"Have no fear of descending to Egypt...I shall descend with you to Egypt, and I shall also surely bring you up; and Yosef shall place his hands on your eyes". (Bereishit 46:4)
Despite God clearly telling him that he needn’t fear Egypt, Yaakov feared and feared greatly. Despite knowing that he would be reunited with Yosef, the son he had missed so terribly for so long, his ben z’kunim, he trembled.
Why? Why was he afraid?
The Zohar tells us that when he was asked why he was fearful of going to Egypt, Yaakov said, “I am afraid that my family will succumb there; that the Shechinah will no longer dwell among us; that I will not be buried with my ancestors, and that I will not see the redemption of my children.”
Abarbanel adds that while Yaakov was naturally eager to go to Egypt to reunite with Yosef, he was anxious about leaving the holy land and go to Mitzrayim, a land filled with abominations. Weighing most heavily on him was his certainty that an extended galut in Mitzrayim would damage zera Abraham, the seed of Abraham. In his fear he was certainly recalling that Yitzchak was warned not to go to Mitzrayim.
How could he help but fear the galut? He knew well its dangers, its seduction and influence. In small, insidious ways it eats away at our people, taking us one soul at a time. It diminishes us. It saps us of what makes us special. It lures us into assimilation until we are awash in the great ocean of people around us, indistinguishable from them, swallowed up in a culture, an environment, a language that is not ours.
Until we are drowned and lost.
And then, when we are fully lured into the illusion that we belong in this strange land, we are defenseless when the land turns against us, making clear we never truly belonged; that we are “the other”.
One need not review the entirety of Jewish history to recognize this sad reality; one need only look at the last fifty years of American Jewish history to appreciate the dangers of galut!
It is plain that Yaakov’s fears were not out of place. It was for this reason, Abarbanel says that God reassured Yaakov that going to Egypt was part of His plan.
Many years earlier, God told Avraham that his offspring would , “… be aliens in a land not their own… and they will serve them and they [the Egyptians] will oppress them… and afterwards, they will leave with great wealth.” (15:13) Now, in our parasha, Yaakov finds himself travelling with his family to Egypt. By virtue of his descent, he is fulfilling the first part of those prophetic words; that is, by going to Egypt he is taking the first steps of our becoming “aliens in a land not our own”. In other words, our galut is initiated by Yaakov’s journey to Egypt.
It is plain that in going to Egypt, he is fulfilling God’s plan. Yes, there will be galut but there will also be geula. So, we ask again, what then is Yaakov afraid of? Why must God comfort him, Al tira m’reda Mitzrayma, have no fear of descending to Egypt? The Beis Halevi focuses on the source of Yaakov’s fear to elucidate a deep truth. “If Avraham was clearly told that his children would be in a foreign land only temporarily and that subsequently they would be redeemed, why is Yaakov afraid?” That is, if the first part of the prophecy is certain, why wouldn’t the second part be as well?
The Beis Halevi explains that God’s reassurance to Yaakov has two levels of meaning. On the first level, it is a direct response to Yaakov’s fear regarding the exile that he is about to enter. On the second level, it is a sweeping statement of promise to the Jewish people, which would accompany us throughout our long history.
As to the actual Egyptian galut, Beis Halevi notes that while Yaakov knew that his progeny would live in a foreign land (b’eretz lo la’hem), he did not anticipate that it would be in such a morally depraved land as Egypt. Yaakov feared that surviving four hundred years in such a bereft environment, one defined by everything antithetical to what his children were to become, would not be possible. He feared that after four hundred long years of galut the people would lose their connection to the path paved by the Avos. He feared that it would then not be possible for God to redeem them.
Such a galut, he feared, would certainly doom them forever.
The Beis Halevi is suggesting to us that Yaakov’s fear is a very legitimate one; that there is a limit, a point from which it is impossible to return from galut. Yaakov understood that the depravity, the cruelty, the utter hopelessness of our galut in Egypt would take a profound toll. He knew that it would be all consuming and that, pushed so deeply down a black hole it could prove impossible for the people to believe that there is a way out. And, without the belief, there is no way out.
There are those who claim that “oh, that was then, this is now.” They claim that what the people had to fear in the Egyptian galut is far removed from the galut of our own day. Oh really? Is there any society or culture that “out-depraves” our American one? Pornography seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day! The very definition of marriage is challenged. Even amongst so called Orthodox Jews there is a celebration of same-sex marriage. We see transgender, pan-gender, non-gender individuals! Parades that proclaim pride in public displays of sexuality – with police officers leading the way! Was the behavior in Sodom any more astounding?
This is galut!
How can we expect our children to find their way back when they are swimming against the tides of such a world? This is now! This is here! Who can possibly believe that it was that much worse in Egypt?
I think that the argument can be made that America in the 21st century, with its sexual immorality and its relentless destruction of the decency and respect between people, might very well make Egyptian culture seem polite and civilized in comparison! How, as Jews, can we find our way out of this cultural, sexual and political morass? How can we save ourselves from the swirling current that threatens to drown us? That was Yaakov’s fear – would his children be able to find their way out of such a galut?
The fear is real, and it is powerfully human. That is why, God acknowledges it as He does and then goes on to reassure him that his fear will not be realized. They – we – will not simply disappear. God will be watchful. God will be there. Should four hundred years of galut Mitzrayim cause us to irredeemably lose our way, then God would reduce the time of our galut! Indeed, our people were in fact redeemed two hundred years “early” – God having calculated the four hundred years from the birth of Yitzchak.
Yaakov was right to be afraid. A seemingly endless galut cannot be endured. There is a point when galut blinds us to the way back. God acknowledged Yaakov’s fears. God chose us as His nation to endure, forever. He chose us to be His, and He will reach out with to do whatever is necessary to assure our eternal existence. And therein is the second level Beis Halevi refers to. When God says to Yaakov, “I shall descend with you to Egypt”, God is proclaiming that His Name and His honor would accompany the Jewish people throughout their wanderings, wherever and whenever they end up. God is there with them, always and forever. God promises that the Jewish people – as a people – will never be lost; the Jewish people will never permanently succumb to any galut.
Yes, it is true that there are individuals and groups, who do fall by the wayside, individuals and groups who so lose their way, who are swallowed up in the currents of galut, swept up in the constant wearing away of that which keeps us true and alive. They drown in the deep waters of assimilation.
Too often this is true in America as much as Egypt, or any foreign land where we find ourselves. There are those who came to this country in search of safety and freedom only to find, at the end of their lives, that what they called freedom had cost them their Yiddishkeit.
God’s eternity is intrinsically bound up with the eternity of His nation, with us. Every Shabbat afternoon, which represents the realization of the final redemption – when all galut finally ends – we proclaim, Atah echad! You are one and Your name is One; and who is like Your people Israel...!”
It is then that we have a glimpse of the geula to come; it is then that Yaakov’s fears will be finally and fully put to rest.