And Israel settled in the land of Egypt, in the country of Goshen; and they took hold of it, and grew and multiplied very much.
Thus the Torah describes the beginnings of the first galut (exile) of the Jewish people, as Jacob and his seventy children and grandchildren relocated from the Holy Land and settled in the land of Egypt.
On the face of it, it was quite an agreeable beginning. One of their own, Joseph, was the de facto ruler of Egypt. Goshen, the choicest bit of Egyptian real estate, was theirs to settle. Settle it they did, finding it fertile soil for their individual and communal growth, in both the material and the spiritual sense.
But the Hebrew word vayei’achazu in the above-quoted verse, which we have translated “and they took hold of it,” also translates as, “and they were held by it.” Both interpretations are cited by our sages: Rashi translates vayei’achazu as related to the word achuzah, “land holding” and “homestead”; the Midrash interprets it to imply that, “The land held them and grasped them … like a man who is forcefully held.”
A similar paradox describes Jacob’s feelings toward his new home. On the one hand, Jacob’s seventeen years in Egypt are considered to have been the best years of his life. One the other hand, the Haggadah states that Jacob descended to Egypt “forced by the divine command.”
The Haggadah’s statement seems inconsistent with our sages’ depiction of Jacob as a merkavah (“chariot” or “vehicle”) of the divine will, whose “every limb was totally removed from physical concerns and served only as a vehicle to carry out G-d’s will every moment of his life.” Would a merkavah feel “forced” to fulfill a divine command?
In truth, however, it was because Jacob was so absolutely attuned to the divine will that he felt forced into his exile in Egypt. For this is what G-d desires of us: that we should be fully invested in the endeavor to develop our galut environment, and at the same time experience a perpetual longing to escape it.
This duality defines our attitude toward galut. On the one hand, we know that no matter how hospitable our host-country may be, and no matter how we may flourish, materially and spiritually, on foreign soil, galut is a prison. We know that galut dims our spiritual vision, hinders our national mission, and compromises our connection with G-d. For only as a nation dwelling on our land with the Holy Temple as the divine abode in our midst can we perceive the divine presence in the world, fully realize our role as “a light unto the nations,” and fully implement all the mitzvot of the Torah—the lifeblood of our relationship with G-d.
But we also know that we are in galut for a purpose. We know that we have been dispersed throughout the world in order to reach and influence the whole of humanity. We know that it is only through the wanderings and tribulations of galut that we access and redeem the “sparks of holiness”—those pinpoints of divine potential which lie scattered in the most forsaken corners of the globe.
So galut is an achuzah in both senses of the word: a homestead to develop and a prison we must perpetually seek to escape. Indeed, it can only be the one if it is also the other. If we relate to galut solely as a prison, we will fail to properly utilize the tremendous opportunities it holds. But if we grow comfortable in this alien environment, we risk becoming part of it; and if we become part of the galut reality, G-d forbid, we could no more succeed in our efforts to develop and elevate it than the person who tries to lift himself up by pulling upwards on the top of his own head.
So when Jacob led the seventy members of his household—the seventy seedlings from which the Jewish nation was to grow—into Israel’s first exile, he did so as one “forced by the divine command.” As a divine “chariot,” Jacob had no will, desire or striving save the will of G-d. But Jacob knew that actually wanting to go to Egypt would undermine the very purpose of his mission there.
Jacob knew that the secret of Israel’s survival in exile is the refusal to become reconciled with it, the refusal to accept it as a state that is normal or acceptable—much less desirable—to the Jew. He knew that only he who remains an unwilling stranger to galut will succeed in mastering it as his “homestead” and exact from it a bountiful spiritual harvest.
Fear or Pain?
Therein lies the deeper significance of Rashi’s commentary on Genesis 46:3-4, where the Torah recounts how G-d appeared to Jacob on his way to Egypt and said to him: “Fear not to go down to Egypt, for there I will make of you a great nation; I Myself will descend with you to Egypt, and I Myself will bring you up again.” Citing the words, “Fear not to go down to Egypt,” Rashi adds, “Because he was pained over the necessity to leave the [Holy] Land.”
On their most basic level of meaning, Rashi’s words come to explain the cause of Jacob’s fears and of his need for divine assurance. On a deeper level, Rashi is telling us why this fear was indeed not justified. G-d assured Jacob that he need not fear to go down to Egypt “because he was pained over the necessity to leave the [Holy] Land.” Because Jacob experienced pain over the need to leave the holy environment of the Land of Israel—because he would never feel at home on alien soil—this itself was the greatest guarantee that he and his descendants would survive the Egyptian exile and emerge triumphant from the challenges of galut.
Based on the Rebbe’s talks on Shabbat Vayigash 5725 (December 12, 1964) and on other occasions.
Adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Yanki Tauber.
. Cf. Rashi on Genesis 46:28.
. Midrash Tadshei 17.
. Baal HaTurim on Genesis 47:28.
. Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 82:6; Tanya, ch. 23.
. Isaiah 42:6.
. See Wealth, WIR, vol X, no. 6.
. Likkutei Sichot, vol. XV, pp. 405-411; ibid., vol. XXX, pp. 234-235; Rebbe’s Haggadah, sv. anus al pi hadibur.