Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 15 December 2018 / 7 Tevet 5779

Parshat Vayigash

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Divinely Guided Exile

In case we missed the display of Divine providence at work in these chapters, Yosef repeatedly points it out. He tells his brothers not to be troubled by the fact that they sold him, for this was G-d sending him ahead to Egypt in order to preserve the lives of the entire family. Yosef repeats this no less than four times within five verses. The Hand of G-d is so unmistakable, that even the one who personally suffered from the unfolding of events takes heed.

There is hardly a story that so cogently demonstrated the workings of Divine providence. At each turn of the story, the unexpected happens — Yosef is spared death in the nick of time; he is sold and exchanged several times until he lands in Egypt; in an unlikely rise to prominence the Hebrew slave is soon in charge of his master’s household; in prison he finds favor in the eyes of the prison master and fortuitously interprets the dreams of his fellow prison mates; Yosef is then called to interpret the troubling dreams of Pharaoh and rises to power as the viceroy of Egypt! This, of course, all sets the stage for the prophesied migration of Yaakov’s family to Egypt, the land that will host the exile that must precede the birth of a nation mature enough to build a society on Torah law in the Land. Unknowingly and unwillingly, even the wrongdoing of Yosef’s brothers do G-d’s bidding, as Yosef assures them, Do not be sad, and let it not trouble you that you sold me here, for it was to preserve life that G-d sent me before you. (Ber. 45:5) In this particular story, the threads lie revealed, and reveal to us a pattern of Providence that underlies all events, even when the Hand of G-d remains hidden.

This exile was foretold to Avraham some 215 years earlier when Avraham asked how he can be assured that his children will inherit the Land of Cannan. Had the children of Yaakov stayed in Cannan, they would have merged with the surrounding population. But to establish their own nation, based on their endemic values and noble mission, they would have to come into the midst of a nation so at odds with their ethos that assimilation would be stunted.

Similarly, the fanaticism that gave rise to the ghettoes was an instrument of G-d to keep us far from the sinful culture of the Middle Ages. Indeed, it had the effect of cultivating and preserving a community true to its own values.

Yosef explains that in order for the exile to be effective, one of them had to be sent down to become governor of Egypt. As governor, Yosef moved the people around so that they themselves were strangers in their new destinations. This way, no Egyptian could say to the Jew, “You do not belong here; you were not born in this place!”

Similarly, by the time the Jewish People had begun their great migration into dispersion in European lands, the momentous migration of nations had already created dramatic population shifts such that those lands were populated with foreigners. In this way, the Jews were no more foreigners than the gentiles.

Exile serves the purpose of ennobling the Jewish People in at least these two ways. First, the stark contrast of a society at stark odds with our values forces us to develop and nurture our own set of values. Second, although we may wish it were otherwise, suffering and anti-Semitism usher brotherhood and cohesiveness among us.

Both the exile of Yaakov’s family to Egypt and the final exile of Yaakov’s descendents after the destruction of the second Temple were caused by jealousy and hatred among Jews. The suffering of oppression, then and now, breeds the sense of equality and brotherhood required to uplift the nation to its former glory.

  • Sources: Commentary, Bereishet 45:11

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