220 years before the opening events of Parashat Vayiggash, G-d had already decreed to Abraham in the בְּרִית בֵּין הַבְּתָרִים (the Covenant between the Parts): “Know for sure that your descendants will be strangers in a foreign land, and they will enslave them and persecute them for 400 years” (Genesis 15:13).
And now, in Parashat Vayigash, this prophecy begins to happen, as Israel/Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, leaves Canaan for exile in Egypt.
Jacob was so reluctant to leave Israel for the exile’s dreaded grasp, even in order to see his beloved son whom he had mourned as dead for twenty-two years, that he had to be אָנוּס עַל פִּי הַדִּבּוּר – “forced by the Divine decree to do it against his will”, as the Pesach Haggadah so graphically expresses it.
Why was Jacob so distraught at leaving Canaan for Egypt? He knew that his grandfather Abraham had left Canaan for Egypt under the same circumstances – to avoid famine (Genesis 12:10) – so he had a historic precedent.
And more than that: G-d Himself had decreed this exile, so no one could accuse him of doing anything wrong by leaving the Holy Land for exile.
Neither did Jacob have anything physical to fear: he was travelling to Egypt in a royal entourage, afforded the protection of the world’s mightiest power. And he knew that upon reaching Egypt, he would live in Pharaoh’s palace in royal splendour and opulence.
And yet, G-d Himself had to reassure him:
“Israel journeyed…and when he came to Beer Sheva…G-d addressed Israel, saying…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).
So the question remains: What was Jacob afraid of? What was he distressed about?
The Midrash begins to answer this question:
“Jacob heard that Joseph was still alive, yet he thought to himself: How can I leave the Land of my fathers, the Land of my birth, the Land in whose midst G-d’s presence is, and go to an impure land, to the midst of the slaves, sons of Ham, in a land among which there is no fear of G-d?” (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 39).
Egypt (Mitzrayim) was the son of Ham (Genesis 10:6, 1 Chronicles 1:8), who was the accursed son of Noah, consigned to be “a slave of slaves” (Genesis 9:25).
But I suggest that Jacob’s true fears went far deeper:
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).
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. 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 it this your son’s cloak or not?”
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!” (Genesis 37:33). And, refusing to be comforted, he wailed: “I will go down to my son mourning, to she’ol” (v.35) – she’ol meaning either “the grave” or “hell”.
(The usual English translation is “I will go down to the grave mourning for my son”, which is certainly smoother English idiom. But the translation here – “I will go down to my son mourning, to she’ol” – is a more precise translation of the Hebrew כִּי אֵרֵד אֶל בְּנִי אָבֵל שְׁאֹלָה.)
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. 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?
Since (as the Midrash says unequivocally) Jacob’s complaint of “Why have you done this evil to me?!” was the only mistaken thing that he 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.
The inescapable conclusion is that Jacob indeed went down to his son mourning, to she’ol, to hell or to the grave. 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 it is exile in royal splendour.
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, 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.