The Descent to Egypt to Create the Nation
This week’s portion begins with the most dramatic speech in the Bible — Judah’s plea to Joseph to save his brother Benjamin. “And Joseph could not restrain himself before all that stood by him . . . And he wept aloud . . . And Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph, is my father still alive?'” (Genesis 45:1-3). The great reunion has taken place. Joseph is reconciled to his brothers, they embrace, and they embark on the journey to bring Jacob and the rest of the family down to Egypt. At the end of the portion, Jacob arrives and is reunited with his beloved Joseph, whom he feared dead all these years. And Joseph settles his family in the Land of Goshen.
Although the reunion is moving and we are all relieved that the family is united and Jacob sees his beloved son Joseph, there is another, much more sinister development happening at the same time. For the descent to Egypt for this happy family reunion also portends the long and bitter slavery of the Children of Jacob in Egypt. As the family reunites and settles into their new surroundings, there doesn’t seem to be any awareness of the ramifications of this change in location. But, it is impossible that Jacob, at the very least, did not understand what was going to happen.
In Genesis chapter 42 verse 2, Jacob says to his sons: “Go down there (Egypt) and bring us food from there.” Rashi, the 11th century commentator notes that the numerical value of the Hebrew word “redu” (go down) is 210 and is equivalent to the actual number of years the Children of Israel were enslaved in Egypt. Rashi is, thus, indicating that there was incredible significance in this first directive of Jacob to his sons to go to Egypt, as if he knew, at some unconscious level that with this departure for Egypt would begin the long exile in that land.
And Jacob had to know that this long exile would come. G-d Himself promises to Abraham, in the covenant in Genesis chapter 15, that his children would be a stranger in a foreign land and that they would leave that land with great property. This important covenant with G-d would have naturally been passed on to Isaac and Jacob. They would have known, prophetically, that this was coming.
Joseph instructs his father and brothers to tell Pharaoh that they are shepherds and request to settle in Goshen, a distance from the center of Egypt — a place where they can live their own life and worship their own G-d, without having to fear from a people who worship animals and other pagan gods. Joseph understood the potential for persecution should the Children of Israel live among the Egyptians. Perhaps he sensed what could happen to his family after his death — what actually happened when a new king arises to the throne “who did not know Joseph.” (Exodus 1:8)
The descent to Egypt is a necessary evil, an event that G-d foretells and then orchestrates. As a result of that descent, there will be a subsequent ascent, the Exodus from Egypt and the formation of the Nation of Israel. Even today, as we watch history, we have a sense that this has been foretold, that it is being orchestrated. We may have a fuzzy idea of how it will all play out, but without the details. For centuries, the Jewish people suffered persecution, but what gave them hope was G-d’s promise to eventually return them to their land. Similarly, Jacob’s children could hold on to G-d’s promise to Abraham: “The fourth generation will return here.” (Genesis 15:16). Levy’s children descended to Egypt and four generations later, Moses’s children entered the Land of Israel.
Shabbat Shalom From Samaria,
Director, Israel Office