“And God will surely consider you again and bring you up from this land unto the land which He swore to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov” (Bereishis 20:24). Yoseph says this to his brothers from his death bed, and, as the not quite penultimate pasuk of Bereishis, it seems like a natural foreshadowing of what is to come – since we are all familiar with Sefer Shemos and the need for Divine rescue. But on its own within the narrative of Bereishis, it is actually a fairly odd statement. For the brothers and their families to need reassurance that God will remember them implies that they believed they had been forgotten – or at least deemed unimportant – in the Divine plan. How could this be when it had been so clearly pointed out that, even with Hashem’s reiterated promise of the Land of Canaan to their forefathers, everything had happened because God wanted Bnei Yisrael to sojourn in Egypt? Why are they afraid when, as far as the text has demonstrated, they are flourishing and living quite comfortably?
The fact is that life can be good and not good at the same time. One can live in a world of comfort and still be uncomfortable. They may have had physical prosperity, but, perhaps, by the time Yoseph passed away they were aware of the beginning of the spiritual challenges that would face them.
The sons of Yaakov not only saw how Yaakov devoted his life to God, but they lived that devotion with him. Additionally, they had had the opportunity to know their grandfather Yitzchak, so they were clear on the chain of this spiritual inheritance. Their children and some of their children’s children also knew Yaakov, only not as intimately as his great spiritual strength was diminished while he mourned Yoseph for years. But what of their younger grandchildren and the children after that? What about the “little ones” left behind in Goshen when the sons of Yaakov went up to Canaan to bury their great father (50:8)? Not only were these little ones not able to meet their holy patriarch, but they never saw the Promised Land with their own eyes.
Bnei Yisrael came to Egypt to avoid the famine and to be reunited with Yoseph, but they also came to fulfill the prophecy of the Bris Bein HaBiturim that Avraham’s children would reside and suffer in a land not their own (Bereishis 15). The suffering, however, began far earlier than most people realize. It began with the little ones left behind. Interestingly, according to the Malbim, the little ones were not left behind, but rather they were forced to stay as guarantees that Yoseph and his extended family would return. These children were, ever so slightly, less connected to the path of their forefathers.
This was in no way the fault of the brothers. They made all the right efforts. They settled themselves apart from the Egyptians in the land of Goshen. They maintained their flocks because they knew it was uninviting to their neighbors. And, according to the midrash, Yehuda built a yeshiva in which they could study the ways of their forefathers. The brothers created community infrastructure to strengthen the generations to come. That they did so was, perhaps, the key to the strength of Bnei Yisrael that the sages teach us that Bnei Yisrael held on to their unique heritage even as the oppression grew strong during their enslavement and they managed to not cross over the 50th level of tumah.
In the last days of Yoseph, however, the generation that had seen and lived true spiritual greatness, saw the beginning of the descent, just ever so slightly, and they were concerned. Not anxious, not upset, not frighten, just, perhaps, a little concerned. This is a concern that speaks to us today.
When generations lived in strong, cohesive units, such as they did in the times of our forefathers, the differences between the generations were far less noticeable. Today we live in a time when we even name our generations, because not only the Jewish people, but the whole world, can see differences distinct enough between the Baby Boomers and the Millennials.
Our people have spent thousands of years yearning for our children, for ourselves, to once again be able to live up to the caliber of our great ancestors, and so Yoseph’s deathbed promise to his brothers is a promise even unto this day – as Biblical language might say. For we here in the Western countries have been welcomed, have been accepted, have risen to positions of esteem, and have come to live in great comfort. And we have an infrastructure of strong communities and robust yeshivot. But we fight a constant spiritual battle against assimilation. However, if there is one thing that we can and should learn from the overarching story of Yoseph, it is that Hashem always has a plan, and Hashem will always remember His promise.