INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA
memory of Yakov Yehuda ben Pinchas Wallach
and Miriam Wallach bat Tzvi Donner
By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley
A. INTRODUCTION A HAPPY ENDING?
"All's well that ends well" - that sentiment appears to sum up the feelings at the beginning of our parasha. After Yehuda's emotional, poignant appeal, Yosef's steely resolve cracks. With his emotional revelation to his brothers, his reassurances that he bears them no ill will, and his guarantee for their welfare during the famine, our concerns over Yosef's motivations and behavior over the course of the previous chapters have been put to rest. The family is reunited, the threat of famine averted. Finally, Yaakov will see his long-lost son again, and he's a prime minister, no less! If we choose to read Sefer Bereishit as the family saga of Avraham's children, clearly there is reason to be content.
the Torah is more than a family romance.
Readers attuned to larger themes of Sefer Bereishit know
better than to think that this episode serves only to tie up neatly the fate of
Yaakov's reunited family. This
family is to live under the Divine call to be a righteous and holy people, a
source of blessing to the nations.
Before them lie the blessings of prosperity and fruitfulness, "like the
stars of the sky." However, this
was to occur only "in the land that I will show you" the
tension and paradox was already alluded to by Yosef in the naming of his son
Menashe - For G-d has made me fertile in the land of my affliction
(41:52). More threateningly,
hanging over their heads like a sword of Damocles, is the Covenant Between the
Parts (Berit Bein Ha-Betarim), in which Avraham was told that his
children would be strangers and slaves oppressed in a land not theirs for four
hundred years. Indeed, we have
reason to be apprehensive about the fate of Yaakov and his family in their
B. YAAKOV'S FEARS AND LEAVING ERETZ YISRAEL
his own personal reasons, Yaakov is also fearful about his descent. At the beginning, when first informed
that his son was alive, he excitedly exclaimed, "I will go to see him before I
die." Clearly, however, between his
initial reaction and the actual journey, some of the excitement cooled. Not only does he not follow Pharaoh's
instructions to leave behind all his belongings, he first heads towards
Beersheva to offer sacrifices. At
Beersheva, both Avraham and Yitzchak made covenants with Avimelech; in addition,
Avraham stayed there after the akeida, Hashem appeared to Yitzchak
there after his confrontation with the Philistines, and Yaakov himself had left
from there when he went to
1 And Yisrael took his journey with all that he had, and came to Beersheva, and offered sacrifices unto the God of his father Yitzchak.
2 And God spoke unto Yisrael in the visions of the night, and said: "Yaakov, Yaakov." And he said: "Here am I."
And He said: "I am God, the God of your father; fear not to go down into
I will go down with you into
The purpose of the sacrifices that Yaakov offers is not clear. Unlike the sacrifices offered until now, they are not olot, burnt offerings (Zevachim 116b). They may have been offered as thanksgiving offerings for Yosef's deliverance, for Yaakov had given him up for dead. However, given the tenor of Hashem's response, they may have been offered in the spirit of petition. Clearly, something troubles Yaakov, although the text does not explain what.
This question bothered the Abrabanel, who asked:
was it necessary for the Holy One, blessed be He, to say to Yaakov, "fear not to go down into
The commentators attempt to identify this unstated fear. Rashi, quoting Chazal, states that Yaakov's distress came about because he had to leave Eretz Yisrael. The Radak, the Seforno, and the Abrabanel develop this answer. Both the Radak and the Seforno suggests that the reason that Yaakov prayed "to the God of his father Yitzchak" was because Hashem had commanded Yitzchak, in the time of famine, "Do not go down to Egypt." This approach also appears in the Abrabanel, whose words we summarize as follows:
had been offered as a sacrifice [at the akeida], and his spiritual
qualities were bound specifically to Eretz Yisrael. Earlier, when Yaakov had gone forth from
Abrabanel develops his understanding of this fear based on Hashem's
response. He suggests that Yaakov
feared four things upon leaving Eretz Yisrael: (a) His descendants might be eradicated
other commentators, however, see other rationales for Yaakov's fears, based on
their thematic understanding of the significance of going down to
Yaakov [switched] to shelamim (peace-offerings) from olot (burnt offerings) in order to make peace with the world's attributes, for he had seen that the great exile would begin with him
After Hashem told him, "Your name shall no longer be called Yaakov, but Yisrael shall be your name," it would have been fitting for Hashem to have called him by that new distinguished name But he called him "Yaakov, Yaakov" to hint [to Yaakov] that he would no longer be able to strive with the Divine and overcome rather, he would have to remaining the house of bondage until [Hashem] would bring him up, for now the exile would begin with him.
What the Ramban suggests is stated more simply by the Chizkuni:
Yaakov was fearful, and said, "Now that I am descending to
C. YAAKOV'S HISTORICAL AWARENESS
Looking at the encounter given the background outlined by the Ramban and the Chizkuni above, we can suggest the following understanding of what underlies Yaakov's fears, and the essence of Hashem's response. We must remember that not only is this Hashem's first communication in decades, it is also the last recorded Divine speech in Sefer Bereishit. For the next several hundred years, the Jewish People will suffer under the cruel hand of their Egyptian hosts turned taskmasters. The next Divine speech will be to Moshe Rabbeinu at the burning bush, calling on him to set the Jewish People free and using language that echoes our encounter: "Moshe, Moshe!" parallels "Yaakov, Yaakov!," and "Hineni here I am!" parallels Moshe's "Hineni" (Exodus 3).
although the text is clear that Hashem is speaking to Yaakov, he does so
through "the visions of the night," and does not do so immediately when Yaakov
called upon him.
As noted by the Ramban above, He
summons him as "Yaakov," not as Yisrael.
He speaks to him as Yaakov, the old man concerned for his son and fearful
of his fate in
encouraging that Yaakov finds the speech, we the readers find it ambiguous and
layered with dual meanings. Like dreams, only part of the truth is visible to
the recipient. Yaakov's children
will become a great nation but in
 We are reading Yaakov's state of mind backwards, as it were, from Hashem's response to him, based on the presumably sound assumption that Hashem, "who discerns the inner thoughts of man" knows the unspoken fears that bring people to him. For a previous example in Sefer Bereishit, see where Hashem tells Avraham to "fear not" after the war with the four kings and the encounter with the king of Sedom (15:1). The midrashic literature there attempts to identify what precisely bothered Avraham did he lose his share of Divine protection in war, etc.?
 The last recorded
instance of Hashem speaking with Yaakov was at Beit-El, after the return
 I base this suggestion on the Rambam's distinction between dreams and prophecy in Moreh Nevukhim (II:45). Interested readers are also welcome to examine the lengthy Ramban at the beginning of Chapter 46, which challenges this distinction (and, by default, our suggestion).