When we read about our bondage in Egypt, we can’t help but wonder how we survived. I don’t just mean how we survived physically, but how we survived emotionally. How did we rise from slavery in Egypt to become the most fabled nation in history? Why did this crushing blow not break us?
While we are at it, we can ask the same question about the rest of our sordid saga. Every time we thought we were settled and safe, an enemy popped out from somewhere and dispatched us into yet another exile. From Israel to Babylon, to Persia, to the Syrian Greeks, and to Rome. Then the crusades, expulsions, inquisitions, pogroms, the Holocaust, the wars in Israel, terror attacks, and most recently, the Simchat Torah massacre. How we survived is the resounding question of history.
To answer it, we must return to the first exile, the prototype for all future exiles. The story of this exile began with Joseph, continued with Jacob, and concluded with our nation in slavery. The book of Exodus begins with the words, “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt, with Jacob, each came with his household.” This passage is filled with inspiration. Let’s unpack it.
The first message is that we are the children of Israel. In the Hebrew language, there is a delightful tool called gematria. It helps us drill down to the inner meanings of words. Hebrew letters double as numbers, so when we calculate the numeric value of a word, we can link it to other words with a similar value.
The numeric value of the Hebrew word yisrael is 541. This is the same as the combined value of the words or and choshech, Hebrew for light and darkness. This teaches us about the purpose and power of an Israelite. Our task is to bring light into the darkness and to demonstrate that darkness’s inner soul is light. When you see vicious dark behavior, know that there is light in there somewhere. The task of the Israelite is to reveal it.
The opening passage of the book sets the tone for our exile. How do you survive in a place of darkness, suffering, and despair? By knowing that you are the children of Israel; you bring light to darkness. By knowing that you are not here to suffer. You are on a mission. You are not here to succumb to the darkness but to transform it into light. You are the children of Israel. It is your identity, your power, your mission.
For 210 years, our ancestors dwelled in the spiritual darkness of the Egyptian culture. Many succumbed to its immoral ways, but no one ever forgot their identity. They never stopped using their Hebrew names. They never stopped using their Hebrew language. They never stopped dressing like Jews. They always stood out. They never intermarried—each with his household. They never fully assimilated.
This brings us to the second message of this passage. Our sages tell us that the Torah enumerates the names of the Jews who came to Egypt to remind us that they left Egypt with the very same names 210 years later. They never changed names. They never changed identities. They never lost sight of their mission. That is how we survived.
The third message of this passage is that they came to Egypt with Jacob. Jacob lived in the light. He did not dwell in darkness. Even in Egypt, Jacob carved out a corner of light. He lived in a city called Goshen, where his children built Torah academies and places of worship. They were in Egypt, but behind the virtual walls of their spiritual fortress, you would never know it.
This set the tone for the next generation that would be enslaved. Most would not live in Goshen; they would have to live among the Egyptians, but they wouldn’t have to live in darkness. Like Jacob, they would transcend the darkness. Their hearts could be a dwelling place for G-d no matter where they resided. In this vein, Joseph was also their guide. Unlike Jacob, Joseph did not reside in Goshen. He resided in Zoan, the nation’s capital. He lived, dined, and did business with the Egyptians. He lived among idolatry, debauchery, deceit, violence, sorcery, and hedonism, yet he remained Joseph.
Thus, after listing the names with which the Jews came to Egypt, the Torah states, “And Joseph was in Egypt.” The message here is not just that Joseph arrived in Egypt ahead of his brothers. The message is that he remained Joseph even when he was alone in Egypt. When Joseph was appointed viceroy, Pharaoh assigned him an Egyptian name—Zafnat Pane’ach. But Joseph refused to use it. “And Joseph was in Egypt.” Though he was (the only Jew) in Egypt, he remained Joseph. Eventually, even Pharaoh accepted him as Joseph. Even Pharaoh reconciled with the fact that Joseph wouldn’t dine with the Egyptians because he ate kosher and didn’t worship with them because he worshipped G-d.
Jacob showed us how to form a strong community of light even in the Diaspora. Joseph showed us how to survive in the Diaspora when we are all alone—surrounded by spiritual darkness. Jacob showed us how to transcend darkness, Joseph showed us how to illuminate it. Joseph didn’t carve out a circle of light and cloister himself within. Joseph ventured out into the spiritual darkness and lived a model lifestyle filled with light. Eventually, he became an Egyptian hero. Even people who thrived in darkness learned to appreciate Joseph’s light. Jacob and Joseph are our models; that is how we survived.
This is also why Jacob was buried in Israel, but Joseph chose to be buried in Egypt. Jacob left Egypt to demonstrate that Egypt can’t capture Jacob; a Jew transcends darkness. By contrast, Joseph was interred in Egypt to demonstrate that a Jew illuminates the darkness. Jacob set the tone for the exile in Egypt, but Joseph paved the way. The Torah tells us, “And Joseph and all his generation died, and a Pharaoh arose who did not know Joseph.” Even after Joseph passed away, it was only Pharaoh who forgot Joseph. The Jews never forgot. We remembered and that is how we survived.
Again and Again
The Jewish people have been exiled for more years than they lived in Israel. Every time we settled down and created a circle of light, a community, a Torah center, our enemies forced us to take up the walking stick. It is not because we don’t deserve to live in light, G-d forbid. It is because there are dark places that need our light. We are like secret operatives who are sent on dangerous missions again, and again, and again. Their country doesn’t send them into the teeth of danger because they want them to die. They send them because they are needed there.
In our long history, we have been scattered in every corner of the world. I doubt there is an inch of ground on this planet that has not been tread by a Jew. It is because every place on earth deserves light. We, the Israelites, the agents who bring light to darkness, are needed there. Jacob could create a circle of such intense light that it spread even into the darkness. During his lifetime, all of Egypt revered Jacob as a saintly man of G-d. But you can’t really transform a place from the outside. To effect true and lasting change, you must enter the darkness and transform it. Joseph showed us how to do that.
That is why G-d gave us the Torah. It wasn’t just to build communities that flourish in light. It is for us to bring the Torah’s light to communities that live in the dark. We are not there because we need to suffer. We are there because we are needed. This is why we were sent away again, and again, and again. This is why the Diaspora has lasted so long. Viktor Frankl famously wrote that if you find meaning, you can survive almost any suffering. We found meaning; that is how we survived.
But this is not an unending march of pain, suffering, and sacrifice. Eventually, this long, dark road will end because we will have filled the entire world with light; everyone will bask in the glow of G-d’s presence. That will be the era of Mashiach, may he come speedily, Amen.