Shabbat Parashat Vayigash 5773
Parashat Hashavua: Self-Imposed Isolation
Harav Shaul Yisraeli – based on Siach Shaul, pp. 134-5
The lot of Israel was unique from the time of its inception, and this finds poignant expression in the life of our forefather, Yaakov/Yisrael. Already as the leader of a family, which was a nation in formation, Yaakov had to forsake his dream of living in tranquility and go to exile, as a model and harbinger for the future nation that would bear his name.
Hashem told Yaakov not to fear going down to Egypt (Bereishit 46:3), which is a sure sign, say Chazal (Bereishit Rabba 76:1), that prior to that he did fear. What was the reason for Yaakov’s fear? We understand his fear when encountering Eisav and his band of 400 men (Bereishit 32:8). However, here Yaakov was preparing for an encounter with a new leader and host nation, not as a potential victim but as a celebrity. He was protected by his all-powerful son, the viceroy of Egypt. That certainly seems an improvement over his position in the famine-struck Land of Canaan. Paroh himself sent a greeting to Yaakov and sent presents and promises that there was no need to bring provisions because Egypt awaited him with the desire to provide him with anything he wanted (ibid. 46: 18-20). It is easier to understand the emotional mixed feelings about leaving the land of his forefathers with an element of sadness, but why was there fear?
It appears that what concerned Yaakov was specifically the Egyptian open-armed welcome that awaited him. Such a reception put the family in danger of a destructive spiritual influence that would accompany the best amenities of Egypt. We see this in the style of living that the family adopted upon their arrival in Egypt. They lived in history’s first Jewish ghetto, but it was one which was unilaterally requested by Yosef on their behalf. Furthermore, when the family was to meet Paroh, the instructions were to tell him that they were inextricably linked to the profession of shepherding, which was despised by the Egyptians, so that the possibility of the family’s assimilation in general society would be further set back.
Not only did they not want to rub shoulders with general society, but they did not want influential roles within the elite of the nation. That is why Yosef chose only a delegation of his less impressive brothers to be presented to Paroh, so that he not choose them as officers for the army (Rashi to Bereishit 47:2).
Indeed these precautions succeeded. Paroh, while still keeping the offer of fuller participation in society open, was resigned to the fact that Yaakov’s family would live separately. More importantly, in the long run, we see that the family-nation remained socially unique. While they did slip over time into a pattern of idol worship, they kept distinct names, language, and clothes. In the merit of these steps they were redeemed when the time came. As Hashem promised Yaakov, “I shall go down with you to Egypt, and I shall certainly return you” (ibid. 46:4).
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