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Parshat Vayachi

​Exile and Growth

As a fitting start for a parsha that centers around Yaakov’s departure from this world, this week’s parsha begins with a summary of Yaakov’s life:

“Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years; and the days of Yaakov, the years of his life were seven years and forty and one hundred years.” (Bereishit 47, 28)

Behind these seemingly technical, dry details hides a curious fact. As we know Yaakov went down to Egypt after two years of famine. At the time Yosef informed him that there would be an additional five years of famine in the land. There should have been no reason to stay beyond those years.

For these two years there have been famine in the land, and for another five years there will be neither plowing nor harvesting… Hasten and go up to my father and tell him, “So says your son Yosef: God has made me a master for all of Egypt, come down to me, do not stay. And you will settle in the land of Goshen… and I will provide for you there for there will be five more years of famine, lest you and your household and all that is yours be made destitute.’” (Bereishit 45, 6-11)

This is the reason Yaakov descended to Egypt. And yet, even though the famine ended more than a decade earlier, Yaakov remained in Egypt.

In his commentary on the parsha Rav Tzadok HaCohen of Lublin brings up another question concerning this verse. While his question relates to style as opposed to the content, it leads us to the same conclusion: Yaakov’s life in Egypt turned out to be comfortable and he was not in a hurry to leave.

 “Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years; and the days of Yaakov, the years of his life were seven years and forty and one hundred years.” In the Torah we find that the details of Yaakov’s life are not written explicitly, but rather alluded to, as they said, (T.B. Megillah 17a) “Why were the years of Yishmael enumerated? So that we can use them to calculate Yaakov’s years.” We learn that he was blessed at age 63, and he was [studying] in the House of Ever for 14 years. And they were not written explicitly or detailed here, as it says when he came to Egypt he said to Pharaoh, “The days of the years of my life are thirty and one hundred years,” and since he lived 147 years we know that he was in Egypt for 17 years. So why does it enumerate his years [in Egypt] in detail, and then [how long he lived] in general. (Pri Tzedek, Vayechi)

According to Rav Tzadok the amount of detail the Torah provides to describe this relatively short and final chapter of Yaakov’s life is uncharacteristic. It’s not easy to piece together the details of his past; we have to search for indirect evidence that points to his age during certain events. Yet here, when we could easily calculate the years Yaakov lived in Egypt based on how old he was when he descended and his age when he passed away, the Torah explicitly and uncharacteristically tells us that it was a period of 17 years.

According to Rav Tzadok the superfluous detail here indicates that these years were qualitatively different. The Zohar points out that the parsha begins with the word vayechi, “he lived,” as opposed to vayeshev, “he dwelled,” in order to teach us that Yaakov came to life in this period. Rav Tzadok elaborates on the Zohar’s explanation and says: “For the 17 years he was in Egypt also gave life to the years that had passed… For he had not been whole in his holiness and only in Egypt did he merit to be whole his holiness.” (ibid)

Yitzchak was an “olah temimah,” he was offered to God completely as a sacrifice, and so he had to stay in God’s land. Yaakov, in contrast, finds himself in the darkness of exile and the depths of the impurity of Egypt. The possibility that one can grow and develop in the harshest of conditions is a strange one. Yet Rav Tzadok emphasizes that it was through the long years “specifically in exile that they were able to reach all aspects of holiness…”

In fact, it was specifically outside of the Land of Israel that a significant portion of the Oral Torah developed, branching out into a great, strong mass of interpretations and commentaries. Prophecy is granted by God and it is only possible in the Land of Israel. Torah, on the other hand, was given to man to nurture and grow, and it seems to thrive in exile.

This curious development can be explained in a number of different ways.

On one level we could compare exile to a painting by Rembrandt. Much like the darkness that surrounds the subjects in his paintings allows the many shades of light to shine more brightly, so too the darkness of exile is an excellent backdrop to highlight the intellectual depth and scope of the Torah in all its glorious detail. “As light excels darkness,” light also excels in darkness. In a place flooded with light it is impossible to distinguish between all the different shades; they are best discerned in darkness. [1]

Of course this is not the only way to understand exile. Another way to understand the singular growth and vitality experienced in exile is to learn from the general human experience of existence and vitality and its significance. While some experience existence and vitality as a product of their happiness and affluence, there are others that experience existence and vitality in contrast to the tremendous expanse of emptiness it fills. When the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas tries to describe the experience of “there is” he says:

 “My reflection on this subject starts with childhood memories. One sleeps alone, the adults continue life; the child feels the silence of his bedroom as “rumbling.” It is something resembling what one hears when one puts an empty shell close to the ear, as if the emptiness were full, as if the silence were a noise. It is something one can also feel when one thinks that even if there were nothing, the fact that “there is” is undeniable. Not that there is this or that; but the very scene of being is open: there is. In the absolute emptiness that one can imagine before creation - there is.” (Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, p. 48)

Levinas compares a feeling of emptiness and quiet that is so strong it can be felt and heard to the presence of God before creation. Absolute “Being.”

While this may be a good way to explain existence in exile, there is another way to look at it.

Instead of viewing exile as a thundering, pounding emptiness that gives birth to life itself, or as fertile ground to grow closer to God, we could see it as a change of address, as a resettling. Man at his core is nomadic; he can live in a number of places. The place a person chooses to live is not just an interchangeable base upon which one builds a life; it is the soil on which he lays his roots. A person’s home is the foundation that shapes their life.

When we settle in a new place and put down roots we are forced to look inside ourselves, to dig deep. We shift our focus, turning it inwards, towards our core and our essence. This enables us to discover our individual potential and nurture our strengths. In this sense Yaakov’s settlement in Egypt stands in sharp contrast to his constant wandering- “few and bad were the days of the years of my life.” (Bereishit 47, 9) Now he is finally able to comfortably settle down and establish roots. Of course in order to take advantage of this process one must evaluate their strengths and align them with those of their location. 

And so Rav Tzadok concludes this idea by saying: “I heard from the holy Rebbe of Peshischa, zt”l, that even though the strength of the souls diminish every generation, still the essence in the heart is purified more and more in every generation.” Even though exile inexorably involves a spiritual deterioration, it also allows for personal growth; it is fertile ground well suited for individual and diverse growth.

Yet for all the benefits of exile we have explored, at the end of the parsha Yaakov still wants to reveal “the end” to his sons. He wants them to see beyond the fertile ground where they now stand and where he has thrived.

I think that my father, my master, z”l, said [an idea] in the name of the Rebbe from Peshischa, z”l. He questioned why Yaakov wanted to reveal “the end.” And he answered that when the end is revealed then the exile is easy. This is what I remember.

And I think that the revelation of the end means to know that there is an end to the exile. And this [knowledge] is that it [exile] is just [God] hiding, and is not a force in itself. Because an essence that is truth has no end, but concealment [of truth] has an end. And he wanted this to be revealed, so there would be no exile at all. And so it remained closed. (Sfat Emet, Bereishit Parshat Vayechi, 73

There are two parts to this explanation of the Gerrer Rebbe, the Sfat Emet. In the first section he brings his father’s words in the name of the Peshischa Rebbe. In the second he offers his own possible explanation. In his father’s name he explains that knowing the date of the end makes the exile tolerable. From here it seems that exile can be compared to darkness and emptiness. But when the Sfat Emet elaborates on his father’s idea he makes it seem as though exile is merely a cloak that conceals and hides. Like sunglasses that filter out the rays of light and protect from the damage it can inflict. Like a protected, safe space that enables growth. But while it may make it easier to grow, it must not be confused with the cause of that growth. Exile is never the real source; it is not a power unto itself. 

And he wanted this to be revealed, so there would be no exile at all.” This final thought reveals yet another important aspect of exile. When the cloak of exile that allows the individual to develop their own voice is lifted, it leaves man standing before a much more complicated reality, filled with a cacophony of voices, each of which contain an element of truth. The full spectrum of voices contains every extreme and every variety that will be revealed in the end. This revelation highlights the absurdity of the individual but also helps him to find his place in the whole so that, ultimately, the voices can unite into one whole.


Translated from the Hebrew by Debbie Zimmerman

 [1] This may be what made it possible for Yaakov to give so many blessings to his sons.

Sat, March 24 2018 8 Nisan 5778