And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years, and Jacob’s days, the years of his life, were a hundred and forty-seven years. [Genesis. 47:28]
This week’s Torah portion begins with as straight a sentence you’d ever want. It tells of the last days of Jacob, who lived a far shorter life than his father or grandfather. Jacob has been in Egypt with his sons for the last 17 years and does not want to be buried in this country, rather in Canaan at the Cave of the Patriarchs, with his ancestors.
No secret here.
Then the two titans of Torah explain — and in very different styles say the same thing. Shlomo Yitzhaki, or Rashi, is struck by the placement of this week’s portion, Vayechi. This Parsha is “closed,” meaning that there are only a few spaces in the Torah scroll that separate Vayechi from the previous portion Vayigash. Indeed, Vayechi is unusual in how close it is placed to the previous portion.
Why? Rashi gives two opposites. One is that the eyes and hearts of Israel were closed when the subjugation began in Egypt. The other is that Jacob’s vision was blocked when he couldn’t tell his children when the final redemption would take place.
Moses Ben Nachman, or the Ramban, agrees that the opening verse conceals. But his interpretation takes a different tack. The 13th Century sage says Jacob’s descent from Canaan to Egypt marked the exile that characterized the Roman period, when the Second Temple was destroyed and the Jews killed by the hundreds of thousands.
Egypt and Rome shared a destiny. They both began as friends of the Jews. Pharoah, the Ramban says, loved Joseph as a son. But Jacob and his family had no intention of remaining in Egypt for any longer than the famine. But after Jacob died, his sons, including Joseph, remained. They were living well; there was rich pasture for their flocks. They were no longer in a hurry to go home.
Well over 1,000 years later, the Jews thought they were allies of Rome. Rome had helped the Hasmoneans fight the Greeks and drive them out of the Land of Israel. Rome helped develop an Israelite army that scored great victories. The two even signed a treaty. For 25 years, there was only friendship. Then Rome made its move, fomenting a coup and replacing the Hasmoneans with slaves loyal to the empire. Herod and his successors were dependent on Rome for their power and wealth. In return, they carried out all of Rome’s increasingly harsh decrees.
When the Jews revolted in 69 CE, Agrippas II ran to Rome in terror and begged for troops. The empire sent hundreds of thousands and destroyed the Second Temple, razed Jerusalem to the ground, expelled the Jews from much of the country. And the exile continues to this day.
“And we don’t know the end as in previous exiles,” the Ramban writes.
This was no secret to Jacob. Rome was the descendant of Jacob’s brother Esau, a man who would do anything to hurt his younger sibling. Esau’s son, Elifaz, was willing to fight Jacob’s family in Egypt to stop what eventually would be the redemption. Elifaz battled Joseph and the former was captured. Elifaz escaped his prison cell and established his rule in the islands off what is today Italy. He expanded his rule to the Italian mainland and built Rome. He was said to have started the Arch of Titus, which commemorates the destruction of the Second Temple in 69 C.E.
The Ramban regards the exile of Rome as the worst punishment of the Jews. The Babylonian exile lasted 70 years. The Persian exile took 36 years; the Greek exile, 180 years. But Rome has kept us from sovereignty in our land for nearly 2,000 years and counting.
Why? The Ramban stresses that this was all our fault. That’s what you get from being friends with Esau and his ilk rather than serving G-d.
Rome’s policy was different from its predecessors. After a brief period of brutality, Babylonia largely left the Jews alone, and for a long time, and for a while the empire was the best place to be Jewish. Ancient Greece was far more devious and sought to transform the Temple into an Olympic stadium. But the assimilation demanded of the Jews was total.
But Rome took the cake: It groomed young Jews to undermine Jewish tradition and eventually start their own religion, ostensibly based on love and peace but actually designed by Rome to eradicate Judaism. The Jewish day of rest was Saturday. The Christian day of rest was Sunday. Judaism outlawed eating pig. Christianity embraced pork as a litmus test for its new adherents.
The Talmud talks about Jesus and his mentor, Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Perahiya. In Tractate Sotah, 47:B, Jesus was portrayed as a disciple of one of the leading sages of the Second Temple period. But Jesus’ behavior was dismissive of the rabbis and Jewish tradition, and he was excommunicated by Rabbi Yehoshua. At a certain point, Jesus sought return to the fold, but he had done too much damage and Rabbi Yehoshua refused to accept him. The Roman Catholic Church censored this story in virtually every edition of the Talmud. That the text was restored after centuries could be seen as nothing less than miraculous.
Rome is alive and well today in the Land of Israel. Like Rome, the United States has dominated every decision in the State of Israel, whether economic, defense, energy, academic and even religion. Before America’s conquest, little Israel could win regional wars in three to six days. In 1967, the Gaza Strip, the forward position of the Egyptian Army, was occupied within hours by the Israel Army. Compare that to today.
Like Rome, America didn’t literally occupy Israel. Washington’s control has been through proxies with Hebrew names and even rabbinical degrees. They learned that the Jews might not fare well under America, but those carrying out its orders would do just fine.
And that is the secret of the exile. It’s not necessarily our flawed piety or even venality. It is our willingness and often our eagerness to hold Rome’s hand. We adopted Rome’s legal system, economy, education and to a large extent its religion. We left G-d in the shadows.
It is a theme of the Ramban: Israel could have been redeemed nearly eight centuries ago. The exile was supposed to have expired without any effort on our part. But our friendship with Rome and its successors stopped any chance of liberation. And that explains why Jacob could not tell his children the End of Days. Because this wouldn’t depend merely on G-d; it would depend on the willingness of the Jews to abandon the exile forever.
The Ramban says one day that will all change: Rome will be destroyed, and the Jews will be free. The process can be seen clearly today. The Jews don’t want to leave America or Britain or France. No problem: They’ll be forced to flee and probably without a penny. The Jews don’t want to abandon Christian America or Europe. G-d has brought tens of millions of Muslims to take care of that as well.
In the end, the secret of the exile, Jacob notwithstanding, is so easy that a youngster could figure it out. Now, as Groucho Marx quipped, “Go out and get me a four-year-old child.”