Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Walk Article-Vayigash



Rabbi David Walk


            The six part Hobbit movie saga reached its climatic conclusion this week.  I loved the books, and really appreciated the lovingly crafted screen versions by Peter Jackson.  These are tales of danger, hope and ultimate redemption.  In fact they seem quite Jewish in their tone and message.  These yarns are really two great adventures about leaving home for a perilous quest, and then returning home to find that the remarkable accomplishment was that the participants were transformed into fulfilled personalities.  Remember Bilbo's memoir of his trek is called There and Back Again.  A continuing thread throughout these chronicles is the character of Gandolf arriving at just the right moment to save our plucky heroes from imminent disaster.  Allow me to make a facile analogy.  Gandolf, the Gray Wizard, l'havdil eleph alphei havdalot, is like God performing the necessary miracle to extricate the Jews from the clutches of the latest incarnation of Amalek, our eternal nemesis.  This reality of a supernatural guardian is hinted at in this week's Torah reading.

            Before Jacob leads his seventy member clan into our first exile, God appears to him for the last time, and informs him, 'I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid of going down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up, and Joseph will place his hand on your eyes (Genesis 46:3-4).'  Although there is a lot of information in that Divine address to Ya'akov, I'm interested in the one phrase that God will go down with them.  This seems to be an answer to whatever internal fears Ya'akov is feeling.  It may be alluding to the idea in this verse:  When he calls out to me, I will answer him. I will be with him when he is in trouble; I will rescue him and bring him honor (Psalms 91:15).  We would like to know that God will appear throughout our wanderings when we are in distress.

            The Ohr Hachayam (Rabbi Chaim Attar, 1690-1750) explains that this could mean that the Shechina or Divine Presence went down to Egypt with them.  But then he says that this interpretation is difficult because during the plague of hail Moshe had to leave the areas designated as Egypt to pray to God, because those lands were filled with idolatry.  He then points out that the Shechina wasn't really with the Jews until they built the Mishkan.  Remember that the root of Mishkan and Shechina is the same word, shachein, which means to dwell and gives us the modern Hebrew words for neighbor and neighborhood.  So, Rav Attar opts for the important idea there are many levels of Divine Presence.  This is evident from the Mishneh:  Ten who sit together and occupy themselves with Torah, the Divine Presence rests amongst them And such is also the case with five. And three. And two.  And such is the case even with a single individual (Pirkei Avot, 3:6).  In other words there is Godliness present with all these levels of participation, but at various concentrations, the more of those learning the stronger the presence of God.  Similarly, Divine presence will increase and remain in Egypt for as long as the Jews are there, but not to a level which could be described as Shechina.

            The Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz,1550 –1619) explains God's announcement as describing the fulfillment of the promise given to Avraham at the Covenant of the Parts that the Jews will be strangers in a strange land long enough to become a nation there and to suffer persecution there.  Ya'akov is informed that he shouldn't be afraid for two reasons.  First that this was part of the plan for Jewish nationhood and that God would accompany them.  The Kli Yakar understands the assurance to include the idea that the Divine Presence will precede them down into Egypt and would also arise with them from there.  So, that neither Ya'akov personally nor the nation as a whole would ever be without Divine supervision.  He then states that this is why the Jews had to move with great speed as they prepare to leave Egypt.  Since the Divine Presence was departing we couldn't remain for even a minute without God's presence.  Even though we knew in advance that we would have to leave quickly it only became relevant when God said that the Shechina was departing.  Then we had to hustle to keep up.

            So, what frightened Ya'akov?  These ideas were presented by the Ohr HaChayim and the Kli Yakar to explain God's promise to maintain a presence with Ya'akov in Egypt which would prevent him from being afraid.  However, Ya'akov had already been taught during the dream of the ladder that God accompanies us in difficult times.  So what was bugging him now?  I think that Ya'akov was convinced that God can be found everywhere, but in what concentration and at what level of protection?  At Ya'akov's death bed, he bows to the head of the bed.  I believe that this act was an expression of gratitude for God's protective presence in Egypt to the extent that the next generation, specifically Ephraim and Menashe, remained Jewish in the spiritually polluted environment of Egypt.  Ya'akov died with the confidence that no Jew would be left behind, and for that he was both reassured before his journey and thankful at the time of his death.

            Sadly, Ya'akov's fears were well founded.  Many times in our long history of wandering and exile there didn't seem to be enough Divine presence to protect our fragile status surrounded by a dominant culture often bent on our demise.  Too many times Jewish communities have been destroyed or lost to our people.  Ya'akov foresaw this potential danger, and was given the assurance that the Egyptian experience wouldn't be that way.

            Our generation needs to read and understand this directive to Ya'akov.  We face the exact peril he foresaw.  We must remember that God is with us wherever we may be, but we must search for that presence diligently.  I pray we have the energy and wisdom to find the Godliness in our midst.