Weekly Torah Portion: The Descent into Egypt
This week’s portion begins in the middle of the story of the final confrontation between Joseph and his brothers, before Joseph reveals himself to them. At the end of last week’s portion, we heard Joseph’s cruel accusations and Judah’s failed attempts to appease him. But in this week’s portion, we see Judah rise to the occasion as he begins the speech of his life, an amazing, emotional, passionate and factual address to the man he believes holds the power of life and death over them.
I would like to focus on the verses that describe the brothers’ first encounter with Jacob upon their return home and the subsequent descent to Egypt.
“And they told him: Joseph is still alive, and he is ruler over all the land of Egypt. And his heart became numb, for he did not believe them.” (Genesis 45:26)
Imagine the scene – Jacob has never ceased mourning for his beloved Joseph, and now he is told, all of a sudden, that Joseph is not only alive but is the ruler of Egypt. Of course, Jacob has trouble believing this news. But then the brothers fill him in on all of the details “and when he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to carry him, the spirit of their father Jacob revived” (45:27).
The commentaries have long questioned, what was it about the wagons that aroused his spirit and enabled him to believe that Joseph was, indeed, alive? There is an interesting Midrash that explains that Jacob and Joseph had been studying a Biblical passage together that connected with wagons, and Jacob recalled this when he saw the wagons. There was no Bible written at this time, so this Midrash is not to be taken literally. But what it does reflect is the fact that Jacob recalled his spiritual relationship with Joseph. He understood that Joseph had, in fact, sent for him, and that Joseph’s call to him would have spiritual, and perhaps prophetic, consequences.
Immediately thereafter, Jacob decides to go to Egypt himself. His initial statement reflects an intention to visit – to see Joseph one more time before he dies (45:28). But the actual preparations and procession to Egypt indicate that the entire family is moving to that land for a very long time. And the journey is of prophetic proportion indeed. God appears to Jacob just before his departure from Canaan and He says to him: “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again” (46:3-4).
When the children of Jacob first leave Canaan to seek food in Egypt, Jacob says to them: “Go down and buy grain for us there, that we may live and not die. So ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain in Egypt” (42:2-3). The journey to Egypt is consistently referred to as a descent, as a going down to Egypt. While it is customary to refer to the trip from Israel to Egypt as a descent (12:10), there seems to be something far more powerful at work here. Rashi, the classic Jewish commentator notes that the Hebrew word that Jacob uses for “go down” (Redu) is the numerical equivalent of 210 – the number of years that the Children of Israel are actually enslaved in Egypt. When Jacob instructed his children to go to Egypt, there is a foreboding of the long exile this original journey will set in motion.
That foreboding is present even more so in the final journey of Jacob and his children to Egypt, and implicit in God’s promise to Jacob are the dangers and long exile that they will endure throughout the centuries. Two generations earlier, God had warned Abraham that his children would be strangers in a strange land and that they would be enslaved there (15:13). This Divine warning had probably been preserved as a family tradition and Jacob would have sensed that his journey would be the start of that long exile. But Jacob also knows that he has no choice – this is not merely a journey to see Joseph before he dies – this is a journey that has monumental significance to the Nation of Israel. Joseph has beckoned to him on a spiritual level as well.
“They also took their livestock and their goods, which they had gained in the land of Canaan, and came into Egypt, Jacob and all his offspring with him, his sons, and his sons’ sons with him, his daughters, and his sons’ daughters. All his offspring he brought with him into Egypt” (46:6-7). They leave the Land of Canaan as Jacob’s family and will only return after becoming the Nation of Israel, to a land that will be forever known as the Land of Israel.
— Excerpt taken from Shabbat Shalom by Sondra Oster Baras.
Sondra Oster Baras was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio in an Orthodox Jewish home. Upon completing her B.A. from Barnard, she obtained her J.D. at Columbia University’s School of Law. A longtime resident of Samaria, in 1998 she opened the Israel office of Christian Friends of Israeli Communities.