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Torah Sparks

January 3, 2009 – 7 Tevet 5769

Annual: Genesis 44:18-47:27 (Etz Hayim, p. 274; Hertz p. 169)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 45:28-46:27 (Etz Hayim, p. 279; Hertz p. 172)
Haftarah: Ezekiel 37:15–28 (Etz Hayim, p. 291; Hertz p. 178)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

Judah, the brother who had originally come up with the idea of selling Joseph, steps up and offers himself as a substitute slave so Benjamin can return home and their father’s heart will not be broken. Joseph realizes that his brothers have changed and he reveals his identity. He tells them that he realizes that what they had done to him was, in fact, part of God’s plan to save lives.

Joseph sends his brothers home to bring Jacob and the entire family to Egypt so that they will not suffer during the remaining years of famine. Jacob at first does not believe what his sons tell him, but finally he accepts the news that Joseph is alive. Then he is eager to go to Egypt to see his son. As the family sets out on its journey, God appears to Jacob and tells him not to fear because God will be with him. The seventy members of Jacob’s family in Egypt are listed.

Joseph goes to meet his father and tells him of his plan that the family settle in the region of Goshen. Joseph brings his father and some of his brothers to meet Pharaoh, who gives his approval to the plan. As the famine continues, Joseph acquires the Egyptians’ livestock and land for Pharaoh in exchange for food, and he transforms the population into serfs. During this time, the Israelites in Goshen prosper.

1. Fear Itself

And He said, “I am God, the God of your father. Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there a great nation.” (Bereisheit 46:3)

  1. What need was there for the Almighty to say to Jacob, “Fear not to go down to Egypt”? Jacob had shown no fear about this step and before the Divine revelation explicitly stated, “I must go and see him before I die,” and he had indeed already “set out with all that was his.” (Don Isaac Abravanel, 1437-1508, Spain and Italy)
  2. Since he was troubled because he was obliged to go out of the Land of Israel. (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  3. Our father Jacob said, my father Isaac sought to go down to Egypt and the Holy One said to him, “Do not go down to Egypt” (26:2). And I, how can I go down? Therefore “he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac,” since He had forbidden Isaac to go down to Egypt but He commanded Jacob to go down. The proof of the matter is that the Holy One said to him, “Fear not to go down to Egypt,” for although I forbade your father to go down, you are to go down. (Midrash Lekach Tov)
  4. The expression “fear not” is directed only to someone who is afraid. Jacob was afraid and said: Now that I am about to go down to Egypt the days are at hand foretold to my forefathers regarding the decree of bondage and affliction of my seed in a land not their own. Thereupon the Holy One set his mind at rest, saying: “Fear not to go down to Egypt.” Notwithstanding that I warned your father I have come to promise you that though the days of bondage and affliction are at hand, so too is the blessing wherewith I blessed your grandfather, “for I will make you there into a great nation.” (Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah, mid-13th century, France)
  5. Jacob was afraid that his seed would be absorbed by the Egyptian nation. Only in the land of Israel could the unique Jewish spark be preserved down the ages. It was on this score that the Almighty reassured him: “Fear not... for I will make you there a great nation.” Our sages interpreted the phrase “great nation” to imply that the Jews would preserve their national identity and not be absorbed into Egypt. (Ha’amek Davar [Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, 1817-1893, Lithuania])
  6. If you remain here your children will intermarry and become absorbed by the Canaanites, but in Egypt they will not be able to do so, “for the Egyptians could not dine with the Hebrews” (43:32); therefore they will be a separate, distinct people. (Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, 1475-1550, Italy)

Sparks for Discussion

Why did Jacob need reassurance? Was he worried about his family’s physical wellbeing or their spiritual survival? Both Ha’amek Davar and Sforno focus on the danger of assimilation. Sforno points to rejection by the larger society as a positive factor in keeping Jews Jewish. Do you agree? How do we combat assimilation when the larger society is no longer hostile? Or must we have a level of anti-Jewish sentiment to be successful in keeping Jews aware of their Jewishness?

2. We Are One - Or Are We?

And Joseph’s sons who were born to him in Egypt were two in number – thus the total of Jacob’s household who came to Egypt was seventy persons (souls). (Bereisheit 46:27)

  1. I found in Leviticus Rabbah: Esau had six souls (members of his family), and Scripture calls them “the souls of his house,” in the plural, for they worshiped many gods. And Jacob had seventy, yet Scripture calls them “soul” (in the singular) for they worshiped one God. (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  2. Here, the Hebrew word for “souls” is written in the singular form, nefesh. With Esau, though, where there were six people, the Torah refers to them as “six souls,” using the plural nefashot. (Rashi) Why this difference? The answer is that there are many times when Jews are required to form a quorum of some type – ten for a prayer quorum, three for a quorum for grace after meals, etc. Jews are also held responsible for one another’s actions, for “all of Israel are surety for one another.” The Torah thus wrote the word nefesh – for all of Israel are a single soul, as it were. But this is not true for Esau, where no one is responsible for another or is to blame if another sins. Each person is separate from every other. Therefore, there the Torah wrote nefashot. (Divrei Shmuel [Rabbi Shmuel Weinberg of Slonim, 1849-1915, Lithuania])
  3. Outside Jewish circles, each son often strikes out in his own way. But when the Jewish spirit is kept in truth and faithfulness, there, there may be seventy souls and in all of them just one spirit and the one same feeling reigns. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, 1808-1888, Germany)
  4. As long as Israel are joined together in one cluster on the earth below, the kingdom of Heaven – if one dare speak this way – is in its place. (Midrash Shmuel 5)

Sparks for Discussion

Does Jewish unity have any meaning beyond its use as a theme in federation campaigns? Do you believe “we are one” today? Was there greater unity in the past? Do the various denominations in Judaism affect our feeling of unity? What do you see as the greatest threats to the unity of the Jewish people? What holds us together?

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