“When a Jew Goes Down to Egypt”

Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayigash, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. When Jacob learns that his beloved son is still alive, he undertakes a journey to see Joseph in Egypt. Scripture reports that Jacob “descends” to Egypt along with seventy members of his family.

The great contemporary commentator, Dr. Yisrael (Shy) Eldad (noted Israeli independence fighter and Revisionist Zionist philosopher, 1919-1996), brilliantly notes that the theme of “going down” repeats itself throughout the Joseph saga. Joseph is thrown down into the pit. Jacob states that his grief over Joseph will lead him to go down to the grave. Joseph implores his brother to bring his father Jacob down to Egypt.

A question that is frequently encountered in the commentaries regarding Joseph in Egypt is why Joseph never contacted his father. How is it that for 22 years, the second most powerful person in Egypt never found the opportunity to visit the land of Canaan if only to see his beloved father and family, from whom he had been so brutally separated?

Our commentators suggest a host of reasons for Joseph’s non-action.

Joseph seems to be driven by his childhood visions and dreams. For these dreams to be realized, it was necessary that his brothers come down to Joseph and bow down to him, and not the other way around. Joseph felt that by realizing his dream, he was following a Divine directive. Joseph could not go up to Israel and change the destiny that had been set by G-d.

Others suggest that it was necessary for Joseph to test his brothers. By placing his brothers in the exact situation that they had been when they sold him as a youth, Joseph would learn whether his brothers will, this time, stand up for Benjamin who was falsely accused, or will they walk away, as they had done when Joseph was in the pit. The true test of teshuvah (repentance) is to be confronted again with the exact sinful situation, and not succumb. Fortunately, his brothers passed with flying colors.

Shy Eldad points out the great irony reflected in the fact that Joseph could successfully resist the devilish seductiveness of Mrs. Potiphar, but his brothers were unable to resist the pleasures of living in posh Egyptian neighborhoods. After they reunite with Joseph and long after the famine ends, they chose not to return to Canaan their homeland, because the blandishments of Egypt were just too great. Life was so beautiful. The galut, the exile, was so sweet. That same question, says Dr. Eldad, can be asked of all Jews today who choose to live outside of Israel.

After the Oslo Accords were signed at the White House on September 1993, with President Bill Clinton, Yasir Arafat and Yitzchak Rabin, I had a nightmare. The Al-mighty appeared to me in a dream. (Many rabbis have fantasies about G-d appearing to them! And I do too.)

“Buchwald,” He said, “I don’t understand! For 2,000 years you Jews have been badgering me, “V’lee’rushalayim eer’chah b’rah’chah’mim tah’shuv,” “Return O L-rd to Your city of Jerusalem.” “L’shanah hah’bah’ah be’rushalayim,” “Next year in Jerusalem!” So in 1948, I [G-d] gave you a State. And do you know what happened? Almost no one came! I expected all of you to come, but almost no one came. Yes, there were Jewish refugees who were expelled from the Arab lands, who had no other place to go, so they came. But for the most part, the Jews who were living comfortably outside of Israel did not come. Yes, there were a few crazy Zionists from Hashomer Hatzair and Bnai Akiva. But otherwise, no one came.

So G-d asked Himself, “Why are my children not coming to Israel?” Perhaps they are not coming because they cannot pray at the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem, which is under Jordanian control. Maybe it is because they cannot weep in Hebron, at M’ah’raht Hamachpela, the grave of the patriarchs and matriarchs. Perhaps, it is because they cannot shed a tear at Kever Rachel, Rachel’s tomb in Bethlehem.

So in 1967, I [G-d] reunited Jerusalem, and gave them access once again to the Kotel, and now they could pray at both Bethlehem and Hebron. And I even threw in skiing on the Hermon mountains, and scuba diving at Sharm el Sheikh. And do you know what happened? They still didn’t come!

For 2000 years, we Jews have been professing our love for the land of Israel, crying out after every Passover Seder and after the conclusion of our prayers on the High Holidays “L’shanah hah’bah’ah be’rushalayim!” “Next year in Jerusalem!” At the conclusion of every wedding, we break a glass and cry out, “Eem esh’kah’chaych Yerushalayim, tish’kach yeh’mee’nee! “If I forget thee O Jerusalem, may my right hand wither, may my tongue cleave to my palate, if I fail to remember thee!” Every time we pray, and whenever we recite the Grace after Meals, we cry out, “V’toh’lee’chay’noo ko’meh’mee’yoot l’ahr’tzay’noo “Lead us upright to our land! (Upright means while we are still able to stand, walk and talk, not lying in a coffin!)

In November 2000, at Camp David II, Prime Minister Ehud Barak of Israel offered Yasir Arafat more than 95% of the West Bank and Gaza, as well as control of East Jerusalem. Arafat, irrationally, said “No!” and instead launched the second intifada.

The Al-mighty gave His people a reprieve, a second chance, and said, “Kinderlach, My children, the land is yours, but you must show Me that you love it!”

This is the challenge that we Jews face today. Not all of us can pick ourselves up and move to Israel tomorrow. Not all of us can successfully inspire our children to move to Israel. But we must try. If we are blessed with the wherewithal to go on vacation, then we must visit Israel more frequently. If we can afford to buy a second home, it should be in Israel. If we have the resources to make a business investment, the investment should be made in Israel. We must show the Al-mighty that our words are not empty, that our prayers are not in vain, that we truly love Israel more than our enemies do.

This is what it is supposed to mean when we say at the end of a wedding, “Eem loh ah’ah’leh et Yerushalayim al rosh sim’chah’tee,” We must raise Jerusalem as our highest joy.

When a Jew goes down to Egypt, he must always remember where home really is!

L-rd, our G-d, may our nightmares prove to be false, and may the blessings to inherit the land, that You, G-d, bestowed on our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, come to fruition, speedily in our day. Amen.

May you be blessed.

The festival of Chanukah began on Wednesday night, December 1st, 2010 and continues through Thursday, December 9th, 2010. Wishing all a happy conclusion of the Chanukah festival.