This e-mail is dedicated to Mrs. Chasin (mother of Oren Chasin and his three other brothers) who passed away suddenly Wednesday morning from a heart attack. May her soul have an Aliyah and may Hashem grant her family the strength to carry on.
In last week’s parsha (Miketz), Yosef’s brothers ask their father Yaakov, permission to take Benyamin down to Egypt. They explain that the Viceroy of Egypt (Yosef, in disguise), is holding their brother Shimon captive, until they bring Benyamin down to him. Yaakov refuses to let Benyamin go with them, saying that he has already lost two sons–namely Yosef and now, Shimon–and does not want to lose a 3rd. Reuven (the firstborn) steps forward and tells Yaakov that if Benyamin is not brought back safely, Yaakov can kill Reuven’s two sons. Yaakov still refuses to send Benyamin as, according to Rashi, he says to himself “Is Reuven crazy? Are his sons not like my sons?! How can he think that killing my two grandsons will comfort me in the event that I lose a 3rd son?!”
Sometime later, when all of their food runs out, the brothers once again confront Yaakov, to try to convince him to let them take Benyamin down to Egypt. This time, it is Yehuda who steps forward to plead with Yaakov and he promises Yaakov that he will take personal responsibility for Benyamin. According to Rashi, Yehuda tells Yaakov that if he does not bring Benyamin back, he will pay for it even in Olam Habah (the World-to-Come). Surprisingly, after hearing this Yaakov agrees to send Benyamin with them. The question is: Why? What was it about what Yehuda said that made Yaakov agree to send Benyamin? This is especially perplexing because Yehuda’s offer does not seem to be much different than Reuven’s. In fact, what Yehuda said may even be worse, because Reuven only made himself pay for losing Benyamin in THIS world (through the loss of his own children), but Yehuda was making himself pay in Olam Habah–i.e. for eternity!
Perhaps it is not what Yehuda said that made Yaakov change his mind, but rather the fact that it was Yehuda who said it. R. Alan Schwartz of Ohav Tzedek pointed out that by this time, Yehuda had lost two of his own sons–namely, Er and Onan. Therefore, unlike the other brothers, Yehuda was the only one who could really understand the anguish that Yaakov was experiencing at the thought of losing a third son. Thus, when Yehuda promised to take care of Benyamin, he was basically telling Yaakov “I, more than anyone else, understand your reluctance because I am coming from the same place that you are. I too lost two of my sons. And just like I would do everything in my power to make sure that no harm comes to my third son, Shelah, you can be sure that I will not let anything happen to your third son, Benyamin”. With this guarantee, Yaakov agrees to let Benyamin go.
Such is human nature. A person feels closer to someone else who has had similar experiences, because he feels that only then can that other person really understand, and thus commiserate with what he is going through. As a result, a special bond is created between them which often leads to a greater degree of trust in each other.
Interestingly, we see this idea of “commiseration” come up again in this week’s parsha, Vayigash. When Yaakov is on his way down to Egypt, Hashem appears to him and tells him not to be afraid because (46:4) “I will go down with you to Egypt and I will bring you up”. Many commentaries are perplexed by this statement, because they note that in Sefer Shemot (Exodus) when Moshe brings the plagues on Egypt he always has to leave Egypt in order to receive a communique’ from Hashem. According to Rashi, the reason that Moshe had to leave Egypt was because that country so full of idolatry that Hashem’s presence refused to rest there. If that is the case, how could Hashem tell Yaakov that He would go down to Egypt with him?
In addition, the Torah tells us that a total of seventy Jews went down to Egypt. However, if you count all the names mentioned in this parsha, the actual total only comes to sixty-nine. So the commentary Daat Z’kanim M’Baalei HaTosfot (a group of Rabbis from the Gaonic period, 7-11th centuries) says that Hashem was included among them as the “seventieth”. Thus, Hashem HAD to have gone down with them in order for the number to be complete. But then how do we reconcile this with what is said in Sefer Shemot?
Ohr HaChaim (R. Chaim Attar) tells us that there are many different levels of Hashem’s presence. He quotes a verse in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers, 3:7) which says “If ten people are sitting and learning Torah, Hashem’s presence is among them. And even five who sit and learn Torah, Hashem’s presence is among them. And even three…., and even two…and even one…”. According to Ohr HaChaim, it cannot be that Hashem’s presence is equally among the ten as it is among the five or the one. Therefore, he concludes that Hashem’s presence has many different levels of concentration, and depending on the situation, His presence exists there accordingly.
Thus according to Ohr HaChaim, while Hashem did in fact go down to Egypt with the Jews, only part of His presence went down with them. But then one might ask: “If Hashem was not going to send His full presence, why bother to send any at all?” Ohr HaChaim compares this incident to the time that Hashem appeared to Moshe in the burning bush (Shemot 3:2). There, Hashem told Moshe “I am with My people in suffering”–i.e. “I commiserate with them so much, that it is as if I am enslaved too”. The Midrash (Oral Tradition) tells us that Hashem purposely appeared in a lowly thornbush to symbolize that He was with the Jews in their suffering. Similarly, Hashem was telling Yaakov, “My coming down to Egypt symbolizes the fact that I will be with the Jews even in slavery. Thus, because I will be with them and will commiserate with their pain, you can be sure that I will take them out”.
We see this concept of commiseration expressed yet again in this parsha, albeit in a slightly different way. As the famine intensifies, the Egyptians sell all their private property to Yosef in exchange for food. After obtaining all of their land, it says (47:21) “And Yosef moved the people into cities”. Rashi explains that Yosef did this in order to save the Jews from being embarrassed by the Egyptians, who might degrade them by calling them an “exiled people”. Yosef thought that if the Egyptians themselves were “exiled”, they could not use that insult against the Jews. But Kli Yakar (R. Shlomo Efraim of Luntchitz) objects to this answer by saying that Yosef would not have gone to such great lengths in moving everyone around, simply to save his family some embarrassment. In addition, the Jews could not be called “exiled” because only someone who owned land and then was uprooted from it, can be called “exiled”. Since Yaakov and his sons never owned land in Egypt, they would not be called “exiled” (at worst, they might be called “immigrants”). So Kli Yakar says that the reason Yosef moved everyone around was because he felt that only someone who had the experience of being a stranger himself, could truly understand and commiserate with another person who was a stranger. Knowing that the Jews were destined to be strangers in Egypt for many years, Yosef purposely uprooted the Egyptians from their property, so that they would understand what the Jews were going through and thus act more kind and sympathetic toward them.
Nice theory, but as we know, it did not prove to be true. The Egyptians ended up being horribly cruel to the Jews. So where did Yosef’s logic fail?
Perhaps it was not Yosef’s logic that failed, but rather the Jews who did. At the end of the parsha it says (47:27) “The Jews settled in Goshen”. Kli Yakar points out that this is a derogatory statement about the Jews because Hashem decreed that they should be strangers there, but instead, they decided to SETTLE there–i.e. make it their permanent home. Unfortunately, as we have seen time and time again in our history, when Jews try to join the “melting pot” and fit in with the surrounding culture, the native people do everything that they can to remind us that we are strangers. Thus, once the Jews demonstrated that they did not consider themselves to be “strangers” in Egypt, the Egyptians also stopped looking at them as strangers, and were very cruel to them. But then our question would be: What about Hashem? If Hashem was with the Jews in Egypt, why didn’t He put a stop to the Egyptian’s cruel treatment of the Jews?
There is a Gemarra in Tractate Ketubot (111b) which says “He who lives outside the land of Israel, is living without a G-d”. Based on what we said earlier about Hashem’s presence having different degrees of concentration, the Gemarra seems to be saying that Hashem’s presence is so concentrated in the Land of Israel that in comparison, living anywhere else is as if living without a G-d or at best, with a much more diluted presence of Hashem. When the Jews chose to settle in the land of Goshen, as opposed to merely being strangers there, the message they were sending to Hashem was that they were okay with living without His full presence. In return, Hashem seems to be saying “If you settle in other lands, where My presence is not fully felt and you are okay with it, perhaps I won’t show you My full presence by stopping those nations from oppressing you”. In other words, the degree to which we are shown Hashem’s presence in our lives, depends on how much we want His presence in our lives. When Jews live in Eretz Yisrael, they are sending a message to Hashem that they want Him in their lives and Hashem responds by being with them.