The Fear of Being in Galus
Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5779
Every time I read this parsha I feel as if we gloss over a critical moment in Jewish history, one with critical lessons for us as Diaspora Jews in general and specifically regarding our relationship to the land of Israel.
We read the dramatic story of Yaakov finding out that Joseph is alive and we look forward to their reunion. We gloss over the fact that this reunion is in fact the beginning of Galus Mitzrayim, the beginning of our exodus which will include enslavement. That fact is now lost upon Yaakov. We read:
בראשית פרק מו
ג) וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אָנֹכִ֥י הָאֵ֖ל אֱלֹהֵ֣י אָבִ֑יךָ אַל־תִּירָא֙ מֵרְדָ֣ה מִצְרַ֔יְמָה כִּֽי־לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל אֲשִֽׂימְךָ֥ שָֽׁם
ד) אָנֹכִ֗י אֵרֵ֤ד עִמְּךָ֙ מִצְרַ֔יְמָה וְאָנֹכִ֖י אַֽעַלְךָ֣ גַם־עָלֹ֑ה וְיוֹסֵ֕ף יָשִׁ֥ית יָד֖וֹ עַל־עֵינֶֽיךָ
3. And he said, I am God, the God of your father; fear not to go down to Egypt; for I will there make of you a great nation;
4. I will go down with you to Egypt; and I will also surely bring you up again; and Joseph shall put his hand upon your eyes.
Yaakov appreciates the moment, is afraid and Hashem tries to console him.
What exactly is he afraid of? Formulated differently, what is the fear of being in galus?
Midrash Sechel Tov and the Ohr Hachaim suggest that Yaakov was afraid that he himself would be enslaved and persecuted.
That seems tough to accept as this is a personal fear, and not a national one. I think we assume that Yaakov would be more concerned with the people etc than with his own personal fate.
Rashi writes that Yaakov was pained at the thought of leaving the land of Israel. While that is certainly true, many note that this is probably not what the verse is referring to. Pain and fear are two very different emotions.
Even if you could get past those issues there is one major challenge in adopting either of these two answers. They ignore the rest of the text!
I saw two beautiful pieces of commentary who make this point, one authored by Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli and the other by the first Rabbi Joseph Solovietchik, the Beis Halevi.
Hashem tries to reassure Yaakov by promising him that they will be a great nation and that He will be with them in Egypt and bring them back up!
If Yaakov is afraid of leaving eretz Yisrael or of his enslavement, these promises will do little to allay his fears.
What then was the fear? What was Yaakov so concerned with?
I think that the text itself, Hashem’s promises tell you exactly what he was afraid of. He was nervous that the house if Israel would not grow, that it would shrink and he was afraid that they might not ever make it back to the land of Israel!
Why would cause that to happen?
Rav Yisraeli believes that we will have it too good there. He contrasts this fear of Yaakov with an earlier fear of Yaakov.
When Esav and his 400 men are approaching we read that Vayira Yaakov, that he was afraid. There the fear was clear. His brother is strapping and looking for revenge. Yaakov is a shepherd with his family. He is afraid of a physical attack.
In our chapter that is clearly not the fear. His son is the viceroy. That will afford them both protection and the best that Egypt has to offer.
And that argues RSY is exactly the problem; that is what Yaakov is afraid of. With all of Egypt and its culture open to them, won’t assimilation follow?! We know that challenge well!
I would add that an additional fear is that the more comfortable that we get in galus, the weaker our connection to the land of Israel is and our desire to return is not as strong as it should be.
The Beis Halevi is even more specific.
He suggests that Yaakov realizes that this is the beginning of the process of enslavement foretold to Avraham. He is afraid because he now learns that the galus and servitude will take place in Mitzrayim, in Egypt. That piece of information was not given to Avraham. He was told that
בראשית פרק טו
יג) וַיֹּא֣מֶר לְאַבְרָ֗ם יָדֹ֨עַ תֵּדַ֜ע כִּי־גֵ֣ר׀ יִהְיֶ֣ה זַרְעֲךָ֗ בְּאֶ֙רֶץ֙ לֹ֣א לָהֶ֔ם וַעֲבָד֖וּם וְעִנּ֣וּ אֹתָ֑ם אַרְבַּ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָֽה
13. And he said to Abram, Know for a certainty that your seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years;
It is now clear that the place where this will happen is Egypt, the place that is rampant with idolatry and sexuality. And Yaakov is afraid!
בית הלוי בראשית פרשת ויגש פרק מו פסוק ג
נתיירא שמא לא יוכלו בניו להיות במצרים כל כך שנים בשיעבוד וישארו בקדושתן ואולי חלילה ישתקעו בטומאתן של מצריים עד ששוב לא יהיו ראוים להגאל כלל לעולם
He was afraid that his children would not be able to last the many years of exile while maintaining any state of holiness. God forbid, they might get mired in the impurity of Egypt and not be worthy of being redeemed.
We know this challenge as well!
To allay those fears Hashem promises Yaakov that the people will not dwindle, rather they will become a great nation and that he will take them out as well, Hashem will not let them descend to the point of no return. And He will bring them back to the land of Israel!
Rabbi Yisraeli and Soloveitzchik have captured the challenge of Galus Mitrayim and Galus America. The openness and wealth are not without their downsides and the assimilation rates in America testify to that! The pervasiveness of vulgarity, violence and sexuality has its effects as well.
Our connection to Israel while strong is not what it should be. We are still here in NJ!
To overcome those challenges we must:
Continually work on growing spiritually, avoid exposure to the vulgarity, violence and sexuality as best we can, and find ways to actively support the State of Israel!
Assimilation and the Desire for Acceptance
Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5770
There is one unbelievable verse in our parsha that we generally don’t pay attention to because it is overshadowed by the drama that is playing out between Joseph and his brothers.
Joseph has succeeded in getting Benjamin to Egypt. He lays his eyes upon his brothers for the first time in over 20 years, his emotions are stirred and he can barely hold back from revealing himself to his brothers. Yet he does, escapes to a private room and cries. We are so taken with the drama that we gloss over the next few psukim that detail their meal together.
בראשית פרק מג
(לב) וַיָּשִׂימוּ לוֹ לְבַדּוֹ וְלָהֶם לְבַדָּם וְלַמִּצְרִים הָאֹכְלִים אִתּוֹ לְבַדָּם כִּי לֹא יוּכְלוּן הַמִּצְרִים לֶאֱכֹל אֶת הָעִבְרִים לֶחֶם כִּי תוֹעֵבָה הִוא לְמִצְרָיִם
32. And they served him by himself, and for them by themselves, and for the Egyptians, who ate with him, by themselves; because the Egyptians might not eat bread with the Hebrews; for that is an abomination to the Egyptians.
There were 3 different “sittings” in the room. Joseph sat alone as did the brothers and the Egyptians who were dining with them.
And the verse tells us that this is so because the Egyptians considered it an abomination to break bread with the Hebrews.
We need to ask three questions before the meaning of the verse becomes relevant for us and for Chanukah.
- Why is it an abomination for an Egyptian to eat with a Hebrew?
- Which Hebrews are we talking about?
- Who are the other Egyptians in the room?
Onkelos writes in his Aramiac translation of the Torah that Jews ate meat which the Egyptians worshipped and that is the source of their disgust with the Hebrews.
Rashbam and others argue that it has nothing to do with the meat and everything to do with the Hebrews. The Egyptians saw them as an inferior people would not lower themselves to break bread with a Jew- very much along the lines of segregation.
Now we address the more interesting question? Which Hebrews are we talking about, the brothers or is Joseph also included in this category? Could it be that they would not eat with their viceroy because he was a Hebrew?
Radak, 12th century Spain and many others argue that it would be inconceivable to think that Egyptians would not eat with Joseph who they feared and respected. Rather they argue that Joseph ate alone because he was royalty and it would be improper and undignified to eat with his servants. Many centuries later the Netziv suggests that eating alone was a way to keep any servants with knives away from the people in power.
Yet the Rashbam and others do not make such a distinction. They believe that the Egyptians would not eat with Joseph because he was a Hebrew.
I will come back to that in a minute but first let us answer the third question. Who were the Egyptians in the room? According to the Radak it was the servants. According to a striking piece in the Meshech Chochmah- the commentary to the Torah of Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (19th to 20th century), the Egyptians in the room was Joseph’s own family. Even they would not eat with him for he was a Hebrew.
If we put that together with the approach of the Rashbam, which I think is the more literal read, we have the following: Joseph has ascended the halls of power in Egypt. He has risen to the position of viceroy and commands nearly all of the wealth in Egypt. Despite all of that he is not accepted as an equal in Egyptian society. That is astounding! Despite the power and success Joseph remains a Hebrew, a Jew!
On this Shabbat in 1955 Rabbi Norman Lamm raised the following fascinating question: How did Joseph feel about this state of affairs? A related question one might ask would be- why doesn’t Joseph force the issue? He had tremendous power; surely, he could have forced the Egyptians to eat with him?
I could not find any commentator that addresses the issue. Rabbi Lamm suggests that Joseph was ok with it. He was happy to be the alien and to have a degree of separation between himself and the Egyptians. He did not mind being the other and even saw some value in it. He recognized and appreciated that his traditions and beliefs set him apart and did not feel the need to be an Egyptian.
There is no way for us to know if that is actually true but the sentiment behind such an approach is clearly true and is as applicable today in America as it was 3500 years ago in Egypt.
The American Jew can and has achieved great financial success and political power. The challenge for that Jew is – is he happy as a financially and politically successful Jew or does he want to be seen as fully American with no difference between the America Jew and other Americans. Are we okay begin different because of our religion and traditions? I am not talking about begin ok with persecution or the like because of that difference. I am talking only about being perceived as different.
So many Jews in America so badly wanted to shirk the difference and the best way they knew to do that was to get rid of that which made them different, their religious practices and beliefs and so many of those Jews have been lost to assimilation.
The same was true for the Hellenists at the time of Chanukah- some so badly wanted to fit in the bath houses that they attempted to reverse their circumcisions, which I would imagine is pretty painful without an anesthetic. They tried to get rid of that which made them Jewish to fit into the world at large.
That might have been the challenge for Joseph; it certainly is the challenge for us. Can we participate in the world and yet be comfortable with being different and with the religion which makes us different?
The Sale of Joseph, Justifiable?
Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5772
How do we view the conduct of the Brothers, The ten sons of Jacob? On the one hand, they are the namesakes of the tribes of Israel. On the other hand, the plotted to kill their brother, threw him in a pit, sat and ate while he begged for mercy, sold him into slavery, and brutally tricked their father?
Do we try and justify their actions? If not, should it bother us that the tribes’ namesakes could do something so terrible and heinous?
It is fascinating that many of the classical commentators, including Rashi, Eben Ezra, and Rashbam do not address the issue at all.
Many others do and they basically divide into two.
There is a group who begins with the assumption that the brothers are righteous and could not do something so despicable and perform intellectual gymnastics to try and justify the brothers’ actions.
There is a second group who disagrees, either by poking holes in the justifying theory or by explicitly labeling the brothers sinners.
The justification group also breaks down into two. Continue reading
Yaakov’s Fear and Our Thanksgiving
Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5771
When Esav came to Yaakov with 400 men, how afraid was he? Was this a moment of paralyzing fear or was he the one that was not afraid. I want to share a fascinating, if unusual place to search for commentary on our story and then connect it to thanksgiving which we celebrate this week.
7. And the messengers returned to Jacob, saying, We came to your brother Esau, and also he comes to meet you, and four hundred men with him.
- Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed; and he divided the people who were with him, and the flocks, and herds, and the camels, in two bands;
- And said, If Esau comes to the one company, and attacks it, then the other company which is left shall escape.
- And Jacob said, O God of my father Abraham, and God of my father Isaac, the Lord who said to me, Return to your country, and to your family, and I will deal well with you;
- I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which you have shown to your servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jordan; and now I have become two bands.
- Save me, I beseech you, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he will come and strike me, and the mother with the children.
That sounds like fear but I don’t get the sense when we read these verses that we sense a mortal fear on Yaakov’s part and I think that is for three reasons. Continue reading
Maaser and Remembering God
Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5777
Well known fact, Jews are supposed to tithe their income. 10% of your net income goes to charity. We have an obligation to help those in need. Jews have an inherent understanding of the value of tzedaka!
While I would not disagree with any of the above sentiment, I am not sure that it is 100% accurate and I think a close read of this morning’s parsha might uncover another aspect of tithing, of Maaser that is actually quite different from the mitzvah of tzedaka.
Towards the beginning of our parsha we find Yaakov afraid. He turns to God and makes a deal: If you take care of me and cloth me and feed me and return me home safely- Continue reading
Ish Tam Yoshev Ohalim and Our Mishna Project
Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5776
This coming Thursday (3 years ago…) we are beginning a new learning project in the shul. The plan is to take a seder of Mishna, one of the 6 orders of the Mishna and learn 4 mishnayot a day Monday through Friday taking off for holidays and winter vacation. That pace will leave us with one Mishna left to learn on Sunday of the nine days, allowing us to culminate the learning with a meat meal during the nine days.
I chose the order of Moed, which deals with Shabbat and Yom Tov. Although a flier went out with a phone number for conferencing feedback from you has pushed me to the world of podcasts. Specific info will go out Monday.
To explain the significance of the project I want to turn to one phrase in our parsha used to describe the patriarch Jacob.
בראשית פרק כה
כז) וַֽיִּגְדְּלוּ֙ הַנְּעָרִ֔ים וַיְהִ֣י עֵשָׂ֗ו אִ֛ישׁ יֹדֵ֥עַ צַ֖יִד אִ֣ישׁ שָׂדֶ֑ה וְיַעֲקֹב֙ אִ֣ישׁ תָּ֔ם יֹשֵׁ֖ב אֹהָלִֽים Continue reading
Materialism vs Spirituality
Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5774
The beginning of the parsha details the negotiation between Avraham and Efron over Me’arat Hamachapela. It begins with the Hitties offering Avraham and general burial plot for free and ends with Avraham paying Efron very handsomely for the cave of Machpela.
2 years ago I presented a theory that Avraham did not initially simply ask for the cave that he wanted because that would let Efron know that this cave was unique and special to Avraham and that he would jack up the price. So he tried to ease his way into it. When that did not work and it became apparent that Avraham wanted this cave – that is exactly what happened – Efron jacked up the price and Avraham paid it.
The underlying assumption of this approach is that Efron was unaware of what made the cave unique. He was unaware of the holiness of the land and who was buried there. He simply came to understand that it meant something to Avraham and used that to his advantage in the negotiation. Continue reading
The Sin of Sodom
Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5767
What would cause God to destroy an entire city? What sin is so grave that God would rain down sulfur and salt and literally burn two cities to the ground?
That is a very good question and it is the one posed to us as we read of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Continue reading
What Causes Jews to Divide and Separate, Lot & Avraham
Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5773
For more than 2000 years Jews have been divided and separated for two primary reasons. At times an external enemy causes Jews to have to flee and separation ensues. Sometimes the enemy is directly responsible for the separation.
Other times our divide and separation has nothing to do with anyone or anything external. We do it to ourselves, we are our own worst enemy and usually it revolves around religion. That which is supposed to unite and bind us is actually what causes the divide.
It is always fascinating to see commentators read these historical realities into the text. Continue reading
Man’s Dominion Over Man
Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5768
Before Avraham was born, relates the Midrash, Nimrod was a powerful king who denied the existence of the creator, of God. He was arrogant and conceited and believed himself to be a God and the people of his time worshiped him and bowed to him. Yet he was a wise king and he observed the stars and foresaw that one would soon be born who would defeat him and bring knowledge of God into the world, and he was frightened. What did Nimrod do? He called his advisors and asked their advice. The suggestion that was agreed upon by all present was to build a grand hall and command all of the pregnant women to stay at the hall and when they were about to give birth they would determine the gender of the baby and if it was a boy they would kill it then and there and if it was a girl the baby would live. So it was ordered and so it came to be and all told over 70,000 male children were killed in this palace. Continue reading