YAAKOV'S FEARS

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA

 

PARASHAT VAYIGASH

 

**************************************************************

In memory of Yakov Yehuda ben Pinchas Wallach
and Miriam Wallach bat Tzvi Donner

**************************************************************

 

YAAKOV'S FEARS

 

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.

 

However, 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 Land of Israel.  How could this national detour into the peak of civilization, Egypt, advance this goal?

 

This 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 descent to Egypt.

 

B.        YAAKOV'S FEARS AND LEAVING ERETZ YISRAEL

 

For 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 Haran so many years before.  Now, on his way to meet Yosef, he veers towards the ancient site, possibly hoping for one final Divine communication: 

 

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."

3 And He said: "I am God, the God of your father; fear not to go down into Egypt; for I will there make you into a great nation.

4 I will go down with you into Egypt, and I will also surely bring you up again; and Yosef shall put his hand upon your eyes."

 

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.[1]  Clearly, something troubles Yaakov, although the text does not explain what. 

 

This question bothered the Abrabanel, who asked:

 

Why was it necessary for the Holy One, blessed be He, to say to Yaakov, "fear not to go down into Egypt" - hadn't Yaakov previously stated "I will go to see him before I die?"  In fact, he had already begun the journey!

 

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:

 

Yitzchak 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 Beersheva to Haran to seek a wife, even though he did so with his parents' consent, Yaakov received permission from Hashem to so, and received in return a promise, "I will return you to this land."  Now that he was leaving Eretz Yisrael again, he arrived in Beersheva, where he came to receive permission for his journey … 

 

The 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 in Egypt, and consequently not become the promised nation.  (b)  Egypt was known as a center of idolatry and promiscuity, and both Yaakov and\or his children would lose Divine protection.  (c)  Yaakov feared burial in Egypt, instead of Eretz Yisrael.  (d)  If Yosef were to die before Yaakov, then no one would take care of Yaakov and his family.  Against these four fears, the Abrabanel sees four promises in Hashem's words.  Corresponding to the fear that Yaakov's children would not develop into a nation, Hashem stated, "I will there make you into a great nation."  The Divine protection would stay with them, as it states, "I will go down with thee into Egypt."  Like his fathers, Yaakov would be buried in Eretz Yisrael, "I will also surely bring you up again."  Finally, Yosef would outlive him, as promised by "Yosef shall put his hand upon your eyes."

 

The other commentators, however, see other rationales for Yaakov's fears, based on their thematic understanding of the significance of going down to Egypt that we have discussed either.  The Ramban sees both in the switch of the offerings to shelamim (peace-offerings) from olot (burnt offerings) and in Hashem's calling Yaakov by his name Yaakov despite the fact that the text just referred to him as Yisrael as symbolizing the change in the status of the Jewish people. 

 

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:

 

For Yaakov was fearful, and said, "Now that I am descending to Egypt, the days that were spoken to my grandfather have come, the decree of estrangement, slavery, and sufferings in a land not theirs."

 

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,[2] 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). 

 

Significantly, 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.[3]  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 Egypt who turned to him in trepidation.  Reassuringly, he offers him precise answers to his concerns and fears.  He also moves Yaakov to think in terms of the larger picture: Do not worry about the fate of your children, for they will become a great nation and I personally will escort you out.  Clearly, Yaakov is encouraged, for he now leaves Canaan and heads for Yosef and Egypt. 

 

However 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 Egypt, and it is precisely their numbers that would lead to their estrangement and their enslavement.  God will be with them – but not visible or accessible for an extended period of time.  Yosef's closing of Yaakov's eyes carries great symbolism, for as the people settle into Goshen and integrate into Egyptian society, they will slowly become blinded to the dangers posed by the exile expressed above.  Only when God reappears to Moshe at the burning bush, using the language He spoke to Yaakov to assuage his fears, will history turn around.

 



[1] 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.?

[2] The last recorded instance of Hashem speaking with Yaakov was at Beit-El, after the return from Paddan Aram and the episode with Dina and Shekhem (35:9-15).  At the time, Binyamin had not yet been born – now he has become the proud father of ten children!

[3] 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).