For the week of December 19, 2015 / 7 Tevet 5776
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 44:18-47:27
Haftarah: Ezekiel 37:15-28
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And God spoke to Israel in visions of the night and said, “Jacob, Jacob.” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again, and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.” (Bereshit/Genesis 46:2-4)
The Egyptian phase was crucial in the history of the nation of Israel. Far from being simply an interesting happening in Bible history, there are so many essential aspects to it for Israel’s development and for God’s revelation to both them and the world of the true meaning and purpose of life.
If you have been following the Torah readings from the past few weeks, you know about the circumstances that led up to the migration of Jacob’s growing clan to Egypt. Joseph ends up in Egypt after his brothers sold him into slavery due to their extreme jealously of him. God is with Joseph throughout his years of difficulty there, culminating in his interpreting dreams for Pharaoh, which resulted in his being made second in command in Egypt. His main responsibility was the administration of produce, first to gather it during the years of bountiful harvests, and then to distribute it during the subsequent years of famine, the conditions of which he had predicted. It was his divinely arranged position in Egypt that made the preservation of his family possible.
As far as we can tell, however, it wasn’t necessary to move the family to Egypt. In their desperate need for famine relief, their hope was that the Egyptians would be willing to trade with them. When Joseph shockingly appeared as central to the resolution of their predicament, there was no reason to assume that he would arrange their moving there. In fact, Jacob was afraid to go, but God assured him that they should do this.
There may be a few reasons for Jacob’s hestitancy. He was aware that Canaan was the land of promise. The reasons he left years before were not good ones, as he ran away from his brother’s murderous wrath. His return to Canaan was a positive turning point in his relationship with God. He may have known the stories of his father Isaac and grandfather Abraham in their journeys to other nearby regions, and that doing so was never quite the right thing to do. In addition, going to Egypt may have been even more intimidating. While through Jacob and his many children the development of the nation significantly expanded, a seventy-person clan could be easily overrun or assimilated in a country like Egypt. We don’t know if Jacob was aware of the prophesy God gave Abraham years before that his descendants would live as strangers in a foreign land for four hundred years (see Bereshit/Genesis 15:3). Even if he did, he didn’t know which land that would be.
So not only did God alleviate his fears, he made it clear that Egypt would be the place where the clan would become a great nation. We tend to remember the Egyptian stage as only negative. It eventually became so, but not at first. Far from it. We read, “Thus Israel settled in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen. And they gained possessions in it, and were fruitful and multiplied greatly.” (Bereshit/Genesis 47:27). “Fruitful and multiplied greatly” echoes the creation mandate of Eden, possibly suggesting that for an unspecified period Egypt was akin to Paradise. Alas, Paradise was not to last. The harsh reality of being strangers in a strange land would bear down upon them until their cries reached heaven and God began the process of rescuing them from slavery. However, whether in prosperous comfort or the pain of oppression, a people was being forged into a nation ready to emerge to take possession of its God-ordained destiny. Jacob knew that Canaan was the goal, the inheritance of his people, but it could not be acquired by staying there. They had to venture out and away for a long time, until his descendants would be ready.
I don’t know if every God-given goal has an Egyptian phase, one where the objective seems to be in our possession, yet requires being let go for a time, even a long time. I don’t know if it is always necessary to journey far away from our dreams for reasons we know nothing about, doing things that don’t make sense before we (or our descendants!) are ready to acquire them. What I do know is that it was essential for them, as it was for many others, such as Moses and David, both of whom were within the immediate sphere of their calling. For different reasons they found themselves away from that place until they were ready and the time was right.
I don’t know if you will have to go through an Egyptian phase yourself or perhaps you’re going through one now. It’s just that I wanted to tell you that if you do or if you are, it’s okay. You’re not the first to do so.