Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Vayigash 5762/ December 22, 2001

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Vayigash 5762/ December 22, 2001

The Fear of Yeridah

Rabbi Yitzhak Cohen

Joseph sends his brothers to Canaan with wagons, to bring Jacob down to Egypt. He offers two explanations: tell my father that I want him in the land of Goshen "where you will be near me" (Gen. 45:10) and secondly, "There I will provide for you-for there are yet five years of famine to come." The brothers, upon their arrival back home, inform Jacob that "Joseph is still alive" (ibid., 26) and "they recounted all that Joseph had said to them" (27). Jacob responded to their request, saying, "My son Joseph is still alive! I must go and see him before I die" (28). Jacob has no intention of remaining in Egypt nor does the lengthy famine bring him to leave Israel, only the desire to see his beloved son before his (Jacob's) death.

On the trip to Egypt, Jacob offers sacrifices to the Lord (46:1) and the commentaries already dwell on the fact that the verse reads, "to the G-d of his father Isaac" and not "of his fathers Abraham and Isaac." Rashi, following Midrash Rabbah, says that a man owes deference to his father more than to his grandfather. Radak and others: His father Isaac also wanted to go down to Egypt in time of famine and the Lord objected. So Jacob offered sacrifices at Beersheba, at the edge of Canaan, to know if the Lord would prevent him as well from leaving Canaan. Nahmanides, who often cites explanations based on "secrets" and Kabbalah, here sees Isaac as representing the strict rule of law (middat haddin) since Isaac personifies the sefira of Gevura; Jacob feared that his descent to Egypt might initiate the four hundred years of exile predicted in the Covenant of the Pieces (brit ben habetarim) so he "sacrified to the G-d of his father Isaac" in order that "the rule of law not be enforced against him." This is also the reason, continues Ramban, that Jacob offered zevahim, offerings shared by the altar and the participants, and not whole-offerings, olot, because he wanted to make peace with (le-hashlim elav) all the rules (middot), as the Rabbis taught, "shelamim are called so because they bring peace (shalom) to the world." We understand from this that Jacob feared exile and its hardships on the future of Israel, and hoped to soften things by offering zevahim.

Indeed, from G-d's words to Jacob after he sacrificed, we can learn of his fears and hesitations about leaving the Land to go to Egypt. "Fear not to go down 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" (46:3-4).
Jacob feared four things:
1. What would the fate of Israel be in the exile? Would they keep watch over their national traits, would they develop as an independent people, or would they assimilate? G-d responded to this fear by saying, "for I will make you there into a great nation".
2. ld Israel continue in its religious beliefs? To which G-d responded, " I Myself will go down with you to Egypt."
3 Would Israel ever return? To which G-d answered, "and I Myself will also bring you back."
4 This was a personal fear: Would he indeed see his beloved Joseph before he dies, for this was his entire wish. G-d assured him, "and Joseph's hand shall close your eyes."

Nevertheless, Jacob's fears for the national and religious fate of his offspring took their toll on him. The verse in ch. 46 which tell of his travels to Beersheba and then down to Egypt reveals this to us: the chapter opens, "So Israel set out with all that was his"(46:1) and continues, after he left Beersheba, "So Jacob set out from Beersheba. The sons of Israel put their father Jacob ... in the wagons which Pharaoh had sent to transport them" (46:5). Two changes catch our eye: First he is called Israel, a name which expresses strength, initiative, and independence, given to him when "he had striven with beings divine and human, and prevailed" (32:29). But then he is called Jacob, the nomadic wanderer. Second, at the outset he "sets out with all that was his;" but on the way to Egypt, he is carried by his sons. The leader of the tribes is now led, the active becomes passive. It seems as if old age has suddenly pounced upon Jacob. Indeed, the Rabbis taught us in the Passover Haggadah, " He went down to Egypt, forced (anoos) by the Divine word." Jacob never intended to go "on yeridah", only to visit his beloved son, but the Almighty already knew what was in store, saying, "Fear not to go down to (me-redah) Egypt" (46:3).