‘The Order of the Phoenix’ Parashat Vayigash 5781

Phoenix (noun): a legendary bird which according to one account lived 500 years, burned itself to ashes on a pyre, and rose alive from the ashes to live another period. — Merriam Webster on-line Dictionary

Jacob has not seen Joseph in 22 years, ever since that terrible day his sons brought him Joseph’s blood-drenched cloak. Jacob, who does not know that Joseph has actually been sold into slavery in Egypt, despairs of ever seeing him ever again. So when his sons return from Egypt and tell him that not only is Joseph alive but that he also happens to be the Grand Vizier of Egypt, Jacob is incredulous [Bereishit 45:26]: “His heart went numb, for he did not believe them”. According to many of the medieval commentators, Jacob’s heart actually skipped a beat. But when Jacob sees the large Egyptian entourage that has accompanied his sons back to the Land of Canaan, he realizes that they are telling the truth [Bereishit 45:27]: “The spirit of their father Jacob revived”. Not only did Jacob recover from the shock of hearing that Joseph was still alive, he began to recover the from twenty-two missing years in which he himself was essentially the walking dead[1]. At this moment, Jacob undergoes a catharsis: He “rose alive from the ashes to live another period”.

Jacob’s rebirth led to another transformation. Jacob is born with the name “Jacob” but after he fights and defeats an angel, his name is changed to “Israel”. The name “Israel” does not replace “Jacob”, but, rather, serves as an additional name and the Torah continually bounces back and forth between the two names. Most commentators assert that the name “Jacob” is on a lower level than the name “Israel”. Consider the sources of the two names: When Jacob’s brother, Esav, discovers that Jacob has stolen his blessing, he cries out [Bereishit 27:36] “Isn’t it fitting that he was named Jacob, that he might cheat me (va’ye’akveni ) these two times? First he took my birthright and now he has taken my blessing!” The word “cheat” – “va’ye’akveni” – comes from the word “heel”, the lowest part of the human body. The name “Jacob” – “Ya’akov” – also comes from the same root. On the other hand, when the angel changes Jacob’s name to Israel, he tells him [Bereishit 32:29] “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have struggled (sarita) with beings divine and human and have prevailed.” The name Israel – Yisrael – which comes from the word “sarita”, indicates that Jacob is equal to the exalted beings (sar) that he fights against. “Jacob” is the cheater who knows how to take what he needs in order to get by while “Israel” is the sovereign leader who honourably receives all that he justly deserves.

During the entire period that Jacob believes that Joseph is dead, other than one lone instance, the Torah refers to him as “Jacob”. But as soon as Jacob receives the news that Joseph is still alive, his name undergoes a change [Bereishit 45:28]: “’Enough!’ said Israel. ‘My son Joseph is still alive! I must go and see him before I die.’” “Jacob” had morphed back into “Israel”. The reason is clear: Armed with the knowledge that his beloved son is still alive, Jacob is transformed to a higher plane of existence. Nevertheless, this transformation is only temporary. When Jacob prepares to leave home for Egypt to meet Joseph, the Torah tells us [Bereishit 46:2] “G-d called to Israel in a vision by night: ‘Jacob! Jacob!’” and he reassumes his Jacobian identity until he meets Joseph, where the Torah once again refers to him as Israel. What is the reason for this identity roller coaster?

Rabbi Ezra Bick, who teaches Torah in the Har Etzion Yeshiva, discusses this phenomenon at length[2].  Rabbi Bick begins his analysis with the commentary of Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, the Ramban, who lived in Spain and in Israel in the thirteenth century. The Ramban suggests that Jacob reverts to his Jacobian persona when he leaves for Egypt because his departure signifies the beginning of the Egyptian exile. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin, known as the Netziv, who was the Headmaster (Rosh Yeshiva) of the famous Volozhn (Lithuania) Yeshiva in the nineteenth century, disagrees with the Ramban. The Netziv suggests that the Israeli persona would be particularly useful in Egypt, where the Jewish People would have to “struggle with beings divine and human” in order to survive. The Netziv offers an alternative explanation, that the name Israel implies a miraculous supernatural existence, whereas the name Jacob implies existing within the natural order. As the Egyptian exile would be a period in which G-d remained hidden, a return to the natural – Jacobian – identity was the order of the day.

Rabbi Bick adds another layer to the explanation of Netziv by connecting Jacob’s names to his “inner spirit”. Rabbi Bick revisits the one instance during Joseph’s absence in which Jacob is called “Israel”. Joseph’s brothers have returned home from Egypt minus their brother, Shimon, who has been incarcerated. Joseph, disguised as the Grand Vizier, has accused them of espionage and will not release Shimon until Jacob sends Benjamin down to Egypt. Jacob is adamant that he will do no such thing. But when the food supply has been depleted and the only place to buy more food is in Egypt, time runs out and Jacob must make a decision. With his back against the wall, Jacob agrees to send Benjamin to Egypt under Judah’s watch [Bereishit 43:6]. Rabbi Bick suggests that the name “Israel” is used when Jacob is proactive while the name “Jacob” is relegated to those instances in which he is reactive. During Joseph’s absence, Jacob is blown by the wind, if only because he does not see any reason to resist. When he learns that Joseph is still alive, he reacquires his Israeli gusto. But when he takes his family down to Egypt, a period of two hundred and ten years begins in which he and his descendants will be strangers in a strange land, first as invited guests and later as hostages. Neither status left any room for Israeli initiative[3].

I would like to add another layer to Rabbi Bick’s explanation by considering an innovation proposed by Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, who lived in Frankfurt am Main in the nineteenth century. Rabbi Hirsch offers a seemingly innocuous comment on the verse in which Jacob’s name reverts to Israel after he hears that Joseph is alive. Rabbi Hirsch, like Rabbi Bick, asserts that Jacob assumes his Israeli persona when he takes positive action to go to Egypt and see Joseph. Rabbi Hirsch prefaces his comment by noting the above-mentioned instance in which Jacob assumes the name of Israel when he agrees to send Benjamin down to Egypt. It is in Rabbi Hirsch’s commentary on that particular verse in which he offers a fascinating insight into Jacob’s Israeli persona. Rabbi Hirsch asserts that a person will become despondent for one of two reasons: via either guilt or doubt. As long as Jacob remains in doubt, unsure of whether or not to send Benjamin to Egypt, he is called “Jacob”. But when he finally realizes that he no longer has any choice in the matter and that lives are at stake no matter how he acts, he stands tall and acts decisively. By doing so, he assumes his Israeli persona. Here is Rabbi Hirsch’s innovation: “When a Jew realizes that no human being can help him, he leaves everything to G-d.” By attaching ourselves to the Divine, teaches Rabbi Hirsch, we attain the identity of Israel[4]. To the Israeli, G-d is an infinite source of hope and of courage. This understanding is what spurs the Israeli to act.

Let us try to fold Rabbi Hirsch’s innovation into the episode in which Israel discovers that Joseph is still alive. When Jacob learns that Joseph is still alive, he reassumes his Israeli identity after twenty-two long years because he finally comprehends that G-d has not been silent. He has been there at his side all along, only Jacob was not looking for Him. Jacob suddenly recognizes that he and his family are alive only because Joseph, through Divine intervention,  has become the Egyptian Grand Vizier. Armed with renewed faith in G-d, Jacob – Israel – and his family set out to Egypt to meet their destiny head on.

Shabbat Shalom and stay healthy.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5781

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, David ben Chaya, and Iris bat Chana.

[1] Jacob does not appear in the Torah during the entire time that Joseph was missing. Add prophecy??

[2] See https://www.etzion.org.il/en/twilight-years

[3] Rabbi Bick shows how Jacob relinquished control to his sons Judah and Joseph immediately on arrival in Egypt.

[4] Israel is a composite of the words “S’rarat E-l” – “G-d’s Authority”.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty 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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