The articles in this column are transcriptions and adaptations of shiurim by Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, zt”l. The Rav’s unique perspective on Chumash permeated many of the shiurim and lectures he presented at various venues over a 40-plus-year period. His words add an important perspective that makes the Chumash in particular, and our tradition in general, vibrant and relevant to our generation.
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Jacob’s sons returned from Egypt and informed him that Joseph was no only alive, but that he was the Viceroy of Egypt as well. Upon hearing the news, an incredulous Jacob fainted. His spirit was re-invigorated when they showed him the Agalot, wagons, Joseph sent to transport him to Egypt. Jacob’s fainting can be attributed to the shock associated with learning that Joseph was still alive, but why did he initially refuse to accept the testimony of 11 witnesses, stating that Joseph was, indeed, alive? What was the significance of the wagons Joseph sent as well as their connection to rekindling Jacob’s divine inspiration (Ruach HaKodesh)?
When the brothers reported to Jacob that Joseph was still alive in Egypt, they also informed him that Joseph remained the same despite all his trials and successes. He was the viceroy of Egypt, yet he remained steadfast in his righteousness, as the commentaries point out regarding the verse “And Joseph was in Egypt”. Joseph was untainted by the trappings of his position and Egyptian culture. Jacob refused to accept their testimony due to his knowledge of the extent of moral corruption in Egyptian society. This baffled Jacob, leaving him unable to understand how Joseph could possibly be the ruler of Egypt, while still managing to maintain his compassion and kind nature.
When the brothers related Joseph’s instructions, how he had cautioned them not to quarrel amongst themselves over his sale, due to it being G-d’s plan, that Joseph should be able to provide for them and their families during the famine, Jacob began to realize that the story required someone raised with the sense of kindness, as taught in the house of Abraham. Still, Jacob required proof that his most fervent hope and wish, that Joseph was alive, had finally came true. He was finally convinced when they showed him the wagons that Joseph sent, as a sign to Jacob, meaning that Joseph recalled Egla Arufa, the last topic they studied together before their abrupt separation 22 years before. The fundamental principle of Egla Arufa, is the Elders responsibility for their generation; this includes being accountable for the death of an anonymous person found outside the borders of the city. The wagons that Joseph sent to Jacob, meant that he still remembered the lessons of compassion and responsibility, required of a leader, that he learned from Jacob when they studied the topic of Egla Arufa. The Torah says that Jacob saw the wagons that Joseph sent to carry him, Lasayt Oto. Lasayt also means to elevate. Joseph indicated that he was sending the wagons to lift the spirit (Ruach) of Jacob, which he succeeded in doing.
Jacob stopped in Beersheba on his way to Egypt. G-d appeared to him and told him not to be fearful of descending to Egypt because G-d will accompany him down to Egypt and again on his return trip. Jacob was apparently seeking this spiritual message, for immediately after receiving it, he traveled directly to Egypt with his entire family. Why was Jacob reticent to go to Egypt and how did G-d’s promise assuage his concerns?
Ramban says the Patriarchs were considered to be Jews, meaning they kept the Torah and all its Commandments, while living in the Land of Canaan. However, when they left Canaan they were considered Bnay Noach, bound only by the Noahide laws. This explains how Jacob was permitted to marry two sisters while he was in Charan. However, when he returned to Canaan, he was once again bound by the Torah and the prohibitions of Erva, unacceptable marriages. Rachel who was the second of the wives that Jacob married, and thus the prohibited one based on the laws of Erva, died just prior to Jacob’s return to Canaan. Upon his return, he regained the Kedushat Yisrael, the special sanctity of the Jew, which he surrendered when he went to Charan.
This distinction of sanctity based on location, was inherent in G-d’s promise to Abraham (Genesis 17:7-8) that He will maintain his covenant with Abraham and his children, to be their G-d, grant them the land that they dwelled in, and He will be unto them Elokim. However, the distinction was removed at Sinai, (Exodus 19:5-6) where G-d entered into a covenant with the Jewish People to keep His Torah because everything and everywhere belongs to G-d, Ki Li Kal HaAretz. Whereas previously the sanctity was binding only in the land of Canaan, from Sinai on, the Jew is bound by sanctity wherever he may be.
Jacob was afraid that as a result of his leaving Canaan for Egypt to see Joseph, he would once again lose the special sanctity that comes with dwelling in the land. He also knew that this sanctity would be lost for a long time, as his children would be enslaved for an extended period in Egypt. He was afraid that the Jewish Nation might assimilate in Egypt and disappear as a separate, chosen nation. G-d promised him that he should not be afraid. While Isaac was not permitted to leave behind the Kedushat Yisrael for even one moment, Jacob and his children were not subject to this restriction. Their descending to Egypt is in compliance with the will of G-d and they will regain their special sanctity at a later time. They will receive an additional measure of sanctity as G-d will make them into a great nation in Egypt. This reassurance was all Jacob needed to drop everything and travel in order to reunite with his beloved son Joseph.