Urgent message:

Given the most challenging situation in Israel at this time, I urge all to pray for the bereaved families, the hostages, the missing and the many casualties. Please try to perform additional mitzvot, send funds to help the needy and grieving families, and attend the rallies that are being organized in support of Israel. May the Al-mighty protect the State of Israel, its citizens and bless it with peace!

“The Secret of Jewish Survival in Exile?”
(updated and revised from Vayigash 5764-2004)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Vayigash, the remarkable story of Joseph and his brothers draws to its dramatic conclusion. Joseph instructs his brothers to go up to his father in Canaan and tell 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 brothers, Joseph conveys a very unusual message to share with their father Jacob, Genesis 45:10: וְיָשַׁבְתָּ בְאֶרֶץ גֹּשֶׁן, וְהָיִיתָ קָרוֹב אֵלַי, אַתָּה וּבָנֶיךָ וּבְנֵי בָנֶיךָ… “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, since 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 Jacobs 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 states (Genesis 46:28), that Jacob sent Judah ahead to Goshen to prepare for him. Ultimately, Jacob and the family arrive 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.

Rabbi Yehudah Nachshoni, in his weekly parasha analysis, states that Goshen was the first “ghetto” in the history of the Jewish people. Rabbi 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 a mode of 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 shepherding in private, without offending the Egyptians.

Perhaps the most telling indication of the purpose of designating Goshen as a separate dwelling place 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: וְאֶת יְהוּדָה שָׁלַח לְפָנָיו אֶל יוֹסֵף, לְהוֹרֹת לְפָנָיו גֹּשְׁנָה, וַיָּבֹאוּ אַרְצָה גֹּשֶׁן. And Jacob sent Judah ahead of him, l’ho’rot, to show him the way, to scout out the best travel route.

Rashi 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 Midrash Genesis Rabbah 95:3, suggesting an alternative meaning for לְהוֹרֹת–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 the Jewish 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 never really been many periods of widespread Jewish ignorance and illiteracy. The American Jewish experience is one of the significant and rare exceptions. 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 for different professions, including water drawers, wagon drivers and wood choppers, etc. While some of these classes might not have been on a particularly high scholarly level, it was the commitment to study that served as a vital 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 students of Torah. In fact, the Talmud pointedly states (Nedarim 81a), הִזָּהֲרוּ בִּבְנֵי עֲנִיִּים, Be mindful of the children of the poor, for from them the Torah shall come forth.

Through over 3300 years of Jewish history, it has been conclusively confirmed 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 of people 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 the long period of exiles from their homeland.

This is the secret that Jacob imparted to his family. It is this secret that has transported the Jewish people forth with strength and fortitude through all the travails and vicissitudes that they have encountered along the way. It is not the ghetto that preserved 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.

Please note: The Fast of the 10th of Tevet will be observed this year on Friday, December 22, 2023, from dawn to nightfall. It commemorates the start of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, which led to the ultimate destruction of the Temple on the 9th of Av.