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Parashat Vayigash – 12/25/2009

Parashat Vayigash – 12/25/2009

submitted by Robert Rabinoff

Yosef has revealed himself to his brothers. They have reconciled after 22 years of estrangement. Word has been sent to Ya’akov that his favorite son is alive. The family is reunited. Father and sons are universally respected, and wield vast economic and political power. Everything should be perfect, shouldn’t it? In point of fact however, our Sages identify this family reunion as the beginning of the Egyptian exile.

In the Haggadah we read that Ya’akov came to Egypt la-gur sham, v’lo’ l’hishtake’a – to live there temporarily, and not to sink down [roots]. The verb we translate as “sink down” is the same root as in sunset. When the sun sets it’s dark. Ya’akov had no intention of succumbing to the darkness that was Egypt. He was there to ride out the famine; even with the lure of his beloved Yosef pulling him, and famine in his homeland pushing him, it took a Divine promise that Gd would descend to Egypt with him and would bring him back up to the Land of Israel, before he had the nerve to go.

The language that describes the descent to Egypt is interesting (46:5ff)

So Ya’akov arose from Be’er Sheva; the sons of Israel transported their father Ya’akov … they took all their livestock and their wealth which they had amassed in the land of Canaan and they came to Egypt – Ya’akov and all his offspring with him… Now these are the names of the children of Israel who were coming to Egypt – Ya’akov and his children…

In Parashat Vayishlach Ya’akov is given a new name, Israel, which symbolizes his transcendental or spiritual nature. However Ya’akov’s name change is unlike the case with his grandfather, Avraham, whose original name is never used after the name change, but is subsumed in the new name he was given. Instead, with Ya’akov we find both names used, sometimes in the same passage or even the same verse, as we have just seen. I believe that this is because in Ya’akov we find a coexistence of the two values – spiritual and material, absolute and relative, eternal and changing. There is a Midrash that a likeness of Ya’akov’s face is carved into Gd’s Throne of Glory, indicating that he is the archetype of what a human being can and should be. I believe that in fact he is such an archetype because a human being should encompass these seemingly opposite values, which are really two sides of the same coin.

So Ya’akov/Israel goes down to Egypt. In his mind it is perfectly clear that he will be in Egypt, but Egypt will not be in him. The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim, which has at its basis the root tzar, or constriction. Egypt was the leading power of its time, ahead of the entire world in wealth, power and technology. It was also debauched and immoral, a society based on slavery and exploitation, where human life was a throwaway commodity. Ya’akov has no intention of interacting with this society any more than necessary, and wishes to return to the Land of Israel as soon as possible. As it turns out, this will only be possible after his passing, as described at the end of next week’s Parashah.

Unfortunately, as is often the case, Ya’akov’s clarity of vision is not passed down directly to his descendents. At the end of our Parashah we read (47:11)

So Yosef settled his father and his brothers and he gave them a possession in the land of Egypt, in the best part of the land…as Pharaoh had commanded.

The word for “possession” is achuzah and has the root connotation of grasping, or holding onto. This can have a positive connotation, for example when one is holding onto something valuable and life supporting. On the other hand, just as in English, the word “grasping” can have the distinctly negative connotation of greediness and attachment to the ephemeral.

There is a piece of Indian folk wisdom – how to catch a monkey? Simply place a piece of fruit in a narrow-necked jar. The neck is wide enough for the monkey to insert his hand and grasp the fruit, but narrow enough that he can’t withdraw his fist. Chain the jar to the ground and the monkey will catch himself.

Like the monkey, unfortunately the people of Israel were trapped by Egypt. Yosef may have thought he was giving his family a part of Egypt to hold onto, but perhaps the intent of Pharaoh’s command was that Egypt would be able to hold onto Yosef’s family – for Egypt’s good and not, certainly, for Israel’s.

The descent of Israel into Egypt then is a paradigm for the mechanics of creation. Creation starts with Gd alone, pure unity, unlike anything we in the lower world call “unique.” From within that Unity, Gd creates diversity, ending in a world of multiplicity – the material world, the world of boundaries, of constriction. In order to actualize the full potential of spirituality, pieces or sparks of Gd’s pure spiritual nature must descend into the world of constriction, in order to raise and integrate the boundaries into a wholeness that is greater than anything available without the descent.

The danger in such a creation is that the spiritual values get swallowed by the material casing in which they find themselves. Then the soul is “grasped” by the body, drawn downward to the world of bodily sensations and pleasures, until it finds itself no longer capable of elevating and sanctifying the material. Like a silent-film melodrama, the situation appears hopeless. Yet from the lowest depths of degradation sprouts salvation, from the suffering of slavery sprouts redemption and revelation. The Book of Bereishit sets the stage. In two weeks we will begin the Book of Shemot, and the ascent will begin.