By Roi Abecassis, Mazkal (CEO) of World Bnei Akiva
Yosef’s brothers went up to their father and tell him that “Od Yosef Chai”, Yosef is still alive. Yaakov headed towards an emotional reunion with his son.
The Torah says: “And Yisrael [Yaakov] travelled with everything that was his, and he arrived in Be’er Sheva”. That night, Hashem revealed himself to Yaakov and reassures him: “Don’t be afraid of going down to Egypt”.
With this historic journey of the Children of Israel to exile, Hashem tries to instill confidence in Yaakov Avinu.
Upon a close analysis, we find that Hashem gave three reassurances before the descent to Egypt:
- I will make you there a great nation – כי לגוי גדול אשימך שם
- I will go down with you, and I will surely bring you up from there – אנוכי ארד עמך ואנוכי אעלך גם עלה
- Yosef will place his hand on your eyes – ויוסף ישית ידו על עיניך
Why is Yaakov afraid? One can assume that Yaakov knew the descent into exile was inevitable due to the Brit Bein Habetarim (the Covenant Between the Parts) made with Avraham, his grandfather: “You will be a stranger in a foreign land” (Bereshit 15:13). Following this, it is logical to say that Yaakov understood the historical significance of his descent to Egypt, and the understanding that this descent was part of the divine plan.
However Hashem’s words of comfort to Yaakov still seem strange. Why would Yaakov be comforted by knowing that he will be a great nation there? Does is not matter that Yaakov’s descendants will become a great nation “there”, away from the promised land? And if we assume that having many descendants is indeed a blessing, is it worthwhile to have them if their Jewish identity will be compromised? Furthermore, when Hashem promised that he would both descend with, and bring up, Yaakov, why does the Torah say: ואנוכי אעלך גם עלה (“I will surely bring you up from there”), repeating the verb ‘to go up’? And finally, what is the meaning of the closing phrase: “Yosef will place his hand on your eyes”.
It seems that Yaakov was cognizant of the divine promise that Am Yisrael would be exiled in a foreign land, and that they would experience slavery and affliction – and so it was not this decree that Yaakov was afraid of. The Netivot Shalom explains:
“Yaakov’s great fear was that Hashem would forsake them specifically because they were descending to Egypt – an impure and immoral land – where they would be immersed in the 49 levels of impurity and become distanced from God. On this, God responded: “Don’t fear from going down to Egypt because I will make you there a great nation”.
Yaakov began to realise that the “foreign land” was to be Egypt. He was well aware of the impurity of Egypt and the spiritual risks that would endanger his descendants from living Jewish lives – and it was of this that Yaakov was afraid. Hashem’s message of comfort was to tell him that his descendants would become a ‘great’ nation qualitatively, as opposed to quantitatively. They would continue to be Hashem’s chosen nation.
Moreover, Hashem guarantees that He will take care of his chosen nation by mentioning that He will go down with them to Egypt, and take responsibility for bringing them up. The repetition of the verb ‘to go up’ (ואנוכי אעלך גם עלה) in the promise emphasizes this point. In effect, Hashem is saying that Am Yisrael wouldn’t go to exile alone, rather the Shechina (Divine Presence) would be with them as they descended into exile and as they left it. Thus the Shechina and Am Yisrael became intertwined, and was ultimately to accompany the people in their return to Eretz Yisrael.
Hashem’s closing words mention Yosef. Yosef was testimony to a startling series of events throughout many years that only with the perspective of time can be seen to have been directed by a guiding hand. In the same way as the sale of Yosef and his resulting experiences in Egypt were later revealed to be part of the divine plan, so too was Yaakov and his family’s descent to the impure land of Egypt due to the guiding hand of Hashem.
“שיר המעלות בשוב ה’ את שיבת ציון היינו כחולמים” (A song of ascents: When Hashem brought back the exiles of Zion, we were like people who dream).
The Netivot Shalom explains the phrase ‘we were like people who dream’ to refer to Yosef ‘the dreamer’. We have many doubts about the role of exile, its length and its many tribulations. However with the return to Zion we appreciate the full picture, as it became clear with the revealing of the identity of Yosef the dreamer.
We live in the era of the ‘Return to Zion’, yet many of our people reside in the Diaspora with a remote connection to their Jewish identity. Yaakov’s fears on the eve of his descent to exile for the spiritual dangers facing Am Yisrael are relevant today.
We merit to live in the generation of the return to Zion, who are building the land, supporting its economy and developing it as a spiritual centre. However, while we should continue building the land of our forefathers on the one hand, on the other hand it remains our responsibility to continue to care for, and ultimately return, the ‘great nation’ which resides ‘there’.