Seventeen Years?

  • Rav Zeev Weitman



"And Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt [for] seventeen years…." Why did Yaakov and his family not return to Eretz Cana'an immediately at the end of the seven years of famine? After all, Yosef's brothers had originally told Pharaoh, "We have come to sojourn in the land" – temporarily, not as a permanent move.


To us, it is clear that their prolonged stay in Egypt fulfills God's words to Avraham at the Covenant Between the Parts:


“Know with certainty that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will serve them, and they will afflict them for four hundred years… and the fourth generation will return to here, for the sin of the Emorites is not yet complete."


But since there was no Divine command to Yaakov to remain in Egypt and not to return to Eretz Cana'an, we must seek the human motivation that caused Yaakov and his family not to return to Eretz Cana'an.


In last week's shiur, we saw that while Yosef invites Yaakov to stay in Egypt for the remaining years of the famine, Pharaoh invites him to settle in Egypt for an unlimited time. Yaakov hesitates to accept Pharaoh's invitation, lest his stay in Egypt become permanent. God reveals Himself to Yaakov in Beer Sheva and reassures him they will eventually return. But God does not forbid Yaakov from returning whenever he wishes to, nor does He command him to remain in Egypt – nor even obligate him to go there at all. Hence, we must try to understand what caused Pharaoh's invitation to prevail over Yosef's, and why Yaakov's family remains in Egypt, contrary to Yosef's original plan, contrary to Yaakov's original intention, and contrary to the brothers' statement of intent before Pharaoh.


We have seen that in the wake of the Divine revelation in Beer Sheva, the text speaks in terms of an uprooting from Eretz Cana'an to Egypt:


And they took their cattle and their property which they had acquired in the land of Cana'an, and they came to Egypt – Yaakov and all of his descendants with him: his sons and his sons' sons, his daughters and his sons' daughters, and all of his descendants did he bring with him to Egypt.


This recalls the language of the Torah in describing Avraham's move from Charan to Eretz Cana'an:


And Avram took Sarai, his wife, and Lot, his brother's son, and all their property which they had acquired, and the souls that they had made in Charan, and they went out, to go to the land of Cana'an, and they came to the land of Cana'an.


This suggests that from the outset, the descent to Egypt is undertaken not just in order to see Yosef or as a temporary solution for the remaining years of the famine. Rather, Yaakov's family goes down to Egypt in order to live there together with Yosef.


The Decision to Move to Egypt


Yosef occupies the highest political position in the mighty Egyptian empire, and his economic situation is guaranteed. Therefore, it is clear to Yosef that he will remain in Egypt; he appears never to entertain the thought of going back to shepherding in Eretz Cana'an. His position and status also likely do not allow him to leave, as we see from the fact that he needs to ask Pharaoh's permission to leave just for a short while in order to bury his father in Eretz Cana'an. It must be noted that even though Yosef undoubtedly still holds a high position in Egypt at that point, it seems that he is no longer second to Pharaoh, as he had been during the years of the famine. Otherwise, it would be difficult to understand why the Torah takes the trouble to emphasize that Yosef no longer communicates directly with Pharaoh, but rather asks a favor of the people of Pharaoh's court to pass on his request:


And Yosef spoke to the house of Pharaoh, saying, “If I have found favor in your eyes, speak, I pray you, before Pharaoh, saying…"


Not only does Yosef need to submit a request to Pharaoh in order to be able to fulfill his promise to his father, but to this end, he must also promise that he will return immediately after the burial:


"My father made me swear, saying: ‘Behold, I am dying; in my grave which I have dug for myself in the land of Cana'an – there shall you bury me.’ So now, let me go up, I pray you, that I may bury my father, and I shall return."


This suggests that the senior position and status that Yosef still retained would have made it impossible for him to leave Egypt and return to Eretz Cana'an.


It seems that Yosef's brothers and the entire family decide to follow Yosef's example and to remain in Egypt; at this stage, they sever their ties with Eretz Cana'an. As a result, even when Yosef's brothers accompany him to bury Yaakov, it is clear to them that they will be returning to Egypt. The text emphasizes: "Only their children, and their flocks, and their herds they left in the land of Goshen" – despite their fear of what Yosef might do to them in revenge, now that their father is dead:


And Yosef's brothers saw that their father was dead, and they said, “What if Yosef will hate us, and will repay us for all the evil that we did to him?"


Forgetting Eretz Cana'an


Although the journey to Egypt is undertaken with God's approval, the Kli Yakar maintains that the long-term, comfortable stay there was beyond what God had intended. The Kli Yakar comments on the final verse of Parashat Vayigash, "Yisrael dwelled in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen, and they took possession of it, and they grew and multiplied exceedingly:"


This whole verse is an indictment of Bnei Yisrael, for the Holy One, blessed be He, had decreed for them, “Your descendants will be strangers…,”  but they sought to become resident citizens in a place where foreignness had been decreed upon them… The verse condemns them for this dwelling, in which they sought a possession in a land that was not their own. Had they not said to Pharaoh, “We have come to sojourn in the land”? This teaches that originally, they did not come down in order to settle there, but rather to sojourn, as temporary residents, but now they went back on their word and became so well settled there that they did not wish to leave Egypt until the Holy One, blessed be He, was forced to bring them out of there with a strong hand. And those who did not wish to leave died during the three days of [the plague of] darkness.


According to the Kli Yakar, the original intention of Yaakov's family had been to sojourn in Egypt – perhaps for a long while, but certainly as a temporary measure. But after they discovered the goodness of the land, they changed their minds and decided to stay on, no longer having any wish to return to Eretz Cana'an. They became so entrenched there and became such an integral part of Egypt that eventually God had to bring them out with a strong arm. In other words, the "strong arm" is expressed not only in the plagues that befell Pharaoh, who refused to let Bnei Yisrael leave his land, but also in the servitude, suffering, and affliction that Bnei Yisrael suffered in Egypt. These were meant to sever them from the Egyptians and to cause them to want to leave the land in which they had made themselves at home.


Despite this "strong arm," there were still many who did not wish to leave Egypt, and they died during the three days of darkness. According to the midrash, this wiped out eighty percent (!) of the nation. Only a fifth of Bnei Yisrael actually left Egypt, as alluded to in the verse, "Ve-chamushim (meaning "armed" or "a fifth of") Bnei Yisrael left Egypt."


The Punishment for Permanent Settlement in Egypt


The Kli Yakar, following the same line of thought, interprets the verse in Parashat Acharei Mot, "You shall not act according to the actions of the land of Egypt where you dwelled," as follows:


That act which you did in the land of Egypt… that you sought permanent residence there… you shall not act in that way again, seeking permanent residence amongst a rebellious nation that follows a path that is not good.


He goes on to address the next part of the verse, "nor shall you act according to the actions of the land of Cana'an, into which I bring you:"


In other words, “According to the way you acted with Eretz Cana'an… that you despised the land… to the point where the Holy One, blessed be He, needed to bring them out of there, against their will, “you shall not act."


Likewise, in Parashat Bo, the Kli Yakar comments on the verse, "And the sojourning of Bnei Yisrael which they sojourned in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years." He maintains that the additional 30 years, beyond the 400 years that had originally been decreed for them, was a punishment because "many were the people who did not wish to leave Egypt at all." Contrary to God's command that "your descendants will be strangers…," Bnei Yisrael had sought "to be residents in the land, and not to leave there." This is what caused a lengthening of the exile for an additional 30 years.


Yaakov's Motive in Seeking to be Buried in Eretz Cana'an and in Giving a Double Portion of Inheritance to Yosef


In view of the above, we can understand why Yaakov makes Yosef swear and thereafter commands all of his sons not to bury him in Egypt, but rather to take him up for burial in Eretz Cana'an, in Ma'arat Ha-Makhpela. Yaakov identifies the process that his family is undergoing, having moved to Egypt in order to remain there – at least so long as Yosef is still ruling the land – and he wants to ensure that future generations will know where their ancestral land is and where they should be striving to return to. He therefore insists that he must not be buried in Egypt, as this would represent a permanent bond with that land; rather, he should be buried in the land that is intended for his descendants.


For the same reason, it is important to him to emphasize, in his last words, the future inheritance that is promised in Eretz Cana'an. He speaks about this specifically with Yosef, whom he perceives as being in the greatest danger of becoming permanently bound up with Egypt, and because he knows that Yosef's brothers and their families follow his example:


Yaakov said to Yosef, “God Almighty appeared to me in Luz, in the land of Cana'an, and He blessed me. And He said to me, ‘Behold, I shall make you fruitful, and multiply you, and make of you a multitude of people, and will give this land to your descendants after you as an eternal possession.’"


He even adds further motivation to return to Cana'an by promising Yosef a double inheritance in the land:


"And now, your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt – they are mine; Efraim and Menashe will be mine as are Reuven and Shimon. Your progeny who are born to you after them, shall be yours and shall be called by the name of their brethren in their inheritance."


Later, Yaakov once again emphasizes the double inheritance that Yosef will receive in the land – "one portion more than your brothers" – in order to inculcate the aspiration of returning:


And Yisrael said to Yosef, “Behold, I am dying, but God will be with you, and He will bring you back to the land of your forefathers. And I have given you one portion more than your brothers, which I took from the hand of the Emorites with my sword and with my bow."


Remembrance of Rachel's Burial


The commentators debate why Yaakov sees fit to mention Rachel's burial in his speech to Yosef:

“And as for me, when I came from Padan Aram, Rachel died by me in the land of Cana'an, on the way, when there was just a short distance to come to Efrat; and I buried her there on the way of Efrat, which is Beit Lechem.”

Since Yaakov requests of Yosef that he bury him in Ma'arat Ha-Makhpela, most view this verse as an explanation or apology on Yaakov's part for burying Rachel on the way, rather than bringing her to the ancestral burial plot where he himself seeks to be buried. But it is then puzzling why these words are uttered at Yaakov's encounter with Efraim and Menashe, Yosef's sons. This verse appears in between Yaakov’s assurance that Efraim and Menashe will be considered equals of Reuven and Shimon for the purposes of the inheritance of the land and his blessings to Yosef's two sons (complementing his decision to give Yosef a double portion in the land by turning Yosef, via his sons, into two tribes). Seemingly, if the motivation behind his mention of Rachel's burial is as the commentators maintain, it would make more sense for it to come at the beginning of the parasha, when Yaakov calls Yosef and asks him to bury him in Ma'arat Ha-Makhpela. It makes less sense to include it as part of a different meeting with Yosef, where he makes no mention of his own request to be buried in Ma'arat Ha-Makhpela.


Perhaps this verse is meant to serve a similar purpose to those we have seen above. If we suggest that Yaakov's intention in his words to Yosef is to motivate him to sever himself from Egypt and to return to Cana'an, he therefore asks him, in the first encounter, to bury him in Ma'arat Ha-Makhpela; in the second encounter – with the same intention in mind – he gives him a double inheritance in the land and blesses his sons that they should be fruitful and multiply "and grow into a multitude in the midst of the land," and therefore emphasizes once again that he gives Yosef "one portion more than his brothers." Perhaps the mention of Yosef's mother's burial place is likewise meant as one more way of encouraging him to see his place as being in Cana'an rather than in Egypt. After all, not only will Yosef's father be buried in Ma'arat Ha-Makhpela, but his beloved mother is buried not far away, "on the way of Efrat, which is Beit Lechem."


The success of Yaakov's efforts in this regard is expressed in the fact that Yosef also commands his brothers before his death to take up his bones to Eretz Cana'an rather than provide a splendid state funeral with burial in the tombs of the kings of Egypt:


And Yosef caused Bnei Yisrael to swear, saying, “God will surely remember you… and you shall take up my bones from here."


Why is There a Need for "Remembrance"?


In keeping with the idea that settling in Egypt and turning the "sojourning" into a permanent arrangement was the initiative and decision of Yaakov's family, we must now address the first part of Yosef's words to his brothers: "God will surely remember you and take you up from this land to the land which He promised to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov." If the permanent residence in Egypt was something that Bnei Yisrael themselves chose, why is there a need for Divine "remembrance" in order for them to leave?


The answer is that after Yosef and his brothers make Egypt their home and live there for more than 70 years (from the time that Yosef is 39 until his death at the age of 110), it becomes very difficult for them to make such a fundamental change in their situation and to sever themselves from their possessions in Egypt. Only Divine remembrance can bring them out of there now. As we saw in the commentary of the Kli Yakar, the "strong hand and outstretched arm" had to be applied to Bnei Yisrael, no less than to the Egyptians.


Yaakov's Funeral Procession


If Yaakov's repeated request for burial in Eretz Cana'an and his asking of Yosef to swear to this are indeed meant to inculcate in his sons the knowledge that Eretz Cana'an is the land of their destiny, the place to which they should aspire to return, this may explain the parallel that we find between Yaakov's funeral procession and the Exodus procession by Bnei Yisrael, headed for Eretz Cana'an some four hundred years later.


The parallel is expressed mainly in the surprising mention of "ever ha-Yarden" – the eastern side of the Jordan River – as the point from which Yaakov's sons enter the land, just as their descendants would do later under Yehoshua. This runs counter to our expectation that they would enter the land from the south-west. Moreover, the Egyptian chariots and horsemen accompanying the sons of Yaakov on the funeral journey likewise recall the chariots and horsemen that pursue Bnei Yisrael when they leave Egypt many years later. Although in the former instance they accompany the procession out of respect for Yaakov, father of Yosef, rather than in hot pursuit, the fact remains that there are only two places in the Torah where mention is made of chariots and horsemen – and in both instances their intention is to ensure that Bnei Yisrael will return to Egypt!


Yosef went up to bury his father, and with them went up all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his house, and all the elders of the land of Egypt. And all the house of Yosef, and his brothers, and his father's house; only their children, and their flocks and their herds did they leave in the land of Goshen. And there went up with him both chariots and horsemen, and it was a very great company. And they came as far as the threshing floor of Atad, which is beyond the Jordan (be-ever ha-Yarden), and there they mourned with exceedingly great and heavy lamentation, and he made a mourning for his father of seven days. And the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, saw the mourning at the threshing-floor of Atad, and they said, “This is a heavy mourning for Egypt.” Therefore, they called it Avel-Mitzrayim, which is on the other side of the Jordan (be-ever ha-Yarden).


Where is "The Other Side of the Jordan"?


As stated, since the term "ever ha-Yarden" is conventionally understood to mean simply the eastern side of the Jordan, it is extremely surprising to find that Yaakov's funeral procession passes through there. Bearing in mind that the destination is Ma'arat Ha-Makhpela in Chevron, why would the mourners coming from Egypt proceed via the eastern side of the Jordan?


However, in Tanakh, the term "ever ha-Yarden" is also used to refer to the western side of the Jordan, as we find in several places. For instance, when the tribes of Gad and Reuven promise to proceed at the head of Bnei Yisrael to conquer the land, they say:


"We shall build sheepfolds here for our cattle, and cities for our children; but we ourselves shall go ready armed while our children dwell in the fortified cities because of the inhabitants of the land. We shall not return to our homes until Bnei Yisrael have inherited each man his inheritance. For we shall not inherit with them on the other side of the Jordan (me-ever la-Yarden) and beyond, for our inheritance has fallen to us on the eastern side of the Jordan (me-ever ha-Yarden mizracha)."


Here, the two sides of the Jordan are referred to in the same verse and as part of the same statement – and the eastern side is defined specifically as such (ever ha-Yarden mizracha), while the term "ever ha-Yarden" alone, with no specification, refers to the western side.


Similarly, we find in Parashat Vaetchanan that when Moshe stands on the eastern side of the Jordan, begging that he be permitted to enter the land, he says:


"Let me cross over, I pray You, and see the good land which is on the other side of the Jordan (be-ever ha-Yarden), that good mountain region and Lebanon.”


Likewise, in the description of the location of Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval at the beginning of Parashat Re'eh (Devarim 11):


And it shall be, when the Lord your God brings you to the land to which you are coming, to take possession of it, that you will give the blessing upon Mount Gerizim, and the curse upon Mount Eval. Are these not on the other side of the Jordan (be-ever ha-Yarden), by the way where the sun sets, in the land of the Canaanites who dwell in the Arava, opposite Gilgal, beside Alon Moreh.


Perhaps we must conclude that the term "ever ha-Yarden" means "at the side of the Jordan," "in the vicinity of the Jordan," or "in the region of the Jordan," as in "be-ever ha-nahar" in reference to the Euphrates, where the text likewise does not necessarily refer to a specific bank of the Euphrates. Thus, the expression "ever ha-Yarden," without the qualifying "mizracha" (eastern side), may also refer to the western side – especially if the person who is speaking is standing on the eastern side.


But if it is not clear which area is indicated by the expression "ever ha-Yarden," and in any case we understand it by examining the context and applying logic, then what is the point of the Torah using this expression at all? It seems to tell us nothing and only to add confusion!


Perhaps the reason for the ambiguous use of "ever ha-Yarden" arises precisely from the reason mentioned above – that the Torah seeks to draw a parallel between Yaakov's funeral procession and the journey undertaken by Bnei Yisrael in the Exodus. The text thereby emphasizes that it is Yaakov's last will, which he conveys to his sons – that he be brought up for burial in Eretz Cana'an – that imbues them with the knowledge that their proper place and possession is in Eretz Cana'an. It is on this basis that Bnei Yisrael know that they must wait for God to remember them; at that time of remembrance, they will leave Egypt and return to their own land. This knowledge and tradition are ultimately what make the Exodus possible.



Translated by Kaeren Fish