Leaving Exile

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This week’s Parsha, Vayigash, describes the most moving event in all of Tanach: Yosef’s reunion with his brothers. The story, which contains intense drama and suspense, ends on an amazingly happy note. All of the hatreds, suspicions and rivalries which darkened the past, suddenly vanish.

That is, because the dreams of Yosef have come to pass in an unmistakable manner. The brothers, are at his mercy; because the famine, has made them dependent of him, for sustenance (“your sheaves surrounded mine and bowed down to my sheave”). As a result of the economic situation, Yosef emerged as the spiritual leader of the Tribes.

The reconciliation was possible, because of the exalted moral level of Yosef. He who had acted recklessly–due to excessive vanity as a youth–had now emerged as the “champion of forgiveness”. Hard as it is to imagine, he harbored no hostility against his brothers. He did not believe, it was his responsibility to “settle accounts”; and therefore, did not regard himself, as being in the “place of G-d”. When the time came to make up, he did so with a full heart of love, for his father and all of his brothers. Whenever former enemies beseech us for forgiveness, it would be wise to read this chapter, before responding.

However, the famine was still in force, and would be for another five years. Thus, Yosef’s immediate problem, was to find a way to sustain his father and the family for the duration of the crisis. Yosef wasted no time addressing this issue:

Hurry - go up to my father and say to him, ‘So said your son Yosef: ‘G-d has made me master of all Egypt. Come down to me ; do not delay. You will reside in the land of Goshen and you will be near to me - you, your sons, your grandchildren, your flock and your cattle, and all that is yours. And I will provide for you there - for there will be five more years of famine - so you do not become destitute, you your household and all that is yours.’” (Bereishis 45:9-11)

The question arises, why was Yosef insistent, that the family uproot itself from the land of Canaan–which Hashem had designated for them to live in–and relocate in the land of Egypt? Indeed, Yaakov, upon hearing the news that Yosef was still alive, agreed to go and visit him; with the intent of returning afterward to Canaan. It was only, because Hashem came to him in a night vision, and reassured him, that he should not fear to settle in Mitzrayim; because, “I shall descend with you to Egypt, and I shall also surely bring you up, and Yosef shall place his hand on your eyes”; that Yaakov agreed, to settle the family in this strange land.

But, the initiative itself, came from Yosef, without any Divine instruction. What prompted Yosef to do this? In my opinion, it was because of the severity of the hunger, which only Yosef fully grasped. His goal, was not merely to provide enough to keep his family members physically alive, but to provide for all the needs of their livestock; “…so you do not become destitute, you, your household, and all that is yours.”

Yosef, did not want the family to go bankrupt, and live in a context of extreme poverty; as that could be very dangerous, on many levels. As the famine in Egypt, kept getting more severe, it would have been very difficult to export vitally needed foodstuffs, for foreigners in a different land; even if they were close relatives of Yosef. He felt, that in order to sustain the family, in a healthy and viable manner, they would have to settle in Egypt; and be viewed as members of that society.

Indeed, Pharoh, was very happy to hear, that Yosef’s brothers had arrived; for he assumed, that they partook of their brother’s great capabilities, and would make a significant contribution to his Kingdom. Therefore, he said: “I will give you the best of the land of Egypt, and you will eat of the fat of the land.”

It therefore, seems clear that the exigencies of the famine, were responsible for Yosef’s relocating his family in Egypt. However, they did not return to Canaan; even after the years of hunger were over, and things returned to normal. But, why not? Avraham, took up temporary residence in Egypt, to escape a famine; but he had no intention of staying there longer than necessary. True, after the incident with Sarah, Pharoh threw him out of the country; but even if he hadn’t, we must assume that Avraham would have returned to Canaan, as soon as possible. So, why didn’t Yosef make any efforts to shepherd his brothers back to the land that Hashem wanted them to live in?

In my opinion, if the Jews had come to Egypt for sustenance, accepted Pharoh’s generous provision of superior grazing land, and then had left, when this largesse was  no longer needed; it would have constituted a Chillul Hashem (desecration of the Name). The understanding with Pharoh was, that in exchange for his offers of hospitality, the brothers would not just stay temporarily; but actually settle, in a permanent manner, in Egypt. They, could not betray that understanding–by picking up and leaving–even if dwelling in Eretz Yisrael was on a spiritually higher plane.

We can contrast the behavior of the Jews, with that of the Egyptians. They lacked the virtue of Hakarat HaTov (appreciation of the good) toward the Jews. When a “new” Pharoh arose and turned against them, he accused them of being enemies; who would not hesitate to join with Egypt’s adversaries, in bringing the country down. He totally forgot all of the good things that the Jews had done for the country; not to mention, that Yosef was responsible for actually saving it from a famine, which would have destroyed it.

This has been the fate of the Jews throughout history. We have been a source of great benefit, to all the societies we were invited into; and have enriched them, in manifold material and cultural ways. But, the element of gratitude, was always lacking. To the contrary, so many countries which should have appreciated us, turned against us; and became rabid Jew haters.

To a large extent, this phenomenon is responsible, for the restoration of the Jewish state of Israel; in modern times. If the nations, had treated the Jews properly, and refrained from persecuting them; there would not have been a Zionist movement. We must face the fact, that anti-Semitism has played a major role in the preservation of Jewish identity; and a vital one in bringing Jews back, to the land Hashem wants them to live in.

At a certain point in time, Hashem informed Yaakov, that it was time for the Jews to leave Canaan, and take up residence in a strange land; but, “I shall descend with you to Egypt and I shall also bring you up.”

In our history, there was, “a time to leave Israel”. But, as we have seen, there is also a time to return. May this time be now, and not because of the hatred of the anti-Semites, but because of the yearning of the Jews, to fulfill the Mitzvah of Hashem.

Shabbat Shalom.