“And Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt for 17 years”. It is noteworthy that our Rabbis interpret this text to mean that he lived his best years in Egypt. In fact, the numerical value “gematria” of 17 is the word “Tov” – “good” in Hebrew. Why were the best years of his life outside of the Holy Land? In Egypt, his journey would prove to be the beginning of a 210 year extremely bitter and difficult exile, referred to in the Torah as the source and the worst of all exiles. It is our redemption from this horrible, catastrophic experience that is celebrated on the holiday of Passover.
From one very important perspective, it is precisely that environment that in fact caused Yaakov to experience his best years. By Divine inspiration, he knew that his children would live in a series of exiles where they would be impacted by insidious, dangerous and horrific conditions. Almighty G-d concealed from him the advent of redemption resulting in his knowing that his children would be in exile for a long time, without the information of when they would be eternally redeemed by Moshiach.
Recognizing that reality, his greatest fear was the force of social anthropological history that does not give a small minority, with unique lifestyles and cultures, a chance to exist for more than a few generations. They generally are completely eradicated or assimilated into the majority environment. Going into Egypt with his entire family, he did not know how they would manage to live in a secular world among the most sophisticated and advanced society of that epoch, and yet maintain their foundational connections to their holy origin and source. He was uncertain whether they could succeed as a people apart, individual and unique, yet endowed with a particular Divinely ordained historical mission that required a systemic and necessary participation in the secular world.
After 17 years, he saw his children grow and flourish under the most advanced and seductive alien circumstances which the Egyptian culture represented at that time. They lived in Goshen, the hierarchical epicenter of the capital city, and his son was Prime Minister of the land. Still they sustained their Jewishness on the highest standards. This made him feel comfortable, knowing that the way of life that was passed on from Abraham to Isaac to himself and to his children was a successful and adequate system to ensure that very special, beyond-natural ability to retain minority status while remaining faithful to their mission and effective in their influence on those around them.
Sending Judah to establish a Jewish Educational system prior to their settling there succeeded. This was a most important factor that was now validated. The Jewish people were to become part of the general society where they would continue to be (except for less than a third of their history), until today. Today we experience this dilemma as the latest Pew Organization statistical study reports very disappointing information regarding the high rates of intermarriage among our young Jewish Millennials and X generation, which are the majority of the Jewish population and are rapidly disconnecting and disappearing from Jewish identity. This result, according to the study, is reflected in their lack of Jewish education, lack of Jewish identity, lack of Jewish practice, birthrate even below the national standards, and with many considering themselves people of no religion or atheistic. Yet it is even in such circumstances where former barriers created by anti-Semitism are eliminated opening the portals to secular society, and after a Holocaust that murdered more than one-third of our Jewish people in an unprecedented genocide, that we continue to be influential, sustain our Jewishness, maintain our impact among the nations and, against all odds and statistical forecast, are coming back to our spiritual and holy roots with a powerful tidal force.
It is those extraordinary ingredients that Jacob initiated, of the study of Torah, performing of its commands, and living as Jews must live, without changing our Jewish names, our Jewish dress-codes and our Holy language, that ensures our ability to continue eternally. That is what made our Father Jacob / Israel happy. He now was encouraged, knowing that he would live forever. “Just as our children live so do we live.”
Let us make sure that we do whatever we can not to allow a single one of our sacred family members to fall over the cliff and disappear from our family. Particularly at this holiday season when secularity is so obvious and forceful, we need to reinforce our own beautiful culture and heritage and make it alive so that our children and those around us feel the benefits of being a member of the House of Israel.
It is with this knowledge that we are able to enter into next week’s reading beginning the story of the exile in Egypt and our eventual Exodus.
Have a great Shabbos and a good week,
Rabbi Sholom D. Lipskar