are being presented with two important messages. Firstly we need to focus on the context of the pessukim. The issue concerns the possibility of a convert from one of those nations being allowed to marry a Jewish born person. We are not talking about tourism, being an Egyptian football team fan or taking a selfie in front of the pyramids. We are talking about a former Egyptian, now Jew, and how they can merge into the nation. With that in mind it almost seems ludicrous in the opposite direction. One would assume that a convert is a full-fledged Jew, period. However it turns out that certain nations carry with them certain ingrained qualities that we are concerned about. The fact that the Egyptians, in one stage or another, for whatever reason provided a safe haven for us speaks very loudly. Rav Sorotzkin in his work Oznayim Le Torah explains that we had three generations that were enslaved in Egypt and hence the same restriction is placed on them. The fourth generation in both cases will not be affected.
The second point I think is much more fundamental. The Torah is teaching us that it is not always our job to seek pure global justice. I think a fairly clear case can be made to support eternal angst towards the nation of Egypt. If this is applied firmly forever we would clearly indicate a feeling of justice. However it might not be the best thing for us. The bearing of an eternal grudge and hate can take a serious toll on our own personal and spiritual wellbeing. Hate takes a lot of energy.
Maybe the Torah is trying to make us people that focus on the positive, even if there is plenty of negative that goes along with it. If we train ourselves to look for the silver linings and rays of brightness we become better people.
We do not forget our experiences in Egypt but we use them to focus on the important parts and to develop us as people. We remember the fact that God took us out of Egypt every day, twice a day. If we truly understand the message then we are constantly recharging our appreciation battery.
We are instructed to treat the stranger with respect and empathy precisely because of our communal experience in Egypt. We are told to keep honest business practices and treat those employed by us fairly, all of this as lessons from our time in Egypt.
Egypt is just one example. Each and every experience that we have, is supposed to make us into better people, in some cases we are meant to model exemplary behaviour and in others to learn what to avoid.
This is the advantage to literary tunnel vision. We need to be able to view each act and each scene on its own in order to draw the proper conclusions. In the case of parshat Vayigash we need to learn appreciation for the shelter and sustenance provided to us. As we go on and the rest of the story unfolds we need to note each and every moral to be learned. At the end of a chapter we can revisit the ideas again, and the same until the very final scene is played. Eventually we will amass a wide variety of insights and strategies for fulfilling our mission here on Earth.