Wednesday, December 28, 2011

What Yaakov Feared

Last year I addressed the difference between the names Yisrael and Yaakov and their usage in the Torah. I don't know if there is a fool-proof difference between them. In this article, they are used interchangeably simply because the Torah uses them in this fashion in the verses discussed.

Parshat Vayigash

Were one to examine Yisrael's attitude towards going to Egypt, it would be hard to convince us that he was apprehensive about the trip. When he heard Yosef was alive and was convinced by the sight of the wagons that he would be reunited with his favorite son, "His spirit became alive. He said, '... I will go and see him before I die.'" (45:27-28)

And yet, three verses later, after a stopover in Beer Shava to bring offerings to God, Yisrael has a vision in which God tells him, "I am the God of your father. Don't be afraid to go to Egypt, for it is there that I will make you into a great nation. I will go to Egypt with you, and I will also bring you back again..." (46:3-4)

There is no indication that he is afraid of Egypt! What is God talking about?

There are different kinds of fear: fear of the unknown, fear of possible outcomes – especially for one's children, fear of an undesired destination or destiny. One can fear other people, or what the other people might be capable of doing.

Many of the commentators raise the idea that Yaakov was aware that with this journey to Egypt the years of bondage that Avraham had been promised in Bereishit 15 would commence. The Chizkuni, for example, says that God's words after "Don't be afraid" are to assure Yaakov that just as the bondage element of the promise to Avraham would be fulfilled, so would the exodus and the becoming a great nation promises be fulfilled.

Others focus on the fears Yaakov harbored over his and his family's spiritual future. In addition to the fear that he was beginning the exile that had been promised to Avraham, Or HaChaim also mentions Yaakov's fear that he'd be buried in the impure land. God's immediate response is the promise that he personally would not be enslaved, nor buried there. "Perhaps Yaakov had designs on going back to Canaan when the famine was over and the trouble passed… this is why he is told not to fear 'for even the relatively short amount of time you think you're going to be there,' because your family will become a great nation in that place."

Along similar lines, the Beis HaLevi puts Yaakov's fear in terms of his children not being able to be in Egypt and maintain their "kedushah" (holiness). Maybe they'll become so entrenched in the tumah (impurity) of Egypt, they would not be worthy of being redeemed. God therefore told him not to fear, because He would not let them become completely lost, and if need be He would take them out before their time was up.

It is the Seforno, however, who writes what I find to be the most compelling concern. "Don't be afraid to go down to Egypt. Were your children to stay here in Canaan, they would end up marrying the Canaanites and assimilating with them. But in Egypt this will never take place because the Egyptians have their own rules against intermingling with you."

Right after this exchange with God, the Torah lists for us the names of the descendants of Yaakov. The Torah does not tell us much about the wives of the sons of Yaakov. One midrashic thought suggests each of the tribes was born with a twin sister who became a wife to one of the tribes. A different line of thinking posits the wives were Canaanite women who embraced the ways of the family of Yaakov – and listing his children here (46:5-27) would alleviate the fear of a family breakdown as it would serve as a strong indicator that this family unit will remain intact.

If the latter approach is correct, moving the family to Egypt, away from Canaanite grandparents and relatives might actually be the best thing to happen to Yaakov and his family. Creating their own homogeneous environment that will not be influenced by "distance relatives" or Egypt's "live and let live, but we will not mingle with you" attitude could, in the end, become the strongest bond in the effort to stem a tide of assimilation and have everyone in the family remain close-by-design in the Goshen area they will soon occupy.

Consider this statistic: by 1927 (14 years into the Weimar Republic), more than 44% of Jews in Germany married non-Jews (Martin Gilbert, "Final Journey" p.11). (The Nazis counted them all as Jews anyway, but nonetheless, it is a staggering number for early 20th century stats, versus current US figures where the number wavers in the 50-plus percent range.)

Being in a place like Egypt, therefore, where Egyptian law allowed for engaging in commerce and neighborliness but prohibited assimilating with the Hebrews – wining, dining, and marrying – was a reminder Yaakov desperately needed, and an answer that assuaged his number one fear.

The fear of the silent destruction brought on by the loving environment of assimilation is one Yaakov did not need to express. It is constantly in the mind of every parent, and was Avraham's first concern when he was promised the land (see Seforno, Bereishit 15:8).

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