“The Secret of Jewish Survival in Exile?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In parashat Vayigash, the exciting story of Joseph and his brothers draws to a conclusion. Joseph instructs his brothers to go up to his father in Canaan and to say to him (Genesis 45:9): “So said your son Joseph, G-d has made me a master of all of Egypt, come down to me, do not delay.”

In his charge to his brother Joseph gives them a very unusual message to share with father Jacob, Genesis 45:10: “V’yah’shav’tah v’er’etz Goshen, v’hah’yee’tah kah’rov ay’lai ah’tah ooh’vah’neh’chah oov’nay vah’neh’chah…” You [Jacob] will reside in the land of Goshen, and you will be near me–you, your sons, your grandchildren, your flock and your cattle and all that is yours. Joseph then promises to provide economic sustenance for their families in Egypt, because the famine is to continue for five more years.

When Jacob hears the news that his beloved Joseph is alive, he prepares to go down to Egypt to see him. Dramatically, he says (Genesis 45:28): “How great, my son Joseph still lives. I shall go and see him before I die.” Before Jacob’s departs, G-d reassures Jacob that He will be with him in Egypt. The Torah then records the names of the 70 “souls” that go down to Egypt, and Jacob begins his fateful journey. At that point, the Torah tells us, in Genesis 46:28, that Jacob sent Judah ahead to Goshen to prepare for him, and they arrived in the region of Goshen.

Why does Joseph set aside a special dwelling area for his family in Goshen? The rabbis speculate that perhaps Joseph understood that Jacob would be fearful of bringing his children and grandchildren into the environment of Egypt where they may be subject to the influences of widespread idolatry and other unsavory Egyptian practices.

Yehudah Nachshoni, in his weekly parashah analysis, states that Goshen was the first ghetto in the history of the Jewish people. Nachshoni further maintains that historians claim that, throughout Jewish history, it is always the Jews who create the ghettos in order to separate themselves from the nations of the world and in order to live in a thoroughly Jewish environment among themselves. The gentiles “only” build the walls and the gates of the ghettos so that the Jews shouldn’t leave the quarters that they themselves built.

Sometimes ghettos are meant to be protection for the Jews, but mostly the purpose of the ghetto is to seal the Jews off from close contact with their neighbors. And, since shepherding was not an acceptable profession in Egypt, Joseph probably saw the separate living area for his family as a way to allow them to freely pursue their livelihood.

Perhaps the most telling indication of the purpose of designating Goshen as a separate dwelling is the fact that Judah was sent ahead to prepare for the family’s arrival. A close analysis of Genesis 46:28 reveals several layers of meanings to the verse: “V’et Yehudah shah’lach l’fah’nav el Yosef l’ho’rot l’fah’nav Gosh’nah.” And Jacob sent Judah ahead of him, l’ho’rot, to show him the way, to scout the best travel route. Rashi, (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105 the primary commentator on the Bible) indeed writes that Judah went ahead to set things up, to clear a place for Jacob and his family and to survey how to best settle in. But Rashi also cites a Midrash that suggests an alternative meaning for l’ho’rot, from the root “to teach,” saying that it means that Judah went to establish for Jacob a “house of study” from which instruction shall go forth.

By sending Judah before him to Egypt, father Jacob basically establishes the primary guideline for the Jewish people regarding how they are to survive in galut (exile) and even in our homeland Israel, and that is to establish places and programs for intensive Jewish education. Intensive and extensive Jewish education is the lifeblood of the Jewish people, and has been so for the thousands of years since Jacob.

In the history of the Jewish people, there have really never been many periods of widespread Jewish ignorance and illiteracy. The American Jewish experience is one of the significant aberrations. No matter where Jews were, as soon as they settled in, they established schools. It made no difference whether one was an advanced scholar or a menial worker, every Jew was expected to study and learn. In fact, there were regular classes given for different professions, including water drawers, wagon drivers and wood choppers, etc. While some of these classes might not have been on a particularly scholarly level, it was the commitment to study that provided the example for the next generation, who were as a result able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and in not a few instances become serious scholars. In fact, the Talmud pointedly states (Nedarim 81a), “Hee’zah’ha’rooh biv’nay ha’ah’nee’yim,” Be mindful of the children of the poor, for from them the Torah shall come forth.

Over 3,300 years of Jewish history it has been shown incontrovertibly that Jewish education has proven to be the most effective method of educating large numbers of people over long periods of time to ethical and moral living. While there may be some small groups in the Himalayas and elsewhere, who, together with their gurus, live exalted and ethical lives, Judaism and Jewish education have been able to educate large numbers of people over long periods of time to ethical and moral living, and have maintained the Jewish people even during long exiles from their homeland.

This is the secret that Jacob was imparting to his family. It is this secret that has carried our people forth with fortitude and strength through all the travails and vicissitudes that we have encountered along the way. It is not the ghetto that preserves the Jewish people, it is the Torah.

That is the fundamental lesson. The rest is commentary. Zil G’mor, go and study.

May you be blessed.