Where does Parshat Vayechi begin? This is a rather strange question to ask in the age of printed chumashim in which the start of each parsha is clearly marked. Nevertheless, Rashbam, in his opening remarks to this week’s parsha addresses this very point:
The main opening to this parsha is from “Vayeshev Yisrael” (the previous passuk) for it is connected to “Vayechi Ya’akov”. However, the communities did not want to complete the parsha of Vayigash with the phrase “vatehi ha’aretz lePharoh, the land belonged to Pharoh” and so it was completed with “Vayeshev Yisrael”.
According to the Rashbam, the true start to this week’s parsha is actually the final passuk of last week’s portion. This notion is supported by the fact that according to our “mesorah” – tradition with respect to the splitting of the paragraphs in the Torah – there is no paragraph break between these two parshiot. This is the only case in the Torah where there is no such break between one parsha and the next.
Let us examine the two verses in question and discuss the relationship between them.
We begin with the opening verse of Parshat Vayechi:
“Ya’akov lived seventeen years in the land of Egypt, so that the span of Ya’akov’s life came to seven and forty and one hundred years.”
The obvious question on this passuk is why is it that Ya’akov lived in Egypt for so long? We know that he initially traveled there due to the famine raging in the area and the availability of food in Egypt. He accepted Yosef’s invitation to relocate the family during the years of the famine. This decision itself was questionable. With Yosef’s connections, he could surely have provided food for Ya’akov and his family in Eretz Yisrael rather than moving everyone to Mitzrayim. We see in last week’s parsha that Ya’akov is concerned about the choice to move to Egypt. It is for this reason that he stops at Be’er Sheva and requests an audience with Hashem. He is then reassured by The Almighty: “I am God, the God of your father; Fear not to descend to Egypt for I will make you there into a great nation. I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back…”
Hashem tells Ya’akov that although his father, Yitzchak, was not allowed to leave Eretz Yisrael during a time of famine, he, Ya’akov, can go down to Egypt. The reason for this is that Hashem intends to transform the family into a great nation and that this will take place specifically in Egypt. God also promises Ya’akov that he will accompany Ya’akov on his journey to Mitzrayim and will bring him back from there. After hearing these reassurances from Hashem, Ya’akov continues on his journey and eventually arrives in Egypt.
We now understand why Ya’akov spent his final years outside Eretz Yisrael. He was acting on an instruction and promise from Hashem. The opening passuk to this week’s parsha is in fact telling us that the book of Bereishit concludes while the patriarchal family finds itself in Egypt as a result of the Divine command. We therefore look with expectation to the book of Shemot in which we hope to witness the birth of a great nation as promised by God.
Let us now return to the final verse of last week’s parsha, the passuk which, according to Rashbam, is in fact the beginning of this section.
“Thus Israel settled in the country of Egypt, in the region of Goshen; they acquired holdings in it, and were fertile and increased greatly.”
At first glance, the connection between these words and those which open Parshat Vayechi is obvious. Ya’akov’s family settled in Goshen for a total of seventeen years during his lifetime. They would therefore be expected to thrive, multiply and become somewhat comfortable.
Kli Yakar views this passuk very differently. He claims that the fact that the children of Ya’akov and his family settled down in Egypt and became comfortable with their surroundings is to their detriment. They should not have been so accustomed to the way of life in Egypt. In the opinion of the Kli Yakar, because they had acclimatized so well to the Egyptian culture and did not want to leave, Hashem had to remove them “beyad chazaka” with a strong hand.
How are we to understand this claim of the Kli Yakar? Surely, the reason for Ya’akov’s family and subsequently Am Yisrael’s prolonged stay in Mitzrayim was due to a Divine decree, stated originally to Avraham and reiterated to Ya’akov as discussed above. Kli Yakar explains his logic. Hashem decreed that Avraham’s descendants would be temporary residents in a foreign land “ki ger yiheye zaracha” (Bereishit 15:13) but the upcoming Israelite nation chose to become permanent residents as is indicated by the term “Vayeshev Yisrael”. We add that the phrase “veye’achazu bah, they acquired holdings in it” also points to a certain permanency in their attitude to Egypt. The term “achuza” is used in reference to Eretz Yisrael (Bereishit 17:8) and in connection with the acquisition of the cave of Machpelah which is referred to as an “achuzat kaver” (Bereishit 23:9). This reference demonstrates that there was a sense that Mitzrayim had replaced Eretz Yisrael as the future home of Am Yisrael.
Thus far we have seen that on the one hand Ya’akov remains in Egypt as he was instructed to do by God. On the other, at least according to the Kli Yakar, the Torah criticizes the Israelites for becoming too acclimatized to the country in which they resided. How can we reconcile these two ideas?
We suggest that the answer lies in an understanding of the nature of galut, exile. The descent to Egypt signified the beginning of the first galut which Am Yisrael was to experience. This was clearly as a result of a decree from God. This decree is stated clearly in chapter 15 of Bereishit and reinforced by God’s words to Ya’akov. Once it became clear that Am Yisrael was to emerge from their stay in Egypt, the question was how are they to relate to their time in exile? This is the concern of the Kli Yakar.
When in galut, Am Yisrael must feel like strangers; we should not become too accustomed to life in a foreign land. We may be forced to reside in a foreign land but that does not require us to become fully fledged citizens of that country, adopting all its practices and customs. On the contrary, for us to be worthy of being redeemed from galut, we must retain and return to our Jewish and Torah values.
If we examine other sources in Tanach we find that it not just the Kli Yakar who believes in this notion. In Devraim (chapter 4) the Torah discusses galut. First is described the reasons for Hashem deciding to send the nation into exile. Secondly, the Torah cites the meaning of galut and in this context we are told:
“There (in galut) you shall serve man-made gods of wood and stone, that cannot see or hear or smell” (Devraim 4:28). We know that idol worship is a primary cause for the punishment of galut – why is it mentioned here as something we will practice whilst living in a foreign land? Abarbanel explains that this is an extension of the punishment. We will be so overcome by the foreign culture that we will become part of it. We could suggest however, as do other commentaries, that this is a corollary of exile and one which we must do our utmost to avoid. Yechezkel expends much energy trying to convince Am Yisrael in Bavel that they should not become Babylonian but rather maintain their connection to Torah and Eretz Yisrael.
If we return to Ya’akov Avinu we note that he too attempts to remind Am Yisrael of their roots. In two separate commands, Ya’akov instructs Yosef and the rest of his sons to bury him in Eretz Yisrael. Not just anywhere in Israel but in Me’arat Hamachpela, the burial place of their forefathers. Ya’akov conveys the message to his children that though galut was necessary in the meantime, they must always remember where their loyalties lie. Their true roots are in Eretz Yisrael; their values those of Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov. Our geographical location, whether as a nation or as individuals, must never affect our attitude towards our tradition and legacy.