No matter where we think we are, we are still in Egypt
With Jacob’s death, the Israelites found themselves in Egypt living in relative safety under the protection of Joseph and the Pharaoh. However, history can change in an instant, as we ourselves have witnessed since the November election.
This truth is confirmed in next week’s Torah portion where it says that “There arose a king in Egypt who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8) and it is signaled at the beginning of this week's portion.
The children of Israel had been protected by the benevolence of the Pharaoh through the agency of Joseph. But, after Joseph’s death, our people’s life in Egypt suddenly became a nightmare.
In Jewish memory, Egypt is synonymous with enslavement, injustice, and cruelty, which is, I believe, the principal reason that the mitzvah to welcome the stranger became so prominent in the Torah (it occurs thirty-six times).
We Jews learned early on that the way a nation treats the stranger, the foreigner, and the “other” who is unlike the majority of the population characterizes that nation’s morality, and our sages taught that a more welcoming, just, and compassionate community ought to be a core aspiration not only for Jews but for humankind as a whole.
True to that tradition, the Jewish people remains optimistic in spite of the history of antiSemitism. It’s significant that the Passover Seder attracts more Jews to the table in American than any other home-based ritual, and that it is celebrated at night, the only such night-time ritual in our tradition. When the ninth plague of blackness engulfed the Egyptians, Torah says that it was a darkness so thick that the Egyptians couldn't see their own hands or the face of a person standing right in front of them. The fear that filled the hearts of the Egyptians and the disconnection between even members of their own families represent exile in its most stark nature.
To emphasize the timing of the ritual, we are reminded in the ninth plague that engulfed the Egyptians. Torah describes this darkness as so thick that the Egyptians couldn't see their own hands or the faces of others standing in front of them. The plague of darkness inspired a fear of terrifying proportions. That state of disconnect with others is the precondition of exile (galut) which is precisely what Egypt-Mitzrayim connotes in Jewish tradition.
The beginning of this week’s Torah portion Vayechi alludes in a unique way to that exile in Egypt. The opening verse (Genesis 47:28) is closed – meaning that there’s no space of nine Hebrew letters separating this week’s Parashat Vayechi from last week’s Parashat Vayigash, an idiosyncrasy that occurs nowhere else in Torah except here.
Rashi (11th century France) explained that “…when Jacob our father died, the eyes and hearts of Israel were closed because of the affliction of the bondage with which the Egyptians began to enslave them.” (Rashi 47:28, based on B’reishit Rabbah 96:1)
Jacob wanted to reveal to his children the end of days, but nistam mimenu – “It was closed to him…” because, as the Talmud explains, “… the Shechinah (God's presence) had left him….”. (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 56a)
Despite the many blessings that we in America enjoy and that our people enjoys in the land and State of Israel, the vision of an end of days will always remain closed to us and we will remain in exile until we succeed in ending the sufferings and correcting the injustices in our society and throughout the world.
In this sense, we are all still in exile even if we live in the State of Israel.
On this Martin Luther King national holiday weekend, his words and vision remain an inspiration to humanity as a whole. Two thousand years ago Rabbi Tarfon taught that “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” (Pirkei Avot 2:21)
Two thousand years ago Rabbi Tarfon taught that Jews have an obligation to the world as a whole: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” (Pirkei Avot 2:21)