As we read Genesis, we find it refreshing to encounter the so-called heroes and heroines of the narrative struggling with their own characteristically human feelings, failings, and frailties. In this regard the character of Jacob is especially rich. We watch him evolve from the conniving youth who would deprive his brother Esau of birthright and blessing into a husband and father who is equally rewarded and wearied by his grown-up roles and responsibilities. Much of his adult life Jacob spends in a prolonged bereavement for his long-gone son Joseph. He thinks him dead, while we, the readers, know that he has risen to power and prominence in Egypt.
In his old age, we learn in Parashat Vayigash , Jacob (now also called Israel) discovers that Joseph in fact lives, and so he sets forth for a long-overdue family reunion in Egypt. As he prepares for the journey, "God addressed Israel in a night vision, saying, 'Jacob, Jacob!' And he said, 'Here I am!' [God] said, 'I am God, the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you a great people there. I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will most surely bring you back up as well; and Joseph will lay his hand upon your eyes'" (Genesis 46:2-4).
The Rabbis who comment on this passage ask: Why should Jacob fear the journey? Why would God need preemptively to offer a message of comfort? If anything, Jacob should have felt overjoyed and relieved! He has just learned that his favorite son, absent from Jacob for twenty-two years, not only lives, but presides over the greatest empire in the world! Jacob is leaving a land beset by famine. To stay in Canaan would surely have been a death sentence. In Egypt, Joseph has prepared ample rations to keep the people alive. Why should Jacob fear?
Some suggest that God anticipates Jacob's fears not for his own security and well-being, but for the future nation of Israel. The commentary Ha'amek Davar (of Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, Volozhin, Belarus, 1817-1893) notes, "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" (Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit (Genesis) [Jerusalem: Haomanim Press, n.d.], p. 507). Jacob fears that his descendants will assimilate if born into a culture and land far from their ancestral home.
This interpretation is bolstered by the very language with which God addresses him: "I will make you a great people there" (Genesis 46:3). God speaks of the Jewish people, not of Jacob the man. It is as if God has anticipated Jacob's anxieties. Jacob is concerned not so much for his own welfare as for the welfare of his offspring. Furthermore, when we consider that the character named "Israel" represents not only the man, but his namesake nation , this interpretation becomes even more compelling.
Here we can internalize a message. Namely, the model Jew is the person who worries not only about his or her own destiny, but also about the future of the entire Jewish people. Judaism encourages us at every turn to look beyond ourselves to the concerns of the community and to our brothers and sisters in far-flung lands. Is it any wonder that so many of us evaluate economic, political, and cultural developments through the lens of the old saying, "Yes . . . but is it good for the Jews?" We are accustomed to thinking of our needs not in isolation but in community-elevating Judaism above the confines of a "religion" to the more broadly inclusive term, "people" or even "civilization." In the passage we consider today, God seems responsive to Jacob's self-abnegating concern for the future Jewish people. Indeed, we might conclude that God's eagerness to provide comfort and assurance flows directly from the selfless concern God detects in Jacob's unnamed anxieties.
The specific components of those fears and hopes speak to us at this season. This year,Parashat Vayigash is read between Chanukah and Christmas. During this time we often have no choice but to confront the challenge of expressing our Judaism within the predominantly Christian American religious landscape. The Chanukah story speaks to the threat of assimilation under Hellenistic (read Greek-pagan) rule. Interfaith families feel acutely the challenges of balancing observances so that Jewish identity can be preserved while showing respect to non-Jewish family members.
In addition, these words of Torah reach us as we begin to enter 2008, when Israel's sixtieth year of statehood will be celebrated. "Only in the land of Israel could the unique Jewish spark be preserved down the ages" (ibid.). Despite our affections and attachments to our thriving Jewish homes and communities in the Diaspora, 2008 is a year to consider this wisdom from Ha'amek Davar. Jacob worried that leaving Israel would mean sacrificing the future of the Jewish people. In our own day, Israel has become home to the largest Jewish population in the world. How will we honor the Jewish state in her celebratory year? Many congregations will offer trips. Ask your rabbis, congregational leaders, or local Federation officials what your synagogue or your local community could do to make travel to Israel a reality. NFTY and other organizations offer multiple options for teens and adults to visit Israel-and enrollment remains wide open for next summer.
Every person I know who has traveled to Israel has returned with a dramatically enhanced understanding of Israel's importance in the Jewish world and with strengthened bonds of loyalty and affection. When it comes to developing a connection to the Holy Land, nothing substitutes for travel. May we become a little like Israel himself, who kept Israel at the forefront of his thoughts even as he journeyed into the depths of the Diaspora.
Rabbi Jonathan E. Blake is senior rabbi of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York. A graduate of Amherst College (1995), he was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2000 and was a regular contributor to 10 Minutes of Torah in 2005-2006.