Parashat Vayigash / פרשת ויגש
Torah Portion: Genesis 44:18 – 47:27
The history of Israel’s 400-plus year exile in Egypt, foretold in a divine revelation to Abraham earlier in the Book of Genesis (15:13), begins in this week’s Torah reading, Vayigash. The reading opens with Joseph revealing himself to his brothers, who had journeyed to Egypt in search of sustenance during the famine in Canaan (45:4). Prior to now, the band of brothers had been unaware that the Pharaoh’s vizier, to whom they were pleading and who put them through a series of nerve-wracking trials, was the brother whom they had long ago sold into slavery and about whom they told their father, Jacob, had been devoured by a ravenous beast.
All seems to end well in this parasha. Pharaoh invites the brothers to resettle their clan in Egypt. Jacob learns that Joseph is alive and well. Father and son are reunited. And all 70 members of Jacob’s household emigrates to Egypt, where they will wait out the famine and eventually thrive. Still, the Children of Israel are in exile in Israel. They literally “went down” to Egypt.
The exile motif has already appeared in the Torah several times. Recall that Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden in chapter 3 of Genesis. Later, Cain would be exiled (4:16). Then, each of the patriarchs would experience dislocation in one way or another either within Canaan or without. All these stories are part and parcel of Israel’s national story, serving to define Israel’s relationship with God and the land of Israel and giving shape to their mission in the world.
The exile of Jacob and his family, however, would last much longer than all the others and prove to be a great test of Israel’s ability to maintain its self-identity. By the time God liberates the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage, they will have preserved a modicum of identity with their past as told through the stories of Genesis, but they will have effectively switched allegiance from the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to the gods of the Egyptians (see the article entitled “The Religion of the Israelites in Egypt” by Michael Alan Stein at http://jbq.jewishbible.org/assets/Uploads/393/jbq_393_religioninegypt.pdf). While the extended sojourn in Egypt would engrave the experience of servitude upon Israel’s consciousness, the Hebrews’ link to their ancestral religion would become tenuous, at best.
Rather than discount Israel’s flimsy identification with the God of their ancestors and focus on their assimilation into Egyptian culture – an assimilation which might have been complete had not the experience of bondage brought them together as an oppressed people – we ought to celebrate that our enslaved forebears retained any identity as the People of Israel at all. In fact, on the eve of Israel’s liberation, the Hebrews’ response to Moses’s command to ready themselves for the exodus suggests they had recovered, at least in part, from the amnesia induced by centuries of disconnection from the Promised Land and the halt in progress of their nation’s narrative.
In looking for clues to the survival of Israel’s identity during their exile in Egypt, we find light in the commentary of Rashi, the preeminent medieval French commentator. As Jacob prepared to relocate his family, he sent his son Judah ahead to “show (le’harot) the way before him to Goshen” (46:28). Rashi shares a rabbinic midrash on the word “le’harot,” which can be translated as “to teach or instruct,” that says that Jacob had sent Judah ahead in order to establish in advance a house of study, from which teaching would go forth. The idea that Jacob would have a house of study established before his arrival to Goshen reflects the sages’ wisdom that for diaspora Jewry Jewish learning is essential to continuity and survival. It certainly is the case that traditions survive because one generation teaches them to the next. When there is no transmission of a people’s narrative or creative myths, there can be no lasting memory and the people’s identity is doomed to fade away. The rabbis of old understood that for Judaism to flourish, Jews need to teach their children and grandchildren what it means to be Jewish.
The midrash that Rashi shares is surely a projection of the rabbinic mind onto the Torah, but while it is unlikely that there were houses of Israelite study in Egypt prior to the exodus, it is not at all unlikely that Jacob’s sons told the story of their people to their children and their children’s children. Thus began an oral tradition that helped preserve the Hebrews’ identity as B’nai Yisrael, the Children of Israel.
In an age when the demographics of Jews in America continue to show waning commitments to Jewish religion and institutional affiliation, we ought to heed the lesson embedded in this week’s Torah portion. Without houses of study or, at least, houses in which parents and grandparents actively relate Jewish wisdom to their heirs, Jewish identity is doomed to dissolve. Such dissolution of identity may have been total for our ancestors in Egypt were it not for those elders who saw to it that the stories of the Children of Israel would be taught from generation to generation.
It is my hope that the American Jewish community will always find “Judahs” in each generation to safeguard Jewish learning and set up teachers for our children who will transmit to them the stories of our past and visions for our future. In this way, the People of Israel will live.