This week we read Parshat VaYigash, the penultimate sedra in Sefer Breishit. As is well known, the Ramban in particular sees this Sefer as foreshadowing the general thrust of Jewish History. “Maase Avot Siman L’Banim”, the deeds of the fathers are signposts for their sons. It is not surprising, therefore, that the story of Bnai Yisrael’s descent into Egypt, which is, of course the beginning of the first exile experienced by Am Yisrael, is used as a prism through which all subsequent exile are viewed. This week we will discuss some of the lessons that this parsha might hold for us.
The story of Bnai Yisrael’s entering into Mitzrayim (46:28-47:12) begins in a curious, almost insignificant fashion. The Torah tells us that Yaakov sends Yehuda ahead to Yosef “l’horot lfanav Goshna”, to direct him to Goshen, the land that Yosef has prepared for his family. Rashi first quotes Onkelos, who explains that Yaakov has charged Yehuda with the task of physically preparing the area for his arrival. He then proceeds to quote the Midrash (Midrash Rabba 95:3) that suggests, base on the use of the word “l’horot” (to teach or instruct) that Yaakov has in fact directed Yehuda to set up a Yeshiva, from which “Hora’a”, instruction, will go forth. These two explanations need not, of course, be seen as mutually exclusive, but rather as complimentary. Yaakov foresees the need to prepare to meet both the physical as well as the spiritual needs of Am Yisrael in their new surroundings. In sending Yehuda ahead, he is trying to ensure that these twin requirements for the continued growth and security of his family be secured. This concern for the physical and spiritual wellbeing of the Jewish people would of course become a hallmark of Jewish communities all over the world throughout history.
It is equally significant to note that we find this concept of preparing the spiritual groundwork for galut much earlier in Yaakov’s life. The Gemara in Megilla, quoted by Rashi (28:9), tells us that rather than go directly to Charan upon fleeing the wrath of Esav, that Yaakov chooses to go to Yeshiva for fourteen years. The Yeshiva he chooses is the Beit Midrash of Ever. This is a school, says Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky , which specializes in preparing its students for life in Chutz L’Aretz. Yaakov, drawing upon his own experiences, tries to recreate that type of environment for his family, in order to ensure their survival in the upcoming Galut.
After quoting the Midrashic explanation of Yaakov’s decision to send Yehuda ahead to Goshen, Rabbenu B’Chaya ben Asher quotes a parallel Midrash (Tanchuma 6). The Midrash marvels at the fact that these two forces, Yehuda and Yosef, which just a few weeks earlier were poised to fight one another, are now working together for the greater good. Not only that, but the same brothers who only weeks earlier could not be entrusted with the safety of their younger brother (Binyamin), are now fully protective of him, and are willing to sacrifice anything in order to guarantee his safety. The Midrash, of course, is introducing another critical element for the survival of the Am Yisrael in Galut, the all too often elusive value of unity. The brothers learn to recognize that without unity, they cannot hope to survive in a hostile environment.
Yosef is also busy planning for the salvation of Am Yisrael in their changed circumstances. The keystone of his plan is to arrange for his family to live apart from the rest of Egyptian society. In order to convince Paro of the wisdom of this plan, he asks his brothers to stress their background as shepherds. We are familiar with the Torah’s explanation for why this would effectively cause them to be ostracized from “good company”, “ki toavat Mitzrayim kol roeh tzoan”, because shepherds are an abomination to Egyptian society. Why? Because, as Rashi explains, the Egyptians view sheep as representing a deity. I have often wondered about the logic of this explanation. If sheep are in fact representative of a deity, what calling could be more noble than serving them? The answer offered by several of the Rishonim (see, for example, the Ibn Ezra, Rashbam and Radak), that shepherds would use the animals for their own needs, such as drinking their milk or eating their meat seems a bit forced. On the one hand, there would be those who would not behave in this fashion, while on the other there would surely be a need for a cadre of shepherds to take care of the sheep that were being venerated.
While not directly addressing himself to this question, Rabbenu B’Chaye suggests in a related context that one of the reasons that Bnai Yisrael became shepherds in the first place was to separate themselves from this particular form of Avoda Zara. Who knows better than a shepherd that far from being a god, that a sheep is well, just a sheep. (This idea can of course be applied to explain the position of the commentaries quoted above. Shepherds would be hard pressed to maintain the supposed dignity and sanctity of their flock when faced daily with the reality of sheep! See also the Siftei Chachamim on Rashi, 46:34, for a similar explanation).
Rabbenu B’Chaye extends his point a step further. Bnai Yisrael, he argues, were well aware of the fact that they would be heading to Egypt. As such they specifically chose to inoculate themselves against the prevailing Avoda Zara in that society. Their preferred method for doing so, namely demystifying the Avoda Zara by understanding its true essence, is of course an invaluable tool for preparing oneself to test the values of a society and determine if they are compatible with ones own set of beliefs.
In her work Iyunim Chadashim B’Sefer Breishit, Nechama Leibowitz suggests that a careful reading of the Abarbanel (who is apparently quoting the Akeidat Yitzhak) on the one hand, and the Netziv on the other gives us two rationales for Yosef’s decision to separate Am Yisrael from Mitzrayim. The first reason is just that, to separate Bnai Yisrael from the Egyptians. Yosef could easily have used his position to arrange for his family to gain all sorts of privileged positions within Egyptian society. Instead, he actively works to separate them, going as far, according to the Gemara (Baba Kama 92b) as to present only the weakest of the brothers to Paro, so that he would not try and press them into his service. According to this approach, the danger from which Yosef seeks to protect his family is that of assimilation, of trying to fast track themselves in a society whose values are foreign to their own. This position, which is posited by the Abarbanel, sees Yosef’s goal as separation from the larger society. There is, however, no specific value to the community in Goshen.
The Netziv, however, views building that separate community as being the linchpin of Yosef’s strategy. It is so important that Yosef is willing to have his brothers degrade themselves in the eyes of the Egyptians in order to achieve that goal. It is necessary, but not sufficient for Am Yisrael to be separate from the larger society. What still remains to be seen is what they will accomplish through that separation. The necessity for AmYisrael is to establish a society that will not only safeguard, but will also advance those values that make them different.
It is not surprising that in Sefer Shemot the Netziv argues that what led to the Egyptian attack upon Am Yisrael was the decision to abandon this principle and try and assimilate into Egyptian society. As long as they remained separate they were safe, but when Bnai Yisrael tried to blur the differences between themselves and their neighbors they became a persecuted minority.
The challenge for every generation is to read the Siman Avot, and apply the Maase L’Banim in a manner appropriate to the circumstances that are unique to that time. It is our blessing and our destiny to be both a nation which dwells alone as well as a light onto other nations. How we fulfill the seemingly contradictory challenge of both those imperatives is what defines who we are and more importantly who we will be.