David Walk

Ups and Downs

As we near the end of the book of Breishit, we’re setting the scene for the book of Shmot. Shmot is about the exodus or exit from Egypt, and one can’t egress without first entering. So, the bulk of this week’s Torah reading is about our ancestors’ arrival onto the Egyptian scene. Since Yosef basically ruled Egypt one might imagine that this event should be relatively innocuous, but there is drama. It’s one part of that drama which I’d like to address this week.

Ya’akov is clearly conflicted about this descent into Egypt. On the one hand, he is overjoyed at the prospect of a reunion with his beloved son Yosef. On the other hand, he is filled with trepidation and anxiety over the prospect of the upcoming exile from the Holy Land. The Torah doesn’t record his exact concerns, but we are fully aware of their existence, because God tells him, ‘I am God, the God of your father. Don’t be afraid to go to Egypt’ (Breishit 46:3). We have a lot of God telling Ya’akov to eschew fear. It’s so ubiquitous that we sing a song about it on Motzei Shabbat (based on the verse: Fear not, my servant Ya’akov; be not dismayed or discouraged, O Yisrael [Yirmiyahu 30:10]).

So, our great commentaries over the centuries have filled in the gaps and have conjectured about his concerns. We’ll discuss a very small sampling of the profusion of ideas suggested. 

Perhaps the simplest explanation is that he had experienced GALUT already during the 20 years spent in the home of his father in law, Lavan.  He knew the dangers and temptations of GALUT. The temptations of GALUT are many; the will power of his sons, perhaps, less abundant. 

That worry is mostly sociological. On the more theological side, Ya’akov must be concerned that GALUT would put the family’s spiritual survival at serious risk. It would seem that descent into GALUT would mean moving away from ‘God’s neighborhood’. It might be very difficult to maintain the family’s relationship with God. Please, remember that upon his return from Lavan’s house, Ya’akov had to announce to his large household, ‘Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you, and purify yourselves’ (Breishit 35:2). What would happen over multiple generations without a Patriarch?

We could go on, but I think you’ve got the picture. GALUT is a very heavy hazard. So, what are the assurances given by God which justify Ya’akov relinquishing his trepidation? 

‘I Myself (ANOCHI) will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself (ANOCHI) will also certainly bring you back; and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes (Breishit 46:4). 

The easiest part of this enigmatic verse is the final clause, ‘Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes’.  This means that Yosef will be there for the full extent of your stay in Egypt and, indeed, on earth. No more fears of losing his beloved Yosef; he will be there until and at your demise.

More complicated is figuring out God’s role in all this. First, is the very reassuring promise of God’s Presence during the sojourn in Egyptian GALUT. This part of God’s assurances seems to echo, ‘Behold, I (ANOCHI) am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you’ (Breishit 28:15), in which God told Ya’akov at the vision of the Ladder before his departure for Padan Aram. God protected him and his mission to Lavan and will do the same again in Egypt.

But what is the significance of God’s repeating that He will go back up with Ya’akov, A’ALCHA GAM ALOH. We don’t countenance empty repetition in the Torah. We also don’t like calling it ‘emphasis’, which is how I translated the verse, ‘certainly bring you back (up to Eretz Yisrael)’. The most straightforward approach is that of the Malbim, ‘there will be both a physical ALIYAH and a spiritual one’, my and my soul will ascend.

Rabbeinu Bechaye suggests that the second ALIYA will take place after his death and means that his soul will ascend to Heaven. This is the source of the Mishne’s declaration that every descendant of Ya’akov has a portion in the World to Come (Sanhedrin 10:1). 

The Da’at Z’keinim offers that these words ‘are a correction by God for what Yaakov had thought of as a “descent” to Egypt. God tells him that far from being a “descent,” it will be seen as an ascent, by the time his descendants will leave Egypt’. It will eventually be seen as an ALIYA because it is the fulfillment of the promise given to Avraham in the Covenant between the Parts (15:13-16), and transformed our ancestral clan into a nation.

That leaves us with just one last conundrum: Why does God emphasize the term ANOCHI (an emphatic ‘I’) by repeating it? 

The Degel Machane Yehuda explains that this word reminds Ya’akov of his vision of the Ladder, when God referred to Himself as ANOCHI. This adds power to God’s reassurances, because Ya’akov well remembers that those assurances were fulfilled. Also, the Rebbe suggests that God, Himself is the Ladder and will be the vehicle for the ascent from the dangers of Egypt.

The most popular approach, though, is that this ANOCHI foreshadows the ANOCHI which opens the Ten Commandments. It is the ANOCHI of the epiphany and of the Torah. The S’fat Emet expands on this idea: God is showing him that the entire process of GALUT and GE’ULA is about Torah. That we have the idea, ‘There (in the Torah) God will be hidden and revealed’ (Devarim 31:18). God and the Divine pathways are initially hidden from our view. Torah and Jewish destiny are intertwined in a way that often appears to be an enigma.

Many Torah concepts are hidden from our understanding, at least initially. Torah really means teaching or instruction, and good teaching method provides problems and challenges which the serious student must decipher and solve. All of Jewish history is a puzzle map for us to decode. This unraveling of the Torah’s message is actually the experience of living Jewish history. Only after the fact can we truly see the concepts and ideas God placed into the Torah for us to analyze and, eventually, understand.

We are now engaged in an episode of Jewish history, which is extremely challenging. Just like the IDF must search deep for the Hamas tunnel system, we, the Jewish people, will after the war analyze this terrible episode and, hopefully, find important ideas for how our nation goes forward from all the suffering and pain. 

Every event in our national story teaches us crucial ideas. Eventually we put all the episodes together and find the path forward towards the GEULA SHLEIMA (complete redemption). May we learn the lessons swiftly, and bring the GEULA soon.

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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