The opening pasuk in this week’s parshah states: “Vayechi Yaakov be’eretz Mitzrayim sheva esrei shanah… – Yaakov lived in Mitzrayim for 17 years…” The Gemara in Kiddushin 82a says that Avraham Avinu kept the entire Torah, even the mitzvos that may not have applied. The meforshim assume that this was the practice of the other avos and their descendents as well. There are three pesukim in the Torah prohibiting one from living in Mitzrayim. This question is raised: How were Yaakov and his sons allowed to live in Mitzrayim when it is in fact prohibited?
I believe that the author of the Haggadah alluded to this question in the following drasha: The Haggadah expounds on the pasuk in Devarim (26:6): “Va’yeired Mitzraimah va’yagar sham – And he went down into Mitzrayim and sojourned there.” The Haggadah says that we are to learn from the word va’yagar (sojourn) that Yaakov Avinu did not go down to Mitzrayim with the intention to live there permanently, but rather to sojourn there. The Rambam (Hilchos Melachim 5:7,8) says that it is only prohibited to live in Mitzrayim lehishtakya (permanently); one is allowed to temporarily visit Mitzrayim. Apparently the author of the Haggadah alludes to this question, and answers that Yaakov did not live in Mitzrayim in a permanent manner – but rather his dwelling was temporary. Therefore Yaakov was not transgressing the prohibition of living in Mitzrayim.
I suggest that this is the reason that the Torah chose to write the word “vayechi – and he lived.” The pasuk does not write “vayeishev – and he dwelled” because Yaakov was merely living there temporarily, not permanently.
The Radvaz, in his commentary on the Rambam (Hilchos Melachim 5:8), asks how the Rambam was allowed to live in Mitzrayim. He suggests that perhaps he was forced by the country’s king to remain since he was the doctor of the king and many other officials. He then proceeds to ask the same question regarding himself, how he (the Radvaz) was allowed to live in Mitzrayim. He responds that he built a yeshiva and learned and taught Torah, and under those circumstances there is no prohibition.
This answer is perplexing, for building a yeshiva and learning and teaching Torah does not grant one a license to transgress a Torah prohibition. Perhaps the Radvaz’s logic is based on the Rambam’s ruling that if a king of Yisrael conquers Mitzrayim, there is no prohibition of dwelling in Mitzrayim. It is only prohibited to dwell in Mitzrayim while it is under non-Jewish rule. The reason for this is because the actions of the people of Mitzrayim were the most immoral, and thus the Torah did not want individuals to dwell there under their influence. Perhaps the Radvaz extended this halacha to one who is living in a yeshiva, since he is not affected by the corrupt world that surrounds him. It is comparable to the scenario whereby a king of Yisrael conquers Mitzrayim, negating Mitzrayim’s cultural influence. Therefore, the Radvaz ruled that he was permitted to live in Mitzrayim under those circumstances.
Based on this, we can suggest an alternate p’shat in explaining how Yaakov and his sons remained in Mitzrayim. In last week’s parshah, prior to Yaakov’s descent to Mitzrayim, he sent his son Yehudah “lehoros lefanav” (Bereishis 46:28). Rashi quotes a medrash that explains that Yaakov sent Yehudah to establish a yeshiva prior to his arrival. This was seemingly a strange practice. Why could Yaakov not have waited until everyone arrived before the yeshiva was built?
According to the Radvaz we can understand why it was necessary for the yeshiva to be established, even prior to everyone’s arrival. Since the building of a yeshiva is what would ensure that they would not be influenced by the people of Mitzrayim, Yaakov arranged that it should be established prior to their arrival.
This yeshiva remained for the entire time that Klal Yisrael were in Mitzrayim. The Rambam (Hilchos Avodah Zarah 1:3) says that after recognizing Hashem as the Creator and the one who controls everything, Avraham Avinu started educating others about Hashem. Eventually Yitzchak Avinu assumed that role, and Yaakov followed. Yaakov taught all of his sons, and later appointed Levi to be the rosh yeshiva. It was this yeshiva that kept the teachings of Avraham Avinu intact during the galus of Mitzrayim. This was made possible because shevet Levi was not subject to the physically torturous labor; thus they were able to remain in the yeshiva. The Rambam adds that if not for this yeshiva, all of the fundamentals that Avraham Avinu set forth would have otherwise been forgotten.
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