VAYIGASH: Beginning of Exile, Potential for Perfection
By Daniel Pinner
And Joseph said to his brothers: 'Approach me;' and they approached. And he said: 'I am Joseph your brother - me, whom you sold to Egypt. No, do not be sad, and do not take it hard that you sold me to here; because God sent me ahead to be a source of life.'" (Genesis 45:4-5)
There is a fundamental principal in Judaism that God creates the cure to all suffering before the suffering itself begins. "God never smites Israel without already having created the remedy." (Megillah 13b) The Talmud here refers to a specific incident. In Megillat Esther, King Achashverosh promoted Haman (Esther 3:1) only after Mordechai had already saved the king's life (ibid. 2:21-23), thus laying the foundation for the later redemption from Haman. But this principle applies on a cosmic scale: "Seven things were created before the universe was created. They are: the Torah, repentance, the Garden of Eden, Gehinnom, the Throne of Glory, the Holy Temple and the name of the Mashiach." (Pesachim 54a, Nedarim 39b). All of these serve for tikkun olam - whether on a personal, a national or a global level. Before He even created the world, God already created the tools that would correct all that could go wrong, the cure for all sins, and the ultimate Redemption.
Joseph's sale as a slave to Egypt, too, was - in the short term - the cure that God prepared in advance of the seven years of famine that would smite Egypt and all of the surrounding countries (including Canaan) 20 years later. In the longer term, Joseph was placed in a position to lay the infrastructure that would cushion the centuries of slavery and oppression that lay ahead.
It was because he knew that God had decreed a period of harsh slavery in exile that Jacob was so reluctant to go down to Egypt. He knew that 220 years earlier, God had told his grandfather Abraham: "Know for sure that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs and they will enslave them and oppress them for 400 years." (Genesis 15:13); and now, Jacob found himself manipulated by events into taking his entire family - the whole House of Israel - into that long-dreaded exile. He was, as the author of the Haggadah expressed it, "forced by the [Divine] decree." And God Himself had to reassure him: "I am the God - God of your father; do not be afraid of going down to Egypt, because I will make you into a great nation there. I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will assuredly bring you up." (Genesis 46:3-4) Only with this guarantee was Jacob willing - or even able - to leave the Land of Israel.
Everything had been prepared in advance to ensure that the Family of Israel would survive in Egypt with their identity intact, in spite of slavery, oppression and attempted genocide: the Egyptians found it abhorrent to eat together with Hebrews, even in times of peace and coexistence (Genesis 43: 32); the Egyptians worshiped animals, while the Hebrews were shepherds, forcing them to raise their livestock - the Egyptian gods - far from hostile Egyptian eyes; Joseph decided that his family would reside in the Goshen region (Genesis 45:10), some 90 kilometers (55 miles) east of the settled regions of Memphis, Nof and On (along the river bank at the confluence of the Nile Delta), and a similar distance south of Raamses, isolated in the desert.
All these precautions ensured that every Hebrew who wanted to retain his identity would have this option; there was no guarantee that no Hebrew could ever assimilate. The parasha ends with the ominously ambiguous phrase, "and Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt in the land of Goshen, and they seized it, and they were greatly fruitful and multiplied." (Genesis 47:27) The phrase vayei'achazu bah can mean "they seized it" or "they were seized by it." As they put down roots in exile, so the exile seized them in its death-grip. The Targum Yonatan renders this phrase: "Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt; they built themselves study-halls and palaces in the land of Goshen, and they established granaries and vineyards in Goshen."
The lesson is clear. Joseph was indeed sent ahead of his family to be a source of livelihood; God designed every detail - from the Israelite life-style to Egyptian geography to the Egyptians' social attitudes - to give every Jew maximum opportunity to survive as a Jew. But he had to seize the opportunity. The remedy always exists, but it is useless unless and until the Jew decides to avail himself of it. "It is a tree of life for those who cling to it." (Proverbs 3:18)
The Torah, by which we sanctify the physical world, repentance, the capacity to repair all spiritual damage, the Garden Eden, the incentive and reward for all mitsvot, Gehinom, the cleansing fires that atone for all sin, the Throne of Glory that rules over all, the Holy Temple, the locus of the nation that atones for sins, and the Mashiach, the ultimate perfection - all were created before the physical world was created.
We need but seize the Torah and be seized by it, we need but do genuine repentance - all of which is well within our grasp. And we can rebuild the Holy Temple and bring Mashiach. All has already been created, the way has been prepared, the foundations have been laid, and we can bring all to fruition.
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