The Need to Sojourn

Vayehi By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Dec 21, 2002 / 5763 | Torah Commentary

The book of Genesis ends as it starts, with its lead characters in a state of exile. The existential human condition is to be out of place, far from home. Jacob’s clan no longer resides in the land promised to his father and grandfather. Yet the narrator makes it unmistakably clear that their final destination was not Egypt, but Canaan, the land that would eventually bear Jacob’s other name, Israel, the one who “strove with beings divine and human and prevailed” (Genesis 32:29).

Prior to relocating to Egypt, to be reunited with his long lost son Joseph, Jacob is reassured by God that “I Myself will go down with you to Egypt and I Myself will also bring you back” (Genesis 46:4). As the end of his life approaches, Jacob beseeches Joseph to inter him in the family burial place in Hebron (47:29-30), and in a subsequent conversation makes pointed reference to Canaan as his nation’s “everlasting possession” (48:4). Joseph, indeed, accorded his father a protracted state funeral on the way to burying him in “the field of Machpelah” (50:13). As for Joseph, he did not ask the same of his brothers, only that when God restores them to Canaan, they should take his embalmed bones with them for burial.

In short, the Torah goes out of its way at this juncture to reaffirm Canaan as the sacred destiny of Jacob’s progeny. Despite the detour into Egypt, the storyline never loses sight of its end. As Joseph avers to his brothers, they are in Egypt by design, not accident. What appears to happen at random up close, from a distance gains purpose and meaning. God employed Joseph to rescue his family, if not Egypt itself, from a terrible famine. Henceforth, the fate of both will be intertwined, though Israel’s sojourn is never destined to become permanent.

The question I wish to ask is what was the need for the sojourn in the first place? If the narrative leaves nothing to chance, what did it intend to accomplish by subjecting the nation to emerge from Abraham’s loins to centuries of suffering? God guides Abraham to Canaan only to tell him when he gets there that the land is not yet his, that his descendants will have to endure affliction and bondage in a land not their own for some four hundred years (Genesis 15:13). The wrinkle suggests a change of heart. The story is so familiar to us that we have stopped feeling the inelegance of the plot. Or perhaps, God’s will is not to be questioned.

I confess that the traditional commentaries are not much concerned with my question. The first answer I can find is the one given by the Torah itself. The land is not empty and its inhabitants are not yet wholly unworthy of it: “For the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Genesis 15:16). The explanation implies an inchoate concept of a just war. Depravity constitutes a valid reason for dispossessing a people of its ancestral home. In this case, cultic practices and moral standards of the Amorites are well on their way to rendering the land completely contaminated. When that point is reached, but not before, conquest is permissible. Though the Torah displays a heartening sensitivity for the other here, the fate of the Amorites seems irreversible. The purpose of the detour in Egypt is to wait out the inevitable.

But this rationale fails to account for the brutality of the bondage. The sojourn could also have been painless. One midrash conveys the need for acts of redemption.

“Why were the Ten Commandments not stated at the beginning of the Torah? The answer came by way of analogy. A man came to a country and said: ‘I am ready to rule over you.’ Its citizens said: ‘What have you done for us that you should rule over us?’ What did he do? He built for them a wall, brought in water and waged wars for them. Again he said, ‘I am ready to rule over you.’ This time they responded, ‘Absolutely.’ In the same manner, God took Israel out of Egypt, split the sea for them, brought down manna, raised up a wall, provided them with quail and defeated Amalek. Only then did God say, ‘I am ready to rule over you,’ to which they responded, ‘Absolutely'” (Mekhilta d’R. Yishmael, Howoritz/Rabin ed., p. 219).

According to this Midrash, the context for covenant is redemption. Divine intervention in a situation of utter hopelessness created the sense of indebtedness which induced Israel to accept the Torah. God’s compassion and power had readied Israel to obligate itself to the dictates of God’s wisdom. The midrashic intent is to explain the preamble of the Ten Commandments: “I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2), which is the justification for the laws that follow. The claim on Israel’s allegiance is historically grounded; without the Exodus there would have been no Sinai.

The third reason makes still better sense of the flow of the biblical narrative. Egyptian bondage is a necessary prelude to fulfilling the mission of God’s chosen people. If the progeny of Abraham are to be a source of blessing for the nations of the world (Genesis 12:3), if they are to be a model of what is just and right (Genesis 18:19), then they must have exposure to what is wrong with the world. To endure the insecurity of homelessness and the abasement of slavery is the requisite soil for creating a body politic imbued with principles of equality and justice. The Torah’s oft-repeated compassion for the stranger seems to well up from the nightmare of dire oppression.

The Egyptian experience also helps to account for the centrality of the land. The Torah aspired to be more than a corpus of disembodied and untested legal principles and practices. Sacred space served not only as a homeland, but also as a laboratory for turning abstractions into reality When Moses tarried in the midst of the Exodus to take with him the bones of Joseph (Exodus 13:19), he did more than fulfill the words of the man responsible for bringing Jacob’s family into Egypt. He took with him the bitter lessons learned in degradation to give birth to a nobler experiment in the freedom of the promised land.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Va-y’hi are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.