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Parashat Vayigash: The Price of Exile

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein

On the face of it, the saga of Yosef and his brothers has a happy ending: the family is reunited in Egypt and there Yosef takes care of all their needs. However, a closer look reveals that Yosef is pursued by tragedy.


Although Moshe Rabbeinu is buried in the plains of Moav, Yosef merits to be buried in Eretz Ysrael. Why is this so? The midrash (Devarim Rabba, Va-etchanan 2,8) explains that Moshe initially did not take pains to make clear his Jewish, Israelite identity. Evidence of this is to be found in the fact that the daughters of Yitro describe him as an Egyptian man: “And they said, An Egyptian man saved us from the shepherds” (Shemot 2:19).


Yosef, in contrast, emphasizes his identity on a number of occasions. He lives and experiences his Jewish identity with every fiber of his being. Thus, for example, he tells Pharaoh’s royal butler and baker: “I was stolen away from the land of the Hebrews” (Bereishit 40:15).


In the encounter with Potiphar’s wife, too, Yosef decides to remain true to his identity and to stand his ground. We must bear in mind the huge temptation that faces him. The most obvious aspect of this test is Potiphar’s wife herself, who does everything she can to attract him. However, there is more: by acquiescing to Potiphar’s wife, Yosef might have the opportunity of escaping his slave status. He is aware of this potential, but also knows that making this choice will involve relinquishing his definition as a son of Israel. He manages to withstand temptation, choosing to follow the image that he retains of his father, and to maintain his Jewish identity.


Yosef’s Israelite identity finds perhaps its strongest expression when it comes time to bury Yaakov. Yaakov, with his respected status as father of the viceroy, asks to be buried in Eretz Yisrael. The midrash (Sota 36b) describes a conversation between Yosef and Pharaoh, where Pharaoh tries to persuade Yosef that Yaakov should be buried in Egypt. Yosef withstands these attempts and eventually Yaakov is indeed buried in accordance with his wish.


There is great significance to being buried in Eretz Yisrael rather than in Egypt. When Baron Edmond de Rothschild wanted to be buried in Zikhron Yaakov, rather than in Europe, the political establishment in France was upset, failing to understand how someone so closely bound up with their country could decide to be buried elsewhere. The decision to be buried in a certain place testifies to that place being part of the person’s identity. The significance of Yosef’s request of Pharaoh, that he be permitted to bury his father in Eretz Yisrael, is an acknowledgment that although he is deeply involved in the Egyptian administration and Egyptian culture, although he is second-in-command to Pharaoh himself, ultimately his place is elsewhere. He is a Hebrew, from the land of the Hebrews. Yosef merited not only to bury his father in Eretz Yisrael, but also – after the Exodus and the wandering in the wilderness – to have his own remains buried there, too.


While Yosef is eventually buried in Eretz Yisrael, the tragedy is that he does not return there during his lifetime. He never goes back to his home, which he last saw on that bitter day when he set off, at his father’s request, to check on his brothers’ welfare. Yosef had dreamed of being the head of the family, the leader. Are his dreams realized? Surely not; he had dreamed of leading the family in Eretz Yisrael, never imagining that on his account his father and brothers would all go down to Egypt. His dream is not realized. He becomes a leader, but he is a leader over the Egyptians, in Egypt, and not as he had foreseen it. When Yaakov comes down to Egypt he bows before Pharaoh, not before Yosef. Even Yosef’s power in Egypt is ultimately limited, subject to Pharaoh’s authority. Yosef never returns home and never goes back to being part of the family in the way that he had dreamed.


Thus, we see that Yosef does all that he can in order to maintain his identity. Although he has been in a solitary state in the midst of Egyptian society ever since his brothers’ display of terrible animosity towards him, nevertheless he succeeds in maintaining his identity and beliefs.


Further evidence of his tenacity may be found in the fact that he dispatches wagons (agalot) to his father in anticipation of their reunification in Egypt (Bereishit 45:27). The text records that when Yaakov sees the wagons, his spirit is revived. Rashi (ad loc.) explains:


“Yosef thereby conveyed a sign, alluding to what he had been occupied with before the separation: the unit concerning the egla arufa. For this reason the text says, ‘And he saw that wagons (agalot) that Yosef had sent,’ and not ‘that Pharaoh had sent.’”


Yosef conveys a message to his father: not only is he still alive, but he has maintained the same Torah that he learned with Yaakov.  


However, not all is rosy. Chazal teach that the wagons themselves, bearing such a positive message, also carried a symbol of idolatry. Yosef was unaware of this, since it was a symbol of the royal house, but Yaakov noticed, and was saddened. Yosef’s sensitivity to idolatry had obviously become dulled.


Another expression of Egyptian influence on Yosef is to be found in the encounter between him and Yaakov. Ramban comments:


“It seems to me that Yisrael’s eyes were already dim with age, and when Yosef arrived, in the viceroy’s carriage, wearing a turban over his face in the manner of the Egyptian royalty, he was unrecognizable to his father, and even his brothers did not know who he was. Therefore the text notes that when his father saw him, and recognized him, his father fell upon his neck and wept over him.” (Ramban on Bereishit 46:29)


According to Ramban, Yaakov did not identify Yosef at first, because Yosef was wearing the turban of Egyptian royalty. Yosef knew that he was about to meet his father, who had been certain that his beloved son had died twenty-two years earlier. Standing in front of the wardrobe that morning, deliberating what to wear for the occasion, he chose to don this headgear. Perhaps Yosef wore it without thinking about what it represented, or perhaps he wore it deliberately in order to make his father proud. Either way, the turban causes Yaakov not to recognize his own beloved son. That royal turban, that Egyptian influence, is a barrier between them.


Further on in the story, we find more expressions of the Egyptian influence on Yosef. A good example is Yosef’s decision to have his father embalmed: “And Yosef commanded his servants, the physicians, to embalm his father, and the physicians embalmed Yisrael” (Bereishit 50:2). Yosef’s decision might be explained in pragmatic rather than cultural terms. It is possible that he decides to embalm his father in order to facilitate his burial in Eretz Yisrael, which will entail a journey of a few days. Nevertheless, it is quite clear that the act itself reflects the Egyptian influence, with all the surrounding culture of death.


The attitude towards death is one of the central characteristics of a religion or culture. To this day, when we think of Ancient Egypt, we think of pyramids and mummies. Death and its attendant preparations and service were at the center of this culture – in complete contrast to Jewish tradition. In his choice to embalm Yaakov, we see that this important motif has left its mark on Yosef.


The manner in which Yosef administers the food distribution in Egypt also bears evidence of some Egyptian influence:


“And Yosef bought up all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh, for the Egyptians sold each man his field, for the famine prevailed over them, and the land became Pharaoh’s. And as for the people, he moved them to the cities, from one end of the borders of Egypt to the other. Only the land of the priests he did not buy, for the priests had a portion assigned to them by Pharaoh, and they ate their portion which Pharaoh gave them, therefore they did not sell their lands. And Yosef said to the people, Behold, I have bought you this day, and your land, for Pharaoh. Here is grain for you, and you shall sow the land. And it shall be at harvest times, that you shall give a fifth part to Pharaoh, and four parts shall be your own, for seed of the field, and for your food and for them of your households, and for food for your children. And they said, You have saved our lives; let us find favor in the sight of my lord, and we will be Pharaoh’s servants. And Yosef made it a law over the land of Egypt to this day, that Pharaoh should have the fifth part, except the land of the priests alone, which did not become Pharaoh’s.” (Bereishit 47:20-26)


These verses tell us how Yosef turned all of Egypt into a society of slaves, and this is most certainly yet another reflection of the influence of Egyptian culture. One might reasonably posit that were it not for Yosef’s regulations, the situation would not be one in which eighty percent of the produce was left in the hands of the Egyptians while twenty percent was given to Pharaoh, but rather the opposite. Nevertheless, Yosef is the one who turns Egypt into a slave society.


The verses also tell us that the priests of Egypt received their portions of food without being enslaved. Yosef, son of Yisrael, is forced – at Pharaoh’s command – to show preferential treatment to the pagan priests. He has no choice but to submit to the Egyptian pressure in this regard.


The climax of the Egyptian influence on Yosef finds expression in the following verse, which is one of the most painful narrative verses in the Torah:


“And he (Yaakov) sent Yehuda before him to Yosef, to show the way before him to Goshen, and they came to the land of Goshen.” (Bereishit 46:28)


Rashi (ad loc.) describes the reason for Yehuda being sent:


“And a midrash teaches: ‘to show the way before him’ – to establish a house of learning for him, so that instruction might issue from there.”


Yaakov sends one of his sons to prepare a religious infrastructure in Goshen, in anticipation of the arrival of the extended family. This seventy-member tribe requires the full array of religious services: a synagogue, a house of study, a mikve, etc. And whom does Yaakov send for this purpose? Not Yosef – the Egyptian ruler who is proficient in the language and customs of his surroundings, but rather Yehuda. When there is a need for spiritual foundations, Yosef – who has been influenced by Egyptian culture for the past twenty-two years – is incapable of doing what Yehuda can do.


The message here is clear: after all Yosef’s efforts to maintain his spiritual values, his Jewish identity, over twenty-two years, Yaakov still needs to make it clear to him – with all the pain that this entails – that his family needs a different atmosphere from the one in which Yosef is quite at home. They will not be able to live in close proximity to Yosef, who lives near Pharaoh’s royal palace. Yehuda will be the one to establish a beit midrash; Yehuda will be the leader of Yaakov’s family, since it is he, and not Yosef, who has the necessary spiritual ability.


Our parasha tells us how Yosef tried with all his might to withstand Egyptian influence, and how he succeeded, to some extent. However, at the same time he pays a price. One cannot live in a different country, in the midst of a foreign culture, without being influenced and changed. No matter how strong a person is, he will not be able to avoid influence, on both the conscious and subconscious levels.


If a person wishes to maintain the highest possible spiritual level, with no external influences, he cannot live in Egypt. There he will encounter a foreign culture that will have an effect on him and change him.


Ultimately Yosef himself understands the price he has paid. He arrives at the realization that his dreams are not being realized, and he lets go of them:


“God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So now it was not you who sent me here, but God…” (Bereishit 45:7-8)