Vayigash: The First Exile
The very first exile of the Jewish people, the exile to Egypt, began as Jacob and his family left the Land of Israel. They intended to spend a short stay in Egypt until the famine passed.
The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni Hosea 528) makes a startling observation:
“Jacob should have gone down to Egypt in chains. Yet God said, ‘Jacob, My first-born, how could I banish him in disgrace? Rather, I will send his son to go down before him.'”
What did Jacob do to deserve being exiled in iron chains?
Two Purposes to Exile
We need to analyze the purpose of exile. The Jewish people have spent more years in exile than in their own land. Why was it necessary to undergo these difficult trials? Could they not be punished by other means?
In fact, the Midrash states that the Jewish people are particularly suited for exile. They are called “the daughter of exiles,” since the Avot (forefathers) were sojourners and refugees, subjected to the whims and jealousies of local tyrants (Midrash Eicha Petichta 1 on Isaiah 10:30).
Exile accomplishes two goals:
The people of Israel were created to serve God. The nation needs a pure love of God, undiluted by materialistic goals. Clearly, people are more prone to become absorbed in worldly matters when affluence and prosperity are readily attainable. In order that the Jewish people should realize their true spiritual potential, God made sure that the nation would lack material success for long periods of time.
Exile serves to spread the belief in one God throughout the world. As the Sages wrote in Pesachim 87b, “The Holy One exiled Israel so that converts will join them.” Similarly, we find that God explained the purpose of exile and redemption in Egypt, “so that Egypt will know that I am God” (Ex. 7:5).
The major difference between these two objectives lies in the conditions of the exile. If the purpose of exile is to avoid significant material success over a long period of time — to prepare the Jewish people for complete dedication to God and His Torah — then such an expulsion by definition must be devoid of prestige and prosperity.
If, on the other hand, the goal is to influence and uplift the nations of the world, then being honored and respected in their land of exile will not contradict the intended purpose. On the contrary, such a state of honor would promote this aim.
Jacob had spiritually perfected himself to the extent that nothing in this world could dampen his burning love for God. His dedication was so great that he could interrupt the emotional reunion with his beloved son Joseph, after an absence of 22 years, and proclaim God’s unity with the Shema prayer (Rashi on Gen. 46:29). Certainly, for Jacob himself, only the second goal of exile was applicable.
Jacob’s descendants, however, would require the degrading aspects of exile in order to purify them and wean them from the negative influences of a materialistic lifestyle. As their father, it was fitting that Jacob be led to Egypt in iron chains. But since Jacob personally would not be adversely affected by worldly homage and wealth, he was permitted to be exiled in honor, led by his son, viceroy of Egypt.
(Gold from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Midbar Shur, pp. 233-241)
Vayigash: The Shepherd-Philosopher
Fourth-century scholar Rabbi Zeira once found his teacher Rabbi Yehudah in an unusually good mood. Realizing that it was a propitious time to ask whatever he wanted, Rabbi Zeira posed the following question:
“Why is it that the goats always stride in front of the herd, to be followed by the sheep?”
Perhaps the last thing we would expect Rabbi Zeira to ask would be a mundane fact of animal husbandry. Rabbi Yehudah, however, was not fazed. Good-humoredly, he explained that this phenomenon reflects the order of creation.
“It is like the creation of the universe: first there was darkness [the goats, who are usually black], and afterwards light [the white sheep]” (Shabbat 77b).
A treasure-trove of wisdom had opened up for Rabbi Zeira — he had the opportunity to inquire into the deepest secrets of the universe! — and instead he quizzed his master about goats and sheep?
In fact, Rabbi Zeira’s query was not so out of line. The great leaders of the Jewish people in ancient times were shepherds. As Joseph’s brothers informed Pharaoh, “Like our fathers before us, we are shepherds” (Gen. 47:5). Moses and David also worked in this profession. There must be a reason that our ancestors chose to herd goats and sheep.
Shepherding is a lifestyle that allows for reflection and inner contemplation. The labor is not intensive. Unlike farming, one does not need to immerse all of one’s energies in physical matters. At the same time, the shepherd remains in constant contact with the real world. His reflections are sound, based on life experiences. He does not delve in artificial philosophies detached from reality. For this reason, our forefathers, the great thinkers of their time, worked as shepherds.
Development of Thought
Rabbi Zeira’s observation about flocks makes a connection between the external focus of the shepherd — his goats and sheep — and his internal focus — his thoughts and ideas.
Ideas first come to us as vague thoughts, obscured by the blurry mist of our imagination. Hidden in the murky fog, however, lies a great treasure. Over time, we refine and clarify our thoughts, and from the shrouded darkness comes forth light and wisdom.
The pattern of traveling animals corresponds to the development of thought in the shepherd’s mind. The image of dark goats breaking out in front of the white sheep is an apt metaphor for the inspired but hazy notions that surge forth in our thoughts. These streaks of insight are followed by a flock of clarified ideas that have been examined by our faculties of reason. In this way we develop the reasoned concepts that form the basis for our intellectual and spiritual life.
The Need for Opacity
As Rabbi Yehudah pointed out, this order is inherent to the nature of the world. The light in the universe was created out of the darkness. This phenomenon is also true on a personal level. We cannot completely dismiss the illusory aspects of our minds, for they inspire us to originality of thought. Our imagination dominates our thought processes; it is only through its fuzzy insights that we can arrive at the path of enlightened wisdom.
(Gold from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. IV, pp. 144-145)