This D’var Torah is in Z’chus L’Ilui Nishmas my sister Kayla Rus Bas Bunim Tuvia A”H & my grandfather Dovid Tzvi Ben Yosef Yochanan A”H & in Z’chus L’Refuah Shileimah for:
-My father Bunim Tuvia Ben Channa Freidel
-My grandmother Channah Freidel Bas Sarah
-My great aunt Rivkah Bas Etta
-Miriam Liba Bas Devora
-Aviva Malka Bas Leah
-And all of the Cholei Yisrael
-It should also be a Z’chus for an Aliyah of the holy Neshamah of Dovid Avraham Ben Chiya Kehas—R’ Dovid Winiarz ZT”L as well as the Neshamos of those whose lives were taken in terror attacks (Hashem Yikom Damam), and a Z’chus for success for Tzaha”l as well as the rest of Am Yisrael, in Eretz Yisrael and in the Galus.
וַיִּגַּשׁ ~ Vayigash
“Egyptian Economy & Exile”
Parshas Vayigash is one of the most climactic Sidros in the Torah, known for the monumental showdown between the masked viceroy of Egypt, Yosef HaTzaddik, and his half-brother Yehudah, as Yehudah is prepared to sacrifice himself for Yaakov Avinu’s youngest son Binyamin or do war with all of Egypt, while Yosef is just about ready to finally reveal his identity to his brothers. The Torah narrative gives us tension and excitement as it explodes with reunion between Yosef and his family.
This scene is perhaps the most talked about segment of Vayigash, but from that point and on, there seems to be only falling action with a lot of seemingly unnecessary and much less talked about details. In particular, the entire end of the Sidrah seems to have much less significance to our story. After Yaakov’s family has all made it to Egypt in the throes of the famine, the Torah goes on to give us an elaborate passage about the Egyptian economy under Yosef [Bereishis 47:11-27]. And the question is: Why? Who cares?
The Torah tells us that the money in Egypt had been exhausted so that Egyptian citizens couldn’t afford the food which Yosef had stored for Egypt. Yosef allowed them to buy grains with their livestock until that exhausted as well, at which point the people would sell their land, and ultimately make themselves Avadim (slaves), or serfs, to Pharaoh so that they could afford food. At that point, society was seemingly able to survive, and the people were content to pay annual taxes to Pharaoh. The problem is that the Torah is neither a history book, nor an economics textbook, so why do we care about this part of the story? Is it just trying to convey to us that Yosef, somehow, saved the Egyptian economy? It could have done that in way fewer words and verses. Either way, is the fact that Yosef spared the Egyptian economy not already evident at this point from that which was conveyed back in Parshas Mikeitz when Yosef took the throne in the first place? So, what is the Torah trying to teach us here? And what relevance does this representation of the Egyptian economy have to the larger discussion of the journey of the B’nei Yisrael?
If one looks closely at this passage, the bookend verses should give us a hint at the deeper meaning behind Yosef’s enactments and its relevance to Klal Yisrael.
The economic elements of the discussion seem to begin when Yosef makes the housing arrangements for his father’s family which has just joined the community. The Torah tells us [47:11], “Vayosheiv Yosef Es Aviv V’Es Echav Vayitein Lahem Achuzah B’Eretz Mitzrayim…”-“And Yosef settled his father and his brothers, and he gave them a holding [possession] in the land of Egypt…” Then, in the final verse of our Sidrah, the Torah tells us [47:27], “Vayeishev Yisrael B’Eretz Mitzrayim B’Eretz Goshen Vayei’achazu Bah…”-“And Yisrael lived in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen, and they took a holding [possession] in it…”
As one might have noticed, these bookend verses parallel each other in their content and phraseology; first, we have “Vayosheiv Yosef Es Aviv V’Es Echav”-“And Yosef settled his father and his brothers,” and then, “Vayeishev Yisrael…”-“And Yisrael settled…” And again, first we have “Vayitein Lahem Achuzah B’Eretz Mitzrayim”-“and he gave for them a holding [possession] in the land of Egypt,” and then at the end, “Vayei’achazu Bah”-“and they took a holding [possession] in it.” Evidently, the beginning and end of this passage focus on the Yaakov’s family settling down and taking hold of land in Egypt. After Yosef settled his father’s household in the land, the family would ultimately follow his lead and settle down, making itself comfortable there.
That being said, it sounds like the Torah is trying to tell us that certainly, the current functionality of the Egyptian economy had much to do with the B’nei Yisrael. But, what exactly did it have to do with them though?
Just based on the simple context, it seems that Yosef, the acting sovereign in Egypt, had a goal to make his father’s family comfortable there. In fact, Rashi [to 47:21 citing Chullin 60B] explains that when the Egyptians willingly sold their land to Yosef, he exercised his legal ownership of the land by relocating the citizens with the righteous intentions of preventing his own family from feeling estranged in this foreign land. Yosef himself expressed earlier on in the Sidrah that he was sent ahead by G-d to make sure his brothers would be sustained during the famine [45:5], and what he’s doing here is only an extension of that goal—to keep them established. His decisions on behalf of his brothers, Chazzal conclude, were righteous overall.
But, what does the Torah want us to know about the B’nei Yisrael’s comfortability in Egypt? The Divine Narrator does not seem to openly express a particular attitude about Yosef’s economic enactments. The B’nei Yisrael certainly do well with it, as the Torah testifies [47:27], “Vayifru Vayirbu Me’od”-“and they were fruitful and multiplying very much.” The response of Egyptian society is also resoundingly positive, as the citizens applaud Yosef for “saving their lives” and they even express their seemingly patriotic devotion to the Egyptian government, proudly proclaiming themselves “Avadim” to Pharaoh. So, Egypt is happy. The B’nei Yisrael are
seemingly happy. Everyone’s happy!
But amidst all of this happiness is an eerie, ominous sort of feeling. Perhaps at first glance, one might not feel it when reading the text, but if one knows a little more of the story and thinks about what awaits the B’nei Yisrael not too many years down the line from this point, there is a sense of dark dramatic irony in the larger story. What is it that awaits the B’nei Yisrael in only two Sidros from now? She’ibud Mitzrayim, or the Egyptian Subjugation of the B’nei Yisrael. The entire household of Yisrael becomes completely dominated by Egyptian society as they’re made to perform backbreaking labor under the oppression of Egyptian taskmasters, while their babies are taken away and thrown into the river. This is all under the “new king that did not know [acknowledge] Yosef” [Shemos 1:8]. Why this happened, we could speculate; an ancient form antisemitism or xenophobia, the secret workings of the Divine Plan, some combination of the two, among other possibilities, etc. But, how a whole nation of people can become susceptible to being subdued by the corrupt law of the land without any sort of objection from their neighbors of the Egyptian commonwealth can likely be ascribed to a monster that was created in our Sidrah.
With all the righteous intentions, Yosef wanted his family to thrive in the land of their exile so that they could be comfortable there. Yosef was also instrumental in saving the Egyptian society and all were on board with his plans. Perhaps those plans worked for some time too, especially for Yosef’s now privileged family. The B’nei Yisrael certainly did well there…but only insofar as Yosef was in charge. When Yosef was in charge, as Yosef had amassed so much power for the Egyptian government, the B’nei Yisrael were able to settle down and get comfortable without being oppressed. But, with all that power, paired with Yosef HaTzaddik’s mortality, dormant antisemitism, and a Divine fate to exile, perhaps it was a mistake for the B’nei Yisrael to get so comfortable in exile. Because what would happen? Pretty soon, the serfs of the Egyptian government—basically all of Egyptian society now—would turn their backs on the B’nei Yisrael, and they would knock them back down to the bottom of the food chain. Then, the B’nei Yisrael would ultimately become the “Avadim,” and be an oppressed people, strangers in a strange land.
Thriving and succeeding in the lands of our exile is one thing. We’re not expected to be swept away in the ravages of the material world and fall behind. Like anybody else, the B’nei Yisrael have to make a living, contribute to the surrounding society, and look for ways to improve that society. But attempting to settle down and get overly comfortable anywhere in Galus is another level, a dangerous level. Trying to become the mainstay in a land of our spiritual enemies is not the right answer, because eventually, we will have overstayed our welcome.
The true danger of the “comfortable” mentality is alluded to in the words the Torah uses to refer to our settling down—“Vayosheiv”-“and he settled them,” or “Vayeishev”-“and he settled.” “What’s wrong with simply settling down?” one might challenge, however, if one can think back at the last major usage of this word, it was at the beginning of Yaakov’s trials where the Torah writes [37:1], “Vayeishev Yaakov B’Eretz M’Gurei Aviv…”-“And Yaakov settled in the land of his father’s sojourning…” Chazzal tell us that Yaakov wanted to settle down and basically be free of all discomfort in his life in “This World,” yet Hashem would not let him rest in this world if Yaakov expected to relax in the “Next World” as well [See Rashi there citing Bereishis Rabbah 84:6]. In other words, as long as we’re still in the spiritual state of Galus, we can never be too comfortable, lest we forget why we’re truly here; to work, to endure trials, and to serve Hashem to the best of our abilities. It doesn’t mean that we can’t experience comfort, but it means that we cannot be tricked by the mindset of comfort and assume that until our spiritual destiny is entirely met, that we’re free to sign out of life and its hardships. Because Yaakov attempted to settle down—to become a settler—“in the land where his father sojourned,” where his fathers were strangers and endured trials, and because part of him thought that he was ready to sign out, he had to be woken up to the reality that as long as we live, “it ain’t over til it’s over.” And now, as the B’nei Yisrael are about to “settle” down again, while they think they’re eternally secure in their current state, they’re actually in for another ride.
It could be that in this vein, the Torah tells us that the B’nei Yisrael take “holdings” in the land of Egypt. What’s somewhat haunting is that the Midrash points out that the expression “Vayei’achazu Bah”-“and they took holdings in it” can also be rendered, “and they were grasped [held, taken] by it” (as the verb “Vayei’achazu” is expressed in the Nif’al, receptive conjugation). In other words, they were being clutched or trapped by the land of their exile in which they sought to establish themselves. They fooled themselves. They’re in power now, but just wait. In a short while, their children our destined to suffer at the hands of the superpower that Yosef unwittingly built up around them with the intentions of securing them.
In the end, the way B’nei Yisrael handled themselves in Galus then and throughout history ever since is quite telling for us today as many of us still reside in Galus. We’ve seen before about where excessive comfort in exile can lead, and as such, we must be forewarned so that we will be able to thrive, succeed, and contribute to life around us while in Galus without being overtaken by it.
May we all be Zocheh to thrive and succeed wherever we reside, both in physicality and spirituality, not “settle” ourselves down in Galus and Olam HaZeh, but, with Hashem’s help, we should strive to and ultimately make our way toward the destination of our final Geulah and Olam HaBa with the coming of Moshiach, Bimheirah Biyomeinu! Have a Great Shabbos!
-Josh, Yehoshua Shmuel Eisenberg 🙂
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