“Israel travelled with all that he had, and he came to Beer Sheva; and he slaughtered sacrifices to the G-d of his father Isaac. And G-d spoke to Israel in visions of the night saying: Jacob, Jacob.
And he said: Here I am.
And He said: I am the G-d – G-d of you father. Do not be afraid of going down to Egypt, because I will make you into a great nation there. I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also assuredly bring you up” (Genesis 46:1-3).
Since it was to save his life, and the lives of his entire family, that Israel [Jacob] went down to Egypt, and since his son was viceroy over the land, he should have felt confident about what awaited him there. Why, then, did G-d have to encourage him with the words “Do not be afraid of going down to Egypt”?
Rashi’s comment – as we expect from Rashi – is telegraphic in its brevity and encyclopaedic in its scope: “Because he was distressed at having to exit to outside of the Land [of Israel]” (quoting the Midrash Lekach Tov).
Two hundred and twenty-two years earlier, G-d had appeared to Israel’s grandfather Abraham, telling him: “Know for sure that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will serve them; and they will oppress them for four hundred years. The nation that they will serve I will also judge, and afterwards they will leave with great wealth” (Genesis 15:13-14). This prophecy had hung, like a dark cloud on the nation’s horizon, over the lives of the patriarchs. They knew that there would be a harsh exile, and that it would finish 400 years after the birth of Isaac; but they did not know when, or how, or with whom, it would begin (following Ibn Ezra and Ramban to Genesis 15:13). Naturally, then, Israel was worried about going down to Egypt: he realised that the exile would thus begin with him. He also knew that the end of the exile was still 210 years in the future.
The Targum Yonatan renders: “Do not let the descent to Egypt make you afraid on account of the enslavement that I decreed to Abraham, because I will make you into a great nation there”.
The Ohr ha-Chayyim (Rabbi Chayyim ben Attar, 1696-1743) expounds further: “This refers back to what had been announced to the forefathers when exile was first decreed upon them, in the verse ‘…your seed will be strangers…’. It is reasonable to assume that Abraham would have told this to his children, which indeed the Midrash [Genesis Rabbah 82:13, 84:5] says”.
Rabbi Meir Kahane (Hy”d) wrote: “The author of the Pesach Haggadah portrayed Jacob as having been ‘compelled by the Divine decree’. Hazal said: ‘When Jacob heard that Joseph was alive, he thought to himself: How can I leave the land of my fathers, the land of my birth, the land wherein G-d’s Shekhinah is, and go to an impure land?’ (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 39). G-d had to reassure him: ‘Do not fear to go down to Egypt’ – fear neither the descent from the Land of Israel, nor the descent to impurity – ‘for I will make you into a great nation there’ – for My intention is to make you a great and exalted nation, which can happen only there. ‘I will go down with you to Egypt’ – I am going down with you, to guarantee that this descent will be directed as I want it to be – ‘and I will assuredly bring you up from there’ – I guarantee that there will be two ascents [the Hebrew phrase va-anokhi a’alkha gam alo, which we have translated as “I will also assuredly bring you up”, literally means “I will bring you up, also bring you up”, implying two ascents]: a physical ascent in returning to the Land of Israel, and a spiritual ascent... It must be emphasized that Jacob’s descent to Egypt was an exceptional event, specifically according to G-d’s decree, in order that the nation would be born in Kiddush Hashem. Therefore, the Midrash says: ‘It would have been appropriate for our father Jacob to go down to Egypt even in manacles’ (Genesis Rabbah 86:2) – he had to go down there, even against his will” (Peirush ha-Maccabee, Exodus 1:1).
For this reason, G-d had calibrated the infrastructure in Egypt to ensure Jewish survival in Egypt. Joseph had become viceroy of Egypt, thus cushioning their initial acclimatisation. The Egyptians found it repulsive to eat with the Hebrews (Genesis 43:32), which was a powerful safeguard against assimilation. The Egyptian idolatrous religion prevented them from being shepherds, whereas the Hebrews were shepherds; so Pharaoh settled them in the pasture-land of Goshen, far from the Egyptian-inhabited areas, ensuring a physical separation from the dominant culture (46:31-34).
Thus began the exile in Egypt – the exile that was to be the paradigm of all future exiles. It began with the Jews entering this foreign land with the intention of dwelling there temporarily, as a short-term solution until the famine would be over. It began with a Jew as second in command, the Jews dwelling securely and comfortably. But within a chillingly short time, by the end of the Parashah, “Israel settled [va-yeishev, implying permanent dwelling] in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen; they seized onto it, and were fruitful, and multiplied greatly” (47:27). The words va-yei’achazu bah, which we have rendered here “they seized onto it”, can equally mean “and it seized them”: this was a symbiotic relationship, the Jews clinging onto this foreign soil as if it was their own, and this foreign soil sucking them into itself until they were mired in exile, physically and emotionally unable to leave.
This imprisonment in exile is vividly depicted: “And Israel settled in the land of Egypt, and they built for themselves study halls [i.e. yeshivot] and palaces in the land of Goshen; and they acquired therein holdings of fields and vineyards, and were fruitful, and multiplied greatly” (Targum Yonatan, Genesis 47:27).
This picture is totally familiar to anyone who has ever seen the impressive yeshivot and grandiose dwellings of Crown Heights, Williamsburg, or Golders Green. Exile inexorably sucks Jews into itself, just as much as Jews absorb the exile into themselves. And within a historical blink of an eye, the Egyptians forgot – or deliberately ignored – all the benefits that the Jews had brought them. Because of Joseph, Egypt did not merely survive the famine that devastated the rest of the world; Egypt became the greatest economic super-power. But in less than a generation, this was worth nothing, and the Jews became a powerless, enslaved minority.
This is the iron rule in Jewish history. As long as Jews recognise that where they live is exile, there is – perhaps – a chance of Jewish survival. But once they begin to believe that Egypt (or Babylon, or Spain, or Germany, or America) is home, once they settle there “permanently”, building grandiose yeshivot and mansions, seizing the land, then the exile grasps them in its deadly and inescapable talons.
And yet, with all this, G-d’s promise resounds through Jewish history: “I will assuredly bring you up” – back home from Egypt, back home from Babylon, back home from every exile, to build our national life in the Land of Israel, the one place on G-d’s earth that we are permitted – no, commanded – to call home.