‘Exceptional’ Parashat Vayigash 5780

Everyone knew it was coming. It had hung over their heads like a grey cloud. G-d had told Abraham that a terrible fate would befall his descendants [Bereishit 15:13]: “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years”. Every time one of Abraham’s descendants was forced to leave the Land of Israel, there was always the risk that they would not be coming back for another four hundred years. But this time was different. This time it was imminent. Jacob had just been told that his beloved son, Joseph, whom he was certain had been dead for the past twenty-two years, was not only alive, but that he was the Grand Vizier of the Egyptian Empire. Joseph had invited Jacob and his family to come down to Egypt to ride out a famine that had decimated the Middle East. Joseph had already used his prowess as a dream interpreter to predict the famine and to prepare Egypt to survive it in relative comfort. As Jacob prepares to leave for Egypt, G-d appears to him [Bereishit 46:2]: “G-d called to Israel in a vision by night”. Rabbi Meir Simcha HaKohen of Dvinsk, who lived in the early twentieth century, writes in “Meshech Chochma” that G-d specifically appeared to Jacob (a.k.a. Israel) at night, metaphorically representing the darkening skies above him and his family as they set out to enter what would be a horrifically brutal exile.

G-d senses Jacob’s angst and He seeks to comfort Jacob. He tells Jacob [Bereishit 46:3] “Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation (goy gadol)”. Rabbi Chaim ben Atar, known as the Or HaChaim HaKadosh, who lived in Morocco in the 18th  century, asks why G-d’s words should be at all comforting Jacob. Why in the world would Jacob want to become “a great nation” in Egypt? The more descendants he had, the more people that would end up suffering under the burden of slavery. It would seem a better idea to keep the population low until the worst was over[1].

In order to address the question of the Or HaChaim, we must be cognizant that the word “great” has multiple meanings: It can be a quantitative modifier and it can also be a qualitative modifier. According to the on-line Webster-Merriam dictionary, “great” can mean “large in number or measure” – as in “there are a great number of elephants in Krueger Park” – and it can also mean “markedly superior in character or quality” – as in “that clip about the elephants in Krueger Park was really great!” When G-d tells Jacob that he will make him into a “great nation” in Egypt, what definition of the word “great” is He referring to? Will He make Jacob’s descendants large in number or exceptional in nature? The two most well-known Aramaic translations of the Torah – Onkelos and Yonatan ben Uziel – both translate the Hebrew “goy gadol” (great nation) as “am sagai” – “a numerically large nation”. Their source more than likely comes from a promise that G-d made to Abraham when He urged him to leave Mesopotamia for the Land of Israel [Bereishit 12:2]: “I will make of you a great nation”. Rashi, the ultimate Medieval commentator, explains that G-d was promising Abraham that he would have a large number of children, but only in the Land of Israel.

I suggest that it is equally plausible to interpret G-d’s promise to Jacob as “I will make you there into an exceptional nation”. My source comes from the Passover Haggadah. Recall that the Haggadah recaps the Egyptian bondage and exodus by quoting verses from the Book of Devarim [26:5-8] . One of these verses [Devarim 26:5] describes how “there [in Egypt Jacob] became a great (goy gadol) and very populous nation”. After the Haggadah quotes this verse, it remarks, “This teaches that they were exceptional (metzuyanim) there”. That is to say, when the Torah says “a great nation”, it means “an exceptional nation”. Indeed, the term “very populous” used in this sentence is a translation not of the word “gadol” but of “atzum varav”.

In what way were the Jews “exceptional” in Egypt? The Torah addresses this question explicitly. The week before Moses dies, he adjures the Jewish People [Devarim 4:6-8] “Observe [the commandments] faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, ‘Surely, that great nation (goy gadol) is a wise and discerning people. For what great nation (goy gadol) is there that has a god so close at hand…? Or what great nation (goy gadol) has laws and rules as perfect as all this Teaching that I set before you this day?’” It is the observance of G-d’s Torah and the commandments therein that make the Jewish People exceptional. The Jews stood out in Egypt in their ability to retain their religious beliefs even while being brutally subjugated.

We have not yet answered the question we set out to answer: Why would Jacob want to become “a great (remarkable) nation” in Egypt? Wouldn’t it have been easier to attain “remarkable status” under conditions with less duress? Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, who lived in Italy in the 15th century, gives the following answer: “[G-d told Jacob] I am the G-d who told your father not to go to Egypt [Bereishit 26:2], yet I am telling you to go. There I will make you into a great nation. Whereas if you remain here your offspring will intermarry with the Canaanites. This will not happen in Egypt because the [Egyptian] populace will not even eat with the Hebrews[2]”. It sounds like the Seforno is suggesting that for the Jewish People to realize their full potential, they had to remain, well, racially pure. I’d like to put a different spin on the Seforno. In April 2007, Charles Murray, an American political scientist, wrote an article in Commentary Magazine called “Jewish Genius”. The article attempted to explain what Murray called “disproportionate Jewish accomplishment in the arts and sciences” and it predictably set off a firestorm of controversy. Here are some excerpts:

“From 1870 to 1950, Jewish representation in literature was four times the number one would expect. In music, five times. In the visual arts, five times. In biology, eight times. In chemistry, six times. In physics, nine times. In mathematics, twelve times. In philosophy, fourteen times… In the first half of the 20th century… Jews won 14% of Nobel Prizes in literature, chemistry, physics, and medicine/physiology. In the second half… that figure rose to 29%. So far, in the 21st century, it has been 32%. Jews constitute about two-tenths of one percent of the world’s population. You do the math.”

Last week, Brett Stephens revisited the topic in an article in the New York Times, an article that just as predictably elicited no less backlash than “Jewish Genius”. Stephens suggested that Jewish prowess comes, in part, from a history of being strangers in a strange land:

There is the never-quite-comfortable status of Jews in places where they are the minority –  intimately familiar with the customs of the country while maintaining a critical distance from them… If the greatest Jewish minds seem to have no walls, it may be because, for Jews, the walls have so often come tumbling down.”

I suggest that the reason for “Jewish Genius”, if such a thing exists, has less to do with fear and more to do with something that Stephens mentions in passing: “Where Jews’ advantage more often lies is in thinking different.” Egypt, in Jacob’s time, was the most advanced culture in the world, technologically, economically, and socially. At the same time, vicious Egyptian slave-owners exemplified how low cultured man could stoop. In Egypt, Jacob’s descendants learned that they could never place their trust in an imperfect human being, only in a perfect G-d and His perfect Torah. Confiding in G-d has long term benefits: when man compares his own fallibility with G-d’s perfection, it instills him with humility. Realizing that he is only flesh and blood, man becomes unafraid of failure, as even an epic fail is simultaneously a learning experience, drawing man closer in some way to G-dliness. In the words of King Solomon [Mishlei 24:16] “Seven times the righteous man falls and gets up, while the wicked are tripped by one misfortune.” This kind of “different thinking” was nothing new – it was introduced to the world by Abraham. But it took four hundred years of painful exile for his descendants to understand that this kind of different thinking would help them evolve from a large nation into an exceptional one.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and David ben Chaya.

[1] The Or HaChaim answers his own question but in this lesson we will search for an alternative solution.aK

[2] See [Bereishit 43:32] “The Egyptians could not dine with the Jews, since that would be abhorrent.”

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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