week's parasha shiur is dedicated
in memory of Emanuel
and Samuel Gluck z"l.
Rav Ezra Bick
week, I pointed out that there is an exact point in parashat Vayigash where
Yaakov is finally transformed, almost "reborn," as it were. That point is found at the end of verse
45,27 Vatechi ruach Yaakov Avihem" the spirit of Yaakov their father
was revived. This is clearly and
dramatically indicated not merely by the plain meaning of the verse, but by the
startling juxtaposition of the names of the chief actor in this verse with the
the spirit of Yaakov their father was
It is much; my son Yosef is alive I shall go and see him before I
significance of the sudden change in Yaakov's name is irresistible, and nearly
all commentators who remarked on it interpret it to mean that Yaakov's
personality was transformed, with the name Yaakov referring to a lower,
diminished level, and the name Yisrael signifying the higher, inspired
manifestation of Yaakov, nor merely the individual with his personal problems,
but the av, the protagonist of Jewish history, the divinely
inspired manifestation of Jewish destiny itself.
light of this, it is noteworthy that the Torah does not continue to refer to
Yaakov as Yisrael, and in fact there is a rather sudden reversion to the name
Yaakov. This is found in the very
with all that was his, and he came to Beer Sheva, and he sacrificed sacrifices
to the father of his father Yitzchak.
God said to Yisrael in a vision of night, and He said: Yaakov
Yaakov, and he said: I am here.
said: Do not fear to descend to Egypt, for I will make you a great nation
Yaakov rose from Beer Sheva, and the children of Yisrael bore
Yaakov their father and their infants and wives on the wagons which Par'o
had sent to bear him.
begins the journey and reaches Beer Sheva; from there Yaakov continues
the rest of the way to Egypt.
What has taken place in Beer Sheva? God appears to Yisrael, and
speaks to him, calling him Yaakov.
It seems almost as though God has taken Yaakov down a peg, changing his
name back to the old one, the one he bore the entire time that Yosef had been
missing. What is taking place
Ramban (v.2) explains that God calls Yaakov by the name Yaakov to tell him that
this descent to Egypt is the beginning of the exile. The name Yisrael means "for you have
struggled with God and man and have prevailed," and in Egypt he
will "be in the house of bondage until God will raise him, for now the exile
begins for him." The obvious problem with this explanation is that the slavery
does not begin immediately, but the Ramban has, I think, warded off this
critique by stating that the "exile begins for him." For Yaakov, or
rather for Yisrael, to have to go to Egypt after settling in Eretz Yisrael, and
after having built his house there ("vayeishev Yaakov b'eretz megurei
aviv" ) is exile, in a sense that it is not for his children (who, as the
Ramban points out, are called "bnei yisrael" in the very same verse where
Yaakov is called Yaakov).
Netziv has a similar interpretation.
He disagrees with the Ramban concerning the appropriateness of the name
Yisrael in exile on the contrary, the Netziv argues that this name is
especially relevant to exile, as there will be need there to struggle with God
and man in order to survive. He
ascribes the name change more to the personal life of Yaakov, arguing that the
name Yisrael refers to miraculous supernatural existence, whereas the name
Yaakov refers to existing within the natural order. God is telling Yaakov that the descent
to Egypt involves being subject to the natural order, and hence, he reverts to
think that the pshat of the name change is along the lines of the Netziv,
but I would like to suggest that it should be understood in relation to the
inner spirit of Yaakov, along the lines we described last week. The difference between Yaakov and
Yisrael that was exemplified when he responded to Yehuda's demand that he send
Binyamin to Egypt with the brothers was that Yisrael took responsibility and
initiative. Before that scene in
Miketz, Yaakov was passive, not in command of his destiny. Yehuda succeeded in rousing Yaakov from
his lethargy, and that was immediately indicated by the use, albeit only for a
short time, of the name Yisrael.
The emphasis is, I suggest, on the meaning of Yisrael as "you have
struggled with God and man," and less on the "prevailed;"or, if you will,
"prevailed" (vatuchal) should be understood more as "you have succeeded
to struggle" rather than "you have overcome." (After all, Yaakov did not
overcome the man with whom he wrestled, but only managed to keep wrestling all
news of Yosef restores Yaakov's spirit and he rises to the status of Yisrael,
one who will contend with his destiny, with man and with God. He sets out for Egypt thinking that
there is indeed a need to contend with what is waiting for him there, and he is
planning to assume once again the leadership of the emerging am
yisrael. The fact that Egypt is
exile does not imply that there is no need for struggle and leadership. But God informs him that that is not
what will be. The experience of
Egypt is indeed one of passivity, of suffering, and not one of reaction. This is not true only of the period of
servitude, but becomes true immediately when they arrive. The house of Yaakov is a ward of the
state, provided for by Yosef from the king's stores, totally dependent on royal
favor, and hence it is not a total surprise that eventually they fall into
not fear to descend to Egypt, for I shall make you there a great
will go down with you to Egypt, and I will surely raise you, and Yosef shall
place his hand on your eyes.
last phrase is very unclear (see Ibn Ezra, Ramban, and others), but it surely
indicates the dependence of Yaakov on Yosef. I think it means that Yaakov, the father
and leader, will be a dependent of Yosef, which guarantees security, but also
implies a forfeiture of independence, initiative, and the proud autonomy of
struggle associated with the name of Yisrael.
is indicated by the striking difference in Yaakov's journey to Beer Sheva and
the continuation from there to Egypt.
Originally "Yisrael travelled to Beer Sheva." After God's
appearance, Yaakov is carried by his children, together with the children
and women, in a cart (verse 5).
Suddenly, he appears to us as an old and infirm invalid. What is more, the verse emphasizes that
the wagon was sent by Par'o to carry Yaakov. Yaakov is not travelling to Egypt, he is
being carried there, and is already being carried, being born, by Par'o's
command. For the rest of the
parasha, Yaakov is passive, moved around by others. If when receiving the news of Yosef, the
Torah says that his "spirit was revived;" when Yaakov finally meets Yosef, he
I can die, after I have seen your face, that you are yet alive
most extreme example of Yaakov's acceptance of his passive role is in his
meeting with Par'o. Remember, the
patriarchs had met kings before, including Avraham's encounter with Par'o. They had met them as equals, and had
"struggled with men," exchanging gifts (Malkitzedek), and signing treaties
(Avimelech). Yaakov's meeting with
Par'o is very different.
brought Yaakov his father and presented him before Par'o, and Yaakov
said to Yaakov: How many are the days of your life?
said to Par'o: The days of the dwelling of my life are a hundred and thirty
years. The days of my life were few
and bad, and they did not equal the days of the lives of my fathers in their
blessed Par'o and he departed from before Par'o. (47,7-10)
of all, Yaakov is brought by Yosef to Par'o. Secondly, the conversation is clearly
that of a dependent with his lord, including the patronizing interest shown by
Par'o in Yaakov. And finally,
Yaakov's answer. I do not think
that Yaakov is depressed here.
Rather the answer demonstrates that Par'o was not politely asking his
age, but rather had been struck by how old Yaakov appeared to be. Yaakov's answer, as the Netziv makes
clear, is an attempt to explain to Par'o that he in fact is not as old as he
appears to be, but that he had suffered in his life which had given him the
appearance of an extremely aged man.
did Yaakov know that his life would be shorter than that of his fathers? After
all, he still can live many years.
I think Yaakov's answer indicates that he did not expect to life much
longer, or, more accurately, that the vital part of his life is already
over. This I think is the meaning
of the curious phrase "the days of the life of my fathers in their dwelling." It
means not the total number of years, but the number of years of active vital
living, what we might call, the years of his career. (see Netziv for a somewhat different
explanation). While the exact years
of Yaakov's life are not spelled out in the Torah, we know that he arrived in
Eretz Yisrael shortly after the birth of Yosef, who was thirty when he became
viceroy of Egypt. Hence, Yaakov's
total career in Eretz Yisrael was only about thirty-nine years (of which
twenty-two were spent after Yosef disappeared). Yaakov is convinced that his "career" is
over, which is why he has become Yaakov again even though he has the spirit to
fact, it is not only Yaakov who "retires" from his leadership role in parashat
Vayigash. One of the important
themes of the previous two parshiot was the coming of Yehuda into leadership
his developing the necessary leadership qualities and his subsequent assumption
of the leadership role. Yet,
immediately after his success in the opening scene of the parasha, whereby he
brings Yosef to acknowledge his true character and relationship (parallel to
what he has accomplished in the previous parasha in regard to Yaakov), he
disappears as a leader. Whereas
when the brothers return for the final confrontation with Par'o, they are
described as "Yehuda and his brothers" (44,14) what could be a clearer
indication of his leadership! when they leave Yosef to go get their father,
they are merely described as "bnei Yisrael (45,21)." The parasha
continues to refer to the brothers as a nameless group. Although Yehuda is sent by his father
ahead of the others to learn the route, (46,28), he does not actually lead them
to the land of Goshen. Yehuda's
leadership will not actually have any role before the Jews arrive in Eretz
Yisrael some two hundred and fifty years later.
actual leader of the family in Egypt is Yosef, who provides them with safety and
food. But it is a mistake to view
Yosef as the leader of the house of Yaakov. Yosef does not act as the head of the
house of Yaakov, but as an Egyptian.
He is able to take care of his brothers precisely because he is not one
of them, nor their leader, but because he is viceroy of Egypt. He is their protector, not their
leader. This is clearly indicated
by the juxtaposition of the description of Yosef's role in providing for his
nourished his father and his brothers and all of his father's house with bread
according to their dependents (47,12)
the long and detailed account of how Yosef nourished the entire Egyptian
population (47,13-26). The family
is actually leaderless, for they are dependents on the house of Par'o and on his
viceroy, who happens to be their brother.
This is only one step above slavery. The point is not the oppression, but the
passivity. Events will affect them,
but they have no opportunity to affect events. Their fate is not in their hands and
they make no attempt to change that.
his fathers before him, Yaakov's career as an av, as one who is building
am yisrael, ends many years before he dies. Avraham's career effectively ended when
he arranged for Yitzchak's marriage, some thirty-five years before he dies. The Torah tells us nothing of those
years, other than that he had other children. Yitzchak's career effectively ended when
he arranged for Yaakov's marriage and sent him to Aram. According to the account advanced by
Rashi at the end of Toledot, that was seventy-seven years before he dies. In fact, the Torah gives the impression
that Yitzchak dies shortly after Yaakov returned to Eretz Yisrael, years before
the Yosef narratives, although he actually only died ten years before Yaakov
went to Egypt. Yaakov's career ends
when he sees the reunion of his family; in other words when he guarantees the
existence of "the house of Yaakov," which begins to be called in the parasha by
the title "bnei Yisrael."
that mean that the period of "nation-building" is over, since the fathers have
finished their job? Not at all. The
crucial aspect of the creation of Am Yisrael will take place in Egypt and
in the exodus but that is not a process under the control of a father, a
leader, or of the Jews themselves.
On the contrary, the crucial experience which forms the Jewish people is
helplessness, subjugation, and the redemption as well will be one where
they are passive and are saved by the mighty hand and the outstretched arm of
God. Parashat Vayigash sets the
stage by "retiring" Yaakov (as well as Yehuda) and placing the house of Yaakov
in the position they will suffer for the next several hundred years dependency
and passivity, subject to forces beyond their control, ultimately to the force
of the revealed arm of God. Hence
the final verse of the parasha "Israel dwelled in the land of Egypt in the
land of Goshen and they settled in it, and they grew and multiplied very much."
For the first time, we meet an entity called Yisrael (which is clearly not
Yaakov in this verse).
Historically, we have passed from individual history to national history,
to that of the group.
is still a delayed role for Yaakov to play, seventeen years after he descends to
Egypt, and that is the giving of the blessings. These are not about the sojourn in Egypt
and do not effect it; they are about the distant future. But it is Yaakov's final role as an
av, as the greatest of the avot, and not surprisingly, he will be
consistently called Yisrael in parashat Vayechi.