Egypt and the Promised Land

  • Rav Michael Hattin







Egypt and the Promised Land

By Rav Michael Hattin





Parashat Vayigash opens with Yehuda's impassioned plea to the Viceroy to release Binyamin so that he might return to Canaan with his brothers, in order to spare the aging Yaakov the trauma of his disappearance.  His measured and poignant words hang in the air for a moment of interminable length, as the Viceroy and his ministers impassively consider them.  Suddenly the Viceroy orders all of his attendants to leave and, in a cathartic outburst of great pathos, he begins to sob.  "Yosef said to his brothers: 'I am Yosef!  Is my father yet alive?!'  His brothers could not respond, for they were startled in his presence" (Bereishit 45:3). 


So begins to unfold the dיnouement to Sefer Bereishit's most lengthy and perhaps most touching narrative.  Finally, Yosef reveals himself to his brothers, and with that revelation commences the long-delayed process of reconciliation and healing. As his dreams had foretold many years earlier, he has achieved great prominence, and his brothers have indeed bowed down to him.  He has become Pharaoh's most powerful and respected official, and all of Egypt bends the knee in deference to his authority.  At the same time, it has been more than twenty years since he has seen his doting father, by now a worn and broken man bent over by numerous tragedies and unbearable setbacks.


Almost unable to contain his excitement, finally relieved that the painful artifice of harshness need not be prolonged any more, Yosef erupts with a barrage of words: "Yosef said to his brothers: 'Draw close to me' and they did so.  He said to them: 'I am Yosef your brother, whom you sold to Egypt.  But be not saddened nor upset that you have sold me to here, for God has sent me before you to sustain you.  There has been famine in the land for two years, and there are yet to come five years of no plowing or harvest.  God has sent me before you to ensure your survival, and to sustain you to with an act of great deliverance.  Now, therefore, you did not send me here, but rather God.  He has made me Pharaoh's Viceroy, master of his entire household and ruler throughout the land of Egypt.  Quickly return to my father and say to him: Thus says your son Yosef: God has made me master of all Egypt, come down to me without delay.  You shall dwell in the land of Goshen and be close to me, you, your children, and your grandchildren, as well as your flocks, cattle and all of your goods.  I shall sustain you there, for there are yet to come five years of famine, lest you and your household become destitute…'" (Bereishit 45:4-11).


The Two Themes in Yosef's Words


In his charge to his brothers, Yosef dwells on two important and intertwined themes.  The first concerns the involvement of Providence in the convoluted process of his elevation.  Although the brothers sold him into slavery as a premeditated act of their own volition, Yosef nevertheless assuages their feelings of guilt and remorse by invoking God's central role in the unfolding of the events.  How surprised and shocked they must have been to realize that the man standing before them, smartly clothed in fine Egyptian linen and bearing the coveted insignia of Viceroy, is their young brother Yosef.  This is the same Yosef who dared to envisage such unlikely dreams and seemed so disturbingly disinterested in tending the sheep! 


Although at this time Yosef does not detail the intricate yet tangled series of events leading up to his election, we the readers are well familiar with the details.  Sold into Potiphar's possession, Yosef quickly rose through the ranks, and then just as quickly fell into disgrace as a result of libel.  He was cast into prison, where he made the unlikely acquaintance of the butler and baker and correctly interpreted their well-timed dreams.  Finally he was released by a skeptical Pharaoh and, once again, was meteorically catapulted to prominence.  In other words, the confluence of events has been so unlikely that it is only intelligible if understood as the unfolding of a profound and purposeful Divine design.


Secondly, however, and just as important, Yosef makes it clear that the survival of Yaakov's family will be the result of their descent to Egypt, where Yosef will be able to sustain them.  There are yet five difficult years of famine ahead, but if Yaakov's household can be proximal to the sphere of Yosef's influence, he can ensure their wellbeing.  The land of Goshen, in the more fertile delta region of Lower Egypt, was close to the seat of Pharaoh's power at that time.


Yaakov's Mixed Emotions – Yaakov vs. Yisrael


After securing Pharaoh's approval, Yosef sends his brothers back to Canaan in possession of special wagons, gifts from the royal court, as well as provisions for the return journey.  Pharaoh assures Yosef's brothers that 'the best of Egypt will be theirs' (Bereishit 45:20).  No doubt the brothers are in good spirits.  Not only has the nightmare of their harsh treatment at the Viceroy's hands come to an abrupt, unexpected and happy ending, but also their brother Yosef (for whom their aged father is still in mourning) is alive.  Moreover, he is uniquely positioned to not only preserve them from the pangs of hunger currently ravaging Canaan, but also to secure them an honored estate in Egypt.  Returning to their father with the startling and sunny tidings, Yaakov at first refuses to believe that Yosef is still alive.  Seeing the physical evidence of imperial wagons, however, Yaakov's broken spirit is invigorated: "It is too much! My son Yosef is yet alive! I will go to see him before I die!"


Leaving Chevron and the ancestral sepulchre at the Cave of Makhpela behind, Yaakov and the family begin to journey southwards.  They soon arrive at Be'er Sheva, the southern gateway to Canaan and a locale associated with the activities of his father Yitzchak as well as his grandfather Avraham.  There, Yaakov offers sacrifices to God, and is addressed by Him in the gathering darkness: "God said to Yisrael in visions of the night 'Yaakov, Yaakov' and he responded 'Here I am.'  God said: 'I am the God of your father.  Be not afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you a great nation.  I will go down with you to Egypt and I will bring you back, and Yosef will place his hand on your eyes'" (Bereishit 46:2-3). 


Ramban's Interpretation


As the Ramban (13th century, Spain) perceptively comments: "After God had said to him 'Your name shall no longer be called Yaakov but rather Yisrael' (Bereishit 35:10), it would have been appropriate for God to address him here by that honored name, which occurs in our passage three times.  Rather, God refers to him here as 'Yaakov' to indicate that for now he will not prevail against heavenly beings or men, but will instead be incarcerated in the house of bondage until God rescues him, FOR THE EXILE IS NOW SET TO COMMENCE…His children will multiply and achieve honor and renown in Egypt, but at the time of their descent, he is 'Yaakov'" (commentary to 46:2). 


In other words, Yaakov's intense excitement at the prospect of seeing his beloved Yosef alive, well, and prosperous, is tempered by his dread at the realization that the descent of the family to Egypt will initiate a painful and lengthy period of oppression and slavery, the necessary catalysts for nationhood.  The famine will be over in five short years, but the strenuous sojourn in Egypt will drag on for an indeterminate period of much longer.  Additionally, although there is the immediate promise of life and bounty in Egypt, in that promise also lurks the palpable danger of entrapment, of succumbing to a way of life far removed from the ideals of the Patriarchs and foreign to their dreams. 


Thus, as Chevron recedes beyond the horizon, and with it Makhpela and the connection to Canaan's precious earth, Yaakov experiences profound ambivalence.  His personal joy is commingled with existential sadness, the grand anticipation is tinged with anxious dismay.   As the laden wagons make their steady way to Be'er Sheva, where his father and grandfather had lived so many productive years of faith and trust, Yaakov sees his life pass before him.  Just beyond Be'er Sheva he had experienced his vision of the ladder, in which the fear associated with his personal exile triggered by Esav's animosity, had been soothed by God's promise that he would return to the Land.  Now he is about to relinquish it again, not as a solitary figure but as the head of an extended family numbering hundreds of souls.  Will his progeny also merit to return? 


About to take leave of Canaan forever, Yaakov offers sacrifice to God, expressing the hope and prayer that the harsh effects of exile be mitigated.  God reassuringly appears in a vision of the night and tells Yaakov not to be afraid, for He will be with him always.  Although the aged Patriarch's worries are assuaged, they are not entirely effaced.  Addressing him as 'Yaakov', God indicates that indeed the spiritual conviction, achievement, and triumph associated with 'Yisrael', his life's mission, will be temporarily obscured, until He remembers Yaakov's descendents and 'brings them back' to their own land. 


The Brothers and the Rest of Yaakov's Household


The brothers, on the other hand, see a bright future ahead of themselves, the intoxicating prospect of not only subsistence, but also unbounded prosperity.  Yosef, their long-lost brother, and his patron the all-powerful Pharaoh, will see to it that they are well established in the goodly land of Goshen.  They exhibit none of the uneasiness that plagues their old father, for they see in the allure of Egypt the promise of security and wealth.


How eagerly they had announced the news of Yosef's unexpected survival to the aging Yaakov. "Yosef is still alive, and he rules over all of Egypt!" (Bereishit 45:26) may indicate not only intense excitement over their vanished brother's resurfacing, but also subliminal assessments of their hopes for the morrow.  Packing their belongings and gathering their flocks, they journey southwards, buoyed rather than bowed by thoughts of their impending emigration.


Arriving in Egypt, the household receives a royal welcome.  Yosef explains to Pharaoh the shepherding tradition of the family, and they are duly settled in the fertile region of Goshen where there is much grazing land for their flocks.  Securing an audience for them, Yosef presents five of the brothers before Pharaoh.  They said to Pharaoh: "We are shepherds, as our ancestors were.  We have come to sojourn in the land; there is no grazing for our flocks, for the famine in Canaan is acute.  Let your servants dwell in the land of Goshen" (Bereishit 47:4).  Pharaoh accedes to their request, indicating to Yosef that "the land of Egypt is before you, settle your father and brothers in the best district.  Let them dwell in the land of Goshen, and if you see capable men among them, then appoint them as officers over my flocks!" 


The Royal Audiences: the Brothers vs. Yaakov


Curiously, there is a disagreement among the early sources concerning the identity of the five brothers presented by Yosef to Pharaoh.  Rashi (11th century, France), relying on the Midrash, identifies them as the weakest of the five.  He explains that Yosef, fearing for their fate, wanted to avoid their selection by Pharaoh, and therefore chose unimpressive representatives of the family.  Other early sources, however, suggest that Yosef presented the five strongest brothers before Pharaoh, in which case the intent and the effect would obviously be the opposite (see Targum Yonatan and Radak on 47:2).  According to this second view, we may perhaps posit that the brothers are only too happy to be provided with an opportunity to demonstrate their capabilities to Pharaoh; if Yosef their brother could rise to such prominence, why not they?


Following their audience is one of the most unusual and inexplicable meetings recorded in the text of the Torah: "Yosef brought his father Yaakov, and stood him before Pharaoh.  Yaakov greeted Pharaoh.  Pharaoh said to him: 'How old are you?'  Yaakov responded: 'The days of my sojournings are a hundred and thirty years.  The days of my life have been few and difficult, and they did not reach the length of my ancestors' lives, in the days of their sojournings.'  Yaakov blessed Pharaoh, and took leave of his presence" (Bereishit 47:7-10). 


What is the purpose of this meeting, and why does Yaakov respond to Pharaoh's generic question with such anguish?  Why does the Torah deem the dialogue significant enough to record for posterity?  How are we to understand their exchange within the larger context?  The Radak (13th century, Provence), reflecting a sentiment probably shared by most of the classical commentaries, candidly admits: "I can find no good reason why this episode should be recorded" (47:7).  After all, we are by this point well aware of Yosef's honored position in Pharaoh's household, and have already seen that his relationship with the king is so intimate that he can effortlessly secure his ear and his support.  On the other hand, Yaakov certainly has no ambitions as his children may, and he hopes to reap no material benefits from the encounter.  Besides, are we not already sufficiently convinced of Yaakov's greatness to make such an encounter superfluous?


The Theme of Time


Let us begin by ascertaining the subject of their dialogue.  Clearly, it relates to time.  Pharaoh is either taken aback by Yaakov's gnarled appearance of advanced age (Ramban, 13th century Spain, 47:9), or else asks a polite and formulaic question that even commoners often employ when making the acquaintance of the very old.  Yaakov, however, takes the opportunity to not only state his chronological age but to briefly describe the quality of those years: they have been hard and thankless, filled with disappointment, difficulty, and no small amount of misfortune.   Remarkably, however, Yaakov speaks of 'the days of the years of my sojournings' ('meGURai').  This last term, which he employs twice, is always used in a spatial context, but never in a temporal one.  Thus, the Torah often speaks of 'the land of their sojournings' (see Bereishit 28:4, Shemot 6:4), meaning the land in which they dwell.  But how are we to understand 'days' or 'years' of sojournings?


In Biblical Hebrew, the root 'GUR' describes a condition of dwelling that is tenuous and often temporary.  To be a 'ger' is literally to 'dwell' among the people, but often against the backdrop of lacking established or indigenous roots.  By describing his days as days of 'sojournings,' Yaakov emphasizes that his years have been colored by a passing quality that lacked the security of permanence.  How much he has traveled, fleeing eastwards to Mesopotamia in his younger years, and now westwards to Egypt in his advanced age.  Even his dwellings in Canaan have not been fixed and firm, for adversity has crossed his path time and time again.  But most disturbingly etched before his eyes as he stands before Pharaoh is the anguish of exile, for Yaakov sees not only his own life, but the lives of his descendents stretched out far ahead of him.  "I have not enjoyed the length of days and relative serenity of my forebears, who, though buffeted by hardship, in the end returned to their home, the hallowed earth of Canaan."


The King of Egypt and the Prince of Israel


Off all of the ancient monarchs, Pharaoh was the most impressive.  He was an absolute ruler, whose authoritarian pronouncements were regarded as supreme.  Presiding over a fertile and verdant valley forever basking in the warm and constant rays of the sun, and always watered by the mighty Nile, he enjoyed unlimited dominion; he wielded that power effectively to extract absolute respect and fear from his subjects. Attended by his minions, worshipped by the masses, Pharaoh dressed and played the part brilliantly.  If ever there was a figure in the history of the world who could legitimately be mistaken for a god, it was the Pharaoh.


In sharp contrast to this regal and awesome figure, stands an ancient and frail man, crowned not with trappings of gold or precious adornments but with the white thatch of age.  Refusing to return Pharaoh's innocuous query with a meaningless response of his own, he chooses instead to declare to the god king a fundamental truth: life and its material accomplishments are transitory, the days of our years are fleeting and impermanent, and no man escapes the ravages of the grave.  Yaakov, standing at the brink of his bodily demise, surveys his life and proclaims that its value cannot be gauged by material standards alone, for life's greatest accomplishments belong to the realm of the spirit.  The depth of one's commitment to the Higher Moral Law of God, the profundity of one's trust in the Deity even when misfortune visits, the transformation of one's spirit and its impact on others, these are the truest measure of the man.




Standing off to the side, if not actually present at the audience then at the least hanging on its every subtlety and nuance as later recounted, are Yaakov's children.  The same robust young men and their children, as well as their children's children, who regard the descent to Egypt as a special opportunity for accomplishment and advancement, are thus reminded by their father of a more important mission in life.  Exile from the land of Israel, even when legitimately precipitated by famine or economic hardship, is not a blessing in disguise but a curse.  Exile to proverbial Egypt is a special curse, for its brash blandishments are so blinding that it is quite easy to lose sight of one's bearings in their brilliant glare.  God's glory is eclipsed by the god king, and the yearnings of the soul are effectively smothered under the weight of either Pharaoh's gold or else his blocks of stone.


It is no wonder that Yaakov's audience with the king is bracketed by texts that speak of Egypt's allure.  It is introduced by the parley of his sons with Pharaoh, which concludes rather optimistically with the unqualified pronouncement that "the land of Egypt is before you, settle your father and brothers in the best district.  Let them dwell in the land of Goshen, and if you see capable men among them, then appoint them as officers over my flocks!"  It is immediately succeeded by Yosef's fulfillment of Pharaoh's directive, for "Yosef settled his father and brothers, granting them estates from among Egypt's best lands…as Pharaoh had commanded" (Bereishit 47:11).  Sandwiched in between, in a passage at first inexplicable but now painfully clear, is Yaakov's subtle warning and challenge to remain focused on our mission, confident of our destiny, and true to our spiritual selves.


Shabbat Shalom