When the love-story turns bitter: the Israelites and Egypt

It is the nature of a bush that when someone puts his hand in, he is not injured, because all the thorns point downwards; but when he comes to take his hand out, the thorns catch him and he is unable to take it out. (Midrash)

Daniel Pinner

Judaism הכניסו ספר תורה
הכניסו ספר תורה

Parashat Vayechi, the final parashah in the Book of Genesis, opens with what, on the surface, sounds like an idyllic situation – a veritable love story between the Children of Israel and the Egyptians.

Jacob – Israel – passed away, and Pharaoh and all Egypt mourned him for 70 days (Genesis 50:3). The all-powerful Pharaoh, sympathising with the grieving son Joseph, readily granted him leave of absence from his royal duties as viceroy over Egypt to let him bury his revered father in his ancestral tomb in Hebron, in Canaan, the land of his birth (vs. 4-6).

Joseph and his eleven brothers were honoured and respected in Egypt. The Hebrew family were developing into a nation, content and tranquil and confident in their adopted homeland.

This is a truly auspicious beginning to the exile that G-d had foretold to Abraham 237 years earlier.

But though the Children of Israel were dwelling peacefully and securely in Egypt, the changes were already beginning beneath the surface.

Joseph, the second-in-command in Egypt, had not requested permission directly from Pharaoh to take his father back to Canaan for burial. Instead, he addressed Pharaoh’s household with carefully-chosen words: “Please, if I have found favour in your eyes, speak to Pharaoh, please, saying: My father adjured me saying: Behold – I am about to die; in my grave, which I dug for myself in the land of Canaan – there shall you bury me. So now, let me go up to bury my father, and I will return” (vs. 4-5).

Pharaoh’s response – “Go up, and bury your father as he adjured you” (v.6) – sounds generous, or at least sympathetic.

Rashi, however, detects the ominous inference: “Had it not been for this oath, I would not have allowed you [to leave Egypt]” (commentary ad. loc.).

Rashi’s comment is abstracted from the Talmud, which gives a detailed description: “When Pharaoh had said to Joseph, ‘Without your permission, no man will raise his hand or his foot throughout the land of Egypt’ (Genesis 41:44), Pharaoh’s astrologers said: ‘Will you put a slave, whose master bought for twenty pieces of silver, in authority over us?!’ He responded: ‘I perceive in him the attributes of royalty’. They said to him: ‘In that case, he should know all seventy languages’… Gabriel came and taught [Joseph] all seventy languages…and the next day, every language that Pharaoh addressed him in, he responded in. And then, when Joseph addressed [Pharaoh] in the Holy Language, he could not understand. Thereupon [Pharaoh] asked [Joseph] to teach him; he taught him, but he was unable to learn it. [Pharaoh] said to [Joseph]: ‘Swear that you will never reveal this’; and he swore it. And afterwards, when [Joseph] said to him: ‘My father adjured me saying: Behold – I am about to die; in my grave, which I dug for myself in the land of Canaan – there shall you bury me’ – [Pharaoh] responded: ‘Go and annul your oath’. [Joseph] replied: ‘If so, I will also annul my oath to you’. So even though [Pharaoh] found it unpleasant, he said to [Joseph]: ‘Go up, and bury your father as he adjured you’” (Sotah 36b).

The exile had already begun – oh so gently – to grip the Jews in the jaws of its vice.

Jacob had already foreseen this danger while he was yet alive. “Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years… When the day of Israel’s death approached, he called to his son, Joseph, and said to him: ‘Please, if I have found favour in your eyes, place your hand under my thigh, and treat me with kindness and truth; do not bury me in Egypt. I will lie with my fathers, and you will carry me out of Egypt and bury me in their burial-ground’. And he said: ‘I will do according to your word’. And he said: ‘Swear to me’. And he swore to him” (47:28-31).

The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain and Israel, 1195-c.1270) notes, very incisively: “Surely Jacob did not suspect that his righteous and beloved son would rebel against his father’s command and against what he had promised him when he had said, ‘I will do according to your word’. However, he did this to strengthen the matter in Pharaoh’s eyes: maybe he would not grant him permission to leave him, saying: ‘Send your brothers and your servants, and they will bring him up to there’. Or Pharaoh might have wanted this prophet to be buried in his own country, to give them honour and merits. Therefore [Jacob] made [Joseph] swear, because it would be improper [for Pharaoh] to force him to violate his oath; also, the oath would make Joseph strive harder. And indeed, this is what happened, as [Pharaoh] said: ‘Go up, and bury your father as he adjured you’” (commentary to 47:31).

This is the paradigm of all exiles, which the Midrash expresses graphically: “It is the nature of a bush that when someone puts his hand in, he is not injured, because all the thorns point downwards; but when he comes to take his hand out, the thorns catch him and he is unable to take it out. Such was with the Egyptians: initially, they welcomed the Israelites in friendly fashion; but when they sought to leave, they would not let them” (Midrash Avkir on Exodus 2:3, cited in Yalkut Shimoni 169).

“Joseph went up to bury his father, and all Pharaoh’s servants went up with him, the elders of his household, and all the elders of the land of Egypt; also all the house of Joseph, his brothers and his father’s house. Only their children, their flocks, and their cattle did they leave behind in the land of Goshen” (Genesis 50:7-8). This is another ominous foreboding of the decree of a later Pharaoh, who would be willing to allow the men to leave Egypt temporarily as long as they would leave their children behind as guarantors that they would return (Exodus 10:11).

When Joseph and his brothers took Jacob’s body back to Hevron for burial, “chariots and horsemen both went up with him, and the camp was very impressive” (Genesis 50:9). It may have been Pharaoh’s way of honouring Jacob, but it was also his method of ensuring that the Israelites would return to Egypt as they had promised.

The Midrash Tanhuma points to many parallels between Abraham’s and Isaac’s lives (Toldot 9) and many parallels between Jacob’s and Joseph’s lives (Mikkeitz 3), which the Ramban (commentary to Genesis 13:6) extrapolates into a general principle of Jewish history: “Everything that happened to the fore-fathers foretokens what will happen to the children”.

The Egyptian exile foretokens all future exiles: so many countries have welcomed Jews so warmly at the beginning, inviting Jews to live there; and so many exiles have turned bitter – some within a few short years, some after generations, some after centuries.

But ultimately, all have followed the Egyptian paradigm. Entering countries has always been a far pleasanter experience than leaving them.

And in every country wherein Jews lived, they always believed that they, more than any other Jewish community ever before, had finally found their earthly paradise, the golden land in which they would live for the rest of history until Mashiach would bring them to Israel.

Whether in England of the post-Roman period, which regressed into bloodshed and the final expulsion of all Jews in 1290; or whether in the early years of Moslem Spain, which degenerated into vicious bloodshed under the Moslems from 1066 onwards and expulsion by the Catholics in 1492; or whether in Poland, where Jews received refuge from the Crusaders in 1098 and enjoyed peace and prosperity until the first pogrom in 1367 in Poznan; or whether in America, where Jews have enjoyed equality for centuries (a golden age to match Poland or Spain at their best) and where only now is the inevitable historical reversal beginning to be felt – we have always glided into these exiles in joy, and always left in tears and terror…if at all...

We end Parashat Vayechi, and the Book of Genesis, with the Egyptian exile just starting to turn bitter. Before we were to leave Egypt, we would yet go through generations of increasingly harsh slavery, culminating in Pharaoh’s notorious decree of genocide.

This, too, is the paradigm for future exiles: immediately before the second exile – the Babylonian/Persian exile – would come to its end, Haman enacted his decree of genocide against us; our repentance then was deep enough to avert that decree. And in our generations, as the exile was beginning to draw to its end, the decree of genocide came from the Egypt of our generation – Germany, the home of the Enlightenment, the global centre of culture and science, the epitome of tolerance…until that exile became the bitterest of all. And that was the exile that the most fortunate of all managed to leave in tears…

And our generation, for the first time since Cyrus, has the opportunity to leave every country in the exile in joy. For good reason we pray, both in Grace after Meals and immediately before the Shema every morning, that G-dיוֹלִיכֵנוּ קוֹמְמִיּוּת לְאַרְצֵנוּ  – that He will lead us upright to our Land; not as beggars, not as refugees, but as proud and free Jews returning in joy from the exile. “Those whom Hashem has redeemed will return and come to Zion with joyous song, and eternal rejoicing on their heads. They will achieve joyfulness and rejoicing, and sorrow and sighing will flee” (Isaiah 35:10).

The path to redemption in joy is open for every single Jew in the world. You need but get on a plane and come home to Israel, leaving the exile behind you. For sure, Jews in many countries are still living in comfort, plenty and safety. But the only guarantee we have is that one day, this will come to an end. When, we have no way of knowing (though the warning signs are already too clear for comfort…). But the time has come for all of us – in the USA, in Britain, in Australia, in other countries where we live and have lived peacefully for centuries – to come home, to part from our hosts as friends, to become part of the redemption with which our generation has been privileged. Before the Egyptian paradigm, resounding throughout Jewish history, once again actualises, there is yet time to come home in joy.