Are you among the living or are you alive? To be among the living means that we are breathing, and functioning—we are not dead, but neither are we fully alive. To be alive means to pulsate with the energy of life. To be fully attuned to life.
After Jacob, our patriarch, returned from the home of his uncle Laban, he lived in Israel for approximately thirty years. But the Torah does not say that Jacob lived in Israel. It says that Jacob dwelt in Israel. It was merely his residence. But when Jacob moved to Egypt for the last seventeen years of his life, the Torah tells us that he lived there. He didn’t merely reside, he lived.
Is this not curious? The illustrious and saintly patriarch was surely very much at home in the holy land. If our sages said (Zohar III 93b) that all Jews plug their root source when they live in Israel, it must surely have been true of Jacob. When we are plugged in and feeling internally consistent, we come alive—we thrive with the verve and joy of life. Yet, when Jacob lived in Israel, the Torah said he merely resided there, and when Jacob moved to Egypt, the Torah said he lived.
All About Joseph
The obvious explanation is that while Jacob was in Israel, Joseph had been sold into slavery and Jacob was informed that Joseph had been killed. He fell into a deep state of grief from which he only emerged when he was informed that Joseph was alive and was the viceroy of Egypt. Then, Jacob’s spirit returned to life. Hence, he dwelt in Israel, plodding along from day to day, barely among the living, and came fully and joyfully to life when he was reunited with Joseph in Egypt.
While there is truth to this thesis, it cannot be the only explanation. The reason being simply that the Torah tells us that Jacob dwelt in Israel a full nine years before Joseph was sold. If his gloom was caused by the loss of Joseph, what prevented him from being alive before that day?
The answer is that Jacob knew it was his role to father the Jewish people. Abraham’s sole responsibility was to raise a Patriarch. Isaac’s sole responsibility was also to raise a patriarch. Jacob was responsible for raising twelve tribes.
When Jacob resided in Israel, all his children were loyal to Judaism and passionate about their faith. But Jacob never knew whether this was a product of their environment or if it was truly in really within their hearts. Jacob knew that his children would be exiled in Egypt for several centuries and he worried constantly about whether their Judaism would survive their exile.
Moreover, the goal of Judaism is not only to thrive wherever we are, but to bring holiness to these places. To create an environment of thriving Torah study and passionate Mitzvah observance. To establish a moral and ethical atmosphere that inspires our host nations to live by the code of the Noahide laws. To make G-d known in the world. But this can only be done if we exert influence on our host nations rather than become influenced.
Jacob didn’t believe that most of his children had the spiritual forbearance and capacity to withstand Egypt’s pagan environment and immoral influence. Even in Israel, he noticed that they spent most of their time in the field, isolated from civilization, where their devotions and prayers would not be disturbed. Where they could meditate without distraction.
Jacob knew precisely why they did this because he had been a shepherd himself. In his uncle Laban’s home, Jacob shielded himself from Laban’s negative influence by escaping to the fields. He watched his children do the same and wondered if they could survive in Egypt? Joseph was his only child who did not occupy himself with shepherding. Jacob placed all his hopes on Joseph, but Joseph was gone.
So long as he was uncertain about the future of his life’s work, he could not thrive and be fully alive. His work was his entire life. If his work would sputter and fail after his passing, he could not relax and enjoy life. Thus, even in Israel, Jacob resided. He did not live.
Yet, when Jacob arrived in Egypt and was reunited with Joseph, he saw that his hopes for Joseph had been fully realized. Joseph had been living in the thick of Egyptian politics, amidst the maneuvering and intrigue of the palace, surrounded by a pagan and immoral culture, yet his spiritual and moral integrity was intact. He was still a Tzadik—still righteous.
This was further amplified when Jacob met his grandchildren, Joseph’s sons Manasseh and Ephraim. They were not born in Israel. They were born and raised in Exile. Yet, they were observant and passionate Jews. Joseph had built a Jewish home in a foreign land. This was music to Jacob’s ears.
Then Jacob observed yet another amazing phenomenon. Just before leaving for Egypt, he had charged his son Judah with establishing a Yeshivah, a Torah house of learning, in Egypt. Jacob might have had his doubts about Judah, the leader of his brothers, the lifelong shepherd, succeeding in Egypt of all places. Yet, when he arrived in Egypt, he found Judah’s Yeshivah up and running with students sitting and studying Torah.
When Jacob saw this, he knew that Joseph was not only able to fend for himself, he was also able to establish a supportive environment in which the entire family would flourish spiritually. Jacob watched his children carefully and realized that despite residing in Egypt, they were not of Egypt. They dwelt in Egypt but did not make a life of it—they were not alive with Egyptian culture.
When he saw this, he came alive. Ironically, in Egypt of all places, he came to realize that his children would indeed survive and even thrive as Jews no matter where they would live in the world. In fact, they would successfully transform their residences into thriving Jewish centers.
Links in A Chain
Indeed, this is what the Jewish people have done throughout history. Wherever in Spain or France, Babylon or Persia, Syria or Yemen, Poland or Russia, America or Australia, Jews built flourishing centers of holiness and goodness. We don’t merely survive. We also thrive.
The Talmud tells us that Jacob is alive (even in the afterlife) when his children are alive. When we keep Jacob’s life’s work alive, Jacob continues to live. This means that we each carry the torch for Jacob and all our forbearers. As we go, so do they. If we thrive, they come alive. We must go forward and succeed, not only for us but also for our grandparents who came before us. Not only for us but also for our grandchildren who will come after us.
A chain is only as long as its number of links. Let’s add another link. Let’s keep the chain alive.