Learning in Egypt and the Survival of the Jewish People

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.

Transforming Hospitality from Good to Sacred

Parashat Vayera / פרשת וירא

Torah Portion: Genesis 18:1 – 22:24

Hospitality, hachnasat orchim, is an important Jewish value that is rooted in this week’s Torah portion. Here Abraham and Sarah demonstrate the kind of gracious and loving care for strangers that our tradition says we should all show. As with all mitzvot, though, there is more to the story than meets the eye. Abraham and Sarah may be nice people who are naturally inclined to extend themselves to people in need, but they are also executing what we believe is God’s will. In this respect, they are performing a sacred act, which we are to copy in our own lives.

Our portion begins:

The Lord appeared to him (Abraham) by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, “My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant. Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree. And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves; then go on—seeing that you have come your servant’s way.” They replied, “Do as you have said.”

Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Quick, three seahs of choice flour! Knead and make cakes!” Then Abraham ran to the herd, took a calf, tender and choice, and gave it to a servant-boy, who hastened to prepare it. He took curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared and set these before them; and he waited on them under the tree as they ate. (Genesis 18:1-8)

There is much to learn from this short vignette. First, Abraham rushes to meet his guests, whom we later discover are angels, where they are. Abraham doesn’t just sit in one spot until the men approach him. Rather, he gets up and runs toward them. Abraham’s eagerness here is remarkable in it’s own right, but doubly so because, according to our sages, he had circumcised himself as a sign of entering into a covenant with God only three days earlier! Not only does Abraham hasten to greet his guests, he does so while presumably enduring a great deal of pain. Rather than use his circumstances as an excuse to withhold hospitality, he sets thoughts of his own physical condition aside and, with the aid of Sarah and a servant, tends to the three strangers. Like Abraham and Sarah, we must see beyond ourselves when we welcome strangers into our lives.

Then Abraham makes his guests feel welcomed and comfortable. He washes their feet, a common welcoming ritual in Abraham’s world, and feeds his visitors well. It might be easier to share with the men leftovers or items that are readily available, but instead Abraham treats his guests as if they were family who had traveled a great distance to celebrate a festival. Abraham and Sarah are intentional and generous in their hospitality. They treat their guests not like casual passersby but like royalty. Like Abraham and Sarah, we must see guests and strangers as made in God’s image, as worthy of great respect.

Finally, it is notable where Abraham situates his guests, at the entrance to his tent under the shade of a tree. He performs the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim in plain view of his neighbors. By doing so, Abraham is able to inspire those near him to similarly extend hospitality when they are able to do so. Had he brought his guests into his tent, no one outside the tent could have known the great extent to which Abraham and Sarah would go to care for their visitors. As the founding father and mother of the Jewish people, Abraham and Sarah surely understood that they had a special responsibility to show others what it is that God expects of them. Like Abraham and Sarah, we too should strive to model hachnasat orchim in its richest sense.

In the anthology of commentary to the Book of Genesis known as Bereishit Rabbah, our sages teach that God’s visit to Abraham through the angels shows that Abraham had become “a chariot of the Divine Presence” on which God’s very being rested (Art Scroll Humash, p. 78). In other words, with every act of hospitality – from noticing the visitors, to greeting them, to feeding and caring for them, and later to escorting them on their way — Abraham had become a vehicle for bringing God’s presence into the world.

The lesson for us is simple. It is good to be nice to strangers and guests, but when we truly invest our whole beings in their care, such as Abraham and Sarah did for their guests, our hospitality goes from being good to being sacred, from being a nice thing to do to being a mitzvah. May we follow in the footsteps of our ancestors, opening our hearts and our homes to all in need and increasing God’s loving presence in our world.

Shabbat Shalom.