Parashat Vayigash: The hell of exile

Exile, like the grave or like hell, sucks the Jew into its dread grasp – and it becomes ever-harder to leave.

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Dasht-e-Lut, large salt desert in provinces of Kerman, Sistan, Baluchistan
Dasht-e-Lut, large salt desert in provinces of Kerman, Sistan, Baluchistan

As I was editing this D’var Torah for final draft, I was shocked and devastated at the news that the baby Amiad Yisrael (My Nation forever, Israel), son of Amichai and Shira Ish-Ran, passed away. He was in his mother’s womb when he was hit by a bullet from an Arab terrorist at the entrance to Ofra: the youngest-ever victim of the murderous and barbaric enemy who is so desperate to keep us from returning to our homeland.

May Hashem send His comfort to the young parents and grandparents, may He avenge the innocent blood of a baby who never even managed to see this world, and may the baby’s soul ascend directly to eternal peace.

Parashat Vayigash opens with Judah approaching the Egyptian ruler Tzaf’nat-Pa’aneach (whom he did not yet recognise as his own little brother Joseph) to plead for Benjamin’s freedom and life.

And then follows the brothers’ tearful repentance for the evil they had perpetrated twenty-two years earlier against their brother Joseph, Joseph’s subsequent revelation to them of his true identity, and the loving reunification of the Hebrew family.

Joseph dispatched his brothers post-haste back to Canaan to tell their father that Joseph was alive and well and ruling Egypt, and to bring him back with them to Egypt to live in luxury, safe from the famine that was devastating the entire Middle East and which still had another five years to run.

When the brothers delivered the message to their aging father, his response was enthusiastic:

“Israel said: How great! My son Joseph yet lives! I will go and see him before I die!” (Genesis 45:28).

So Jacob upped and left Canaan for Egyptian exile:

“Israel journeyed with everything he had, and when he came to Beer Sheva he slaughtered sacrifices to the G-d of his father Isaac. And G-d addressed Israel, saying in visions of the night: Jacob, Jacob! And he said: Here I am. And He said: I am the G-d – G-d of your father. Do not be afraid of going down to Egypt, because I will make you into a great nation there. I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also assuredly bring you up” (Genesis 46:1-4).

Now G-d’s reassurance to Israel demands a certain clarification.

Let us begin by noting that the “sacrifices” which he slaughtered in Beer Sheva were specifically זְבָחִים. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1808-1888) notes that in almost all instances, our Forefathers, like the Noahides, sacrificed עוֹלוֹת, often translated “burnt-offerings”, more accurately “elevation-offerings”.

Rabbi Hirsch expounds that the זֶבַח (which Jacob sacrificed here) is a family meal, eaten by the owners, which consecrates the family-house to the status of the Holy Temple and the family-table to the status of the Altar. Most זְבָחִים are in the category of שְׁלָמִים, Peace-Offerings, expressing the higher concept that G-d comes to us.

Therefore, זְבָחִים are brought in the context of the happy consciousness in which a family circle lives united and faithful to Divine duty, confident that G-d is looking after them.

This is why Jacob-Israel brought here specifically זְבָחִים – delighted that he was on his way to be reunited with his beloved son Joseph. For the first time, he felt himself complete – שָׁלֵם, hence the שְׁלָמִים, Peace-Offerings.

Rabbi Hirsch also notes that he sacrificed these זְבָחִים in Beer Sheva, in the place where he was glorified by the memory of his father and grandfather. So his unification with his family was complete in this time and at this place.

Nevertheless, G-d told Jacob, “Do not be afraid of going down to Egypt”. The reassurance “do not be afraid” clearly suggests that there was something for Jacob to be afraid of.

Rabbi Hirsch notes here that even though the Torah begins by saying that “Israel journeyed with everything he had”, and “G-d addressed Israel”, He nevertheless addressed him with his former name: “Jacob, Jacob!”, not “Israel, Israel!”.

This call disappointed and demoralised Jacob, confronting him with the full impact of his descent to Egypt.

Even though G-d Himself reassured Jacob by telling him not to be afraid;

And even though G-d Himself promised Jacob that He would build him and his descendants into a great nation in Egypt;

And even though he was descending to Egypt in order to see his beloved son whom he had mourned as dead for twenty-two years –

– nevertheless Jacob was so reluctant to leave Canaan for the exile’s dreaded grasp that he had to be אָנוּס עַל-פִּי הַדִּבּוּר – “forced by the Divine decree”, as the Pesach Haggadah so graphically expresses it.

Not very long before, when the famine had been raging for two years, Jacob had sent ten of his sons down to Egypt to buy food; nine returned, and told their aging father that the only way they would receive more food from Egypt would be by going back there with his youngest son, Benjamin. And Jacob/Israel castigated them with the words: “Why have you done this evil to me, telling the man that you have another brother?!” (Genesis 43:6).

The Midrash tells us that “this was the only mistaken thing that Jacob our father ever said. G-d said: I am busy making his son ruler over Egypt, and he says ‘Why have you done this evil to me?’!” (Bereishit Rabbah 91:10 and Yalkut Shimoni, Mikkeitz 149).

But did Jacob not say something else that appears to have been mistaken?

Twenty-two years earlier, Jacob had sent his beloved son Joseph to Shechem to see how his brothers were faring, and instead of Joseph returning with a report, his other ten sons returned with a ripped and blood-stained cloak.

They showed it to Jacob with the words, “We found this; identify it, please – is this your son’s cloak or not?” (Genesis 37:32).

And Jacob, recognizing his son’s distinctive garment, cried in his anguish: “A wild beast has devoured him! Joseph has been savagely torn to bits!” (v. 33). And, refusing to be comforted, he wailed (v. 35): “I will go down to my son mourning, to she’ol” [1] – שְׁאוֹל, meaning either “the grave” or “hell” (Rashi ad loc.).

This was surely the most heart-rending of Jacob’s utterances ever – but was it true? Was this not another mistaken thing that Jacob said? Did Jacob really go down to his son mourning, to she’ol? Surely he went down to his son in royal splendour to Egypt, there to live out his remaining seventeen years in the comfort of Pharaoh’s palace, in the company of his son.

And on his way down to Egypt he offered זְבָחִים, sacrifices which denote joy – joy at the reunification of his family.

How could the Midrash then claim that Jacob’s complaint to his nine sons of “Why have you done this evil to me?” was the only mistaken thing that he ever said?

If Jacob’s complaint of “Why have you done this evil to me?!” was the only mistaken thing that Jacob ever said, then the implication is that his lament that “I will go down to my son mourning, to she’ol” was a genuine prophecy.

And this is puzzling because the reality was that not only did he not go down mourning – the years after he went down to his son were the best years of his life.

Next week’s Parashah, Vayechi, opens with the words “Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years; and the days of Jacob – the years of his life – were one hundred and forty-seven years” (Genesis 47:28).

The Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343) analyses the word וַיְחִי (“he lived”): “וַיְחִי יַעֲקֹב בְּאֶרֶץ – ‘Jacob lived in the land’, because the only good days without sorrow that he ever lived were the numerical value of וַיְחִי, meaning 34 years: 17 years from Joseph’s birth until he was sold into slavery, and 17 years in Egypt”.

The inescapable conclusion is that exile, by its very nature of being exile, is she’ol – whether the grave or hell – even though it be the most comfortable and luxurious exile, even though it be exile in royal splendour.

The Radak, in his lexicon Sefer ha-Shorashim, seems to suggest that the word שְׁאוֹל, she’ol is a cognate of שָׁאוּל, sha’ul (“borrowed”), and cites as an example: “There are three that are never satisfied, and four which never say ‘Enough’: she’ol, the sealed womb, the land unsated with water, and the fire that never says ‘Enough’” (Proverbs 30:15).

Whether שְׁאוֹל means “hell” or “the grave”, it – like a borrower – can never have enough, always demanding more.

Exile, like the grave or like hell, sucks the Jew into its dread grasp – and it becomes ever-harder to leave.

Parashat Vayiggash finishes with the ominous words “Israel settled down in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen; they seized onto it, and they were fruitful, multiplying greatly” (Genesis 47:27).

But the phrase וַיֵּאָחֲזוּ בָהּ (“they seized onto it”) is an unusual grammatical formation: it also means “they were seized by it”. Targum Onkelos, Targum Yonatan, Rashi, and Ibn Ezra all interpret this phrase to mean that the Israelites bought land-holdings in Goshen. That is to say, they seized onto the exile, and they were seized by it. It is a symbiotic relationship: the Jew acquires land, a house, property, in exile, and then cannot leave because his entire fortune is invested in the foreign land of his sojourning.

This is the dread grasp that Jacob so feared, such that without G-d’s explicit command he would not have dared to clasp and be clasped by the deadly terrors of exile – because twenty-two years earlier, he had accurately prophesied: “I will go down to my son mourning, to she’ol”. He indeed left the Land of Israel mourning, mourning even as he offered his זְבָחִים-sacrifices of joy, even though he was going to Egypt to be re-united with his beloved son in exile; and he indeed went down to she’ol, because even in a royal palace in the company of his son who was the governor of Egypt, he nevertheless lived out the remainder of his life in the hell of exile, in the grave of exile.


[1] This phrase is usually rendered “I will go down to the grave mourning for my son”, which is smoother English syntax. The translation “I will go down to my son mourning, to she’ol” is a more precise and direct translation of the Hebrew כִּי אֵרֵד אֶל בְּנִי אָבֵל שְׁאֹלָה.