Parshat Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27)
This week’s portion, Vayigash, climaxes when Yosef reveals himself to his brothers, and invites Yaakov’s family to immigrate to Egypt. It doesn’t take much imagination to imagine the effect on Yaakov upon hearing the news. What could have happened to an aging father convinced that his beloved son had been killed by a vicious animal, only to discover, many years later, that his son was, in fact, the deputy ruler of Egypt?
His sense of pure joy is captured by the verse “… the spirit of Yaakov their father was revived.” [Gen. 45:27] He came back to life. His dimmed eyes, a feature of his for the previous two decades, suddenly came to life. His old age gave way to a rediscovered youth. Thus, the suggestion he promptly gives his children shouldn’t surprise anyone: “And Israel said, ‘Enough! My son Yosef is still alive! I will go and see him before I die.’” [ibid. v. 28]
He wanted the chance to say something to Yosef before he passed away. It is such a human, natural, and heart-warming response, which is precisely why we find the rest of the story so puzzling.
Yaakov takes his entire family down to Egypt, passing through Beersheva, where Hashem appears to him in a dream 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]
When we tell someone not to be afraid, the implication is that this person was probably quite frightened to begin with. (In fact, if someone tells me not to be afraid, this is when I should start to become afraid…). Whoever said that Yaakov was afraid? After all, the Torah just told us that Yaakov initiated this trip without any hesitation.
Our rabbis tell us that Yaakov was fearful of leaving the Land of Israel because of its sanctity, and because he sensed in the depths of his soul that a new calamity was awaiting his family in Egypt. Nevertheless, we are unsure where this is hinted to in the text. If we can understand the subtext, a great drama was playing out deep within Yaakov’s thoughts.
This is not merely the story of an emotional, touching and exciting reunion of two kindred spirits that had not seen each other in twenty years. If that were the case, Yosef would not have sent so many caravans to collect Yaakov’s entire family, along with all of their goods and chattel. Yaakov would not have organized his entire family – a total of about sixty-five people – for such a long journey. The text would not have dedicated nearly thirty verses to a detailed description of the list of travelers in Yaakov’s convoy.
Yaakov could have simply gone on his own to Egypt for a few weeks, hugged Yosef and his young grandsons, and returned home. That would have been sufficient to grant his final wish – to see his son before he died.
In fact, deep down, Yaakov knew that this was no standard journey. By traveling with his family in royal Egyptian caravans, he was effectively declaring that he was leaving the Land of Israel for an indefinite period of time. This was a personal decision with fateful implications for the Jewish People. This choice would be a difficult burden to bear, one that would weigh on his conscience. “Will my decision be correct?” he wondered. “Am I bringing destruction upon my children, under the yoke of an Egyptian oppressor? Will this lead my grandchildren to assimilate? Am I not condemning my family to the worst possible fate, just because I want to see Yosef?”
One of the most fascinating questions in the history of the Jewish people – and of humanity, at large – is how deeply personal wishes can influence the history of nations. These personal choices are not necessarily predicated on corrupt intentions, God forbid. To the contrary, they are often the product of the strongest emotions within a person. What could be more sacred than a father’s desire to be close to his son, and perhaps even have influence on his son’s conduct and behavior?
Still, important as this personal choice may be, does it merit affecting the destiny of an entire nation for generations? In this case, yes, and this is precisely why Hashem informed Yaakov not to be fearful of going down to Egypt. This was not an empty promise. It was a statement that confirmed that despite all the risks involved, this was the correct choice: “I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up…” [ibid. v. 4]