Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Parshat VaYigash

The Descent to Egypt

After Yoseph revealed himself to his brothers, he organized for them and their family, including to Yaakov, so that he could protect them from the famine because: "for another five years, there will be neither plowing nor harvest" (Bereshit 45:46). Indeed, he even believed that the whole purpose of him being sold to Egypt was so that he could protect them from the famine.

Little did he know that it was actually part of a greater plan that God had. He had promised Avraham many years earlier "You shall surely know that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and oppress them, for four hundred years" (ibid 15:13).

Perhaps this is why Yaakov goes with trepidation to Egypt. On his way he actually stopped in Be'er Sheva. There God appears to him and says: "I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid of going down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation" (ibid 46:3).

It is interesting that God calls Himself: "the God of your father", i.e. Yitschak, and not the God of Avraham. Yaakov knows that that his father and grandfather had both experienced famine in Canaan. Both wanted to go down to Egypt. God expressly forbade Yitschak from going to Egypt. Therefore, God is saying that He, the God who prohibited Yitschak from going to Egypt, is allowing Yaakov to go.

The question is why. Why did God want Israel to go to Egypt? Why was it necessary for them to be "strangers in land that is not theirs"? Why will He "make you into a great nation there"? Why can this not be done in Canaan?

The answer appears in this week's parsha. Immediately, after God appeared to Yaakov, the Torah lists seventy of the names of those people who went down. Let's examine some of them. There was: "Saul the son of the Canaanitess" (ibid 10) and there was "Shelah, Perez, and Zerah" (ibid 12), Yehuda's sons from two different Canaanite women (Batshua and Tamar). We do not know the identity of the wives of any other of the brothers, but they had certainly not gone through the process of Yitschak and Yaakov, of marrying women from Avraham's family in Padan Aram.

At least two of Yaakov's children had married Canaanite women, something that was expressly forbidden to Yitschak and Yaakov, and something that would be forbidden to all of ancient Israel. Yet, what would have happened to Yaakov's grandchiuldren? It is very likely that would all have marry local girls.

Therefore, God says to Yaakov that only: "there (i.e. in Egypt) I will make you into a great nation". In Canaan, you will be absorbed into the locals and form part of the Canaanite nation. The only option was to go to Egypt where they could keep their own identity and become a great nation.

Why only Egypt? The answer again appears in this week's parsha: "because all shepherds are abhorrent to the Egyptians" (ibid 34). The Egyptians did not like foreigners. We had seen last week how Yoseph could not eat together with the brothers because of Egyptian law. Now, the brothers' profession, shepherds, a profession abhorrent to the Egyptians, would ensure that they would be kept isolated from the locals, therby remaining intact and growing into a great nation.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat VaYigash entitled: "The Saving of Egypt " appears at

A second Sedra Short entitled "Confrontation and Reconciliation" appears at

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