This week’s Torah portion tells of Yaacov and his sons moving down to Egypt. They moved to Egypt to escape the famine in the Land of Canaan. The great 13th century scholar and leader, Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, known as Nahmanides, in his commentary to the Bible, used this scene as a foreshadowing symbol of the future exile of the Jewish people.
The descent of Jacob to Egypt foreshadows our present exile… For the sons of Jacob themselves caused their descent [to Egypt] by selling Joseph their brother. Jacob went down there because of the famine thinking he would be saved with his son in the house of one who favored them, for Pharaoh loved Joseph as his own son. They intended to return from there with the conclusion of the famine in Canaan as they said, ‘We have come to dwell as strangers in the land as there is no grazing for your servants’ flock since the famine is severe in the land of Canaan’ (Genesis 47:4)
But behold, they did not return and [Jacob’s] exile was prolonged. He died there, they brought up his bones [to Canaan], and the elders and officers of Pharaoh brought him up and mourned greatly.
So, too, are we with Rome and Edom [our sages’ code name for the present exile]. Our brothers brought about our falling into their hands by establishing a pact and treaty with the Romans. Agrippas, the last king of the second Temple period ran to them for assistance. Because of famine the people of Jerusalem were captured, and the exile has been very long [since then]. We do not know its end as we did with other exiles. We are as dead people in it.” (Ramban al HaTorah, Gen. 47:28)
As Nachmanides describes it here, the exile in Egypt should never have gone on as long as it did. Originally, Jacob, his sons, and their families went there as strangers in need of a temporary refuge to wait out the famine. After the famine, they stayed in Egypt. The feeling of strangeness was gone. They felt at home in Egypt.
The beginning of the exile, Nachmanides explains, is seeking refuge in the hands of foreign nations which love us. Pharaoh loved Joseph. He welcomed Jacob as an honored nobleman in his midst. There is no doubt the welcoming attitude of the Egyptians to Jacob and his sons led to their feelings of comfort living there. This, Nachmanides teaches, prolongs the exile. Had they stuck to their original intentions and returned to their land when the famine had ended, there would have been no Egyptian exile.
Our Torah portion’s closing line emphasizes this point.
“Thus Yisrael settled in the country of Egypt, in the region of Goshen; they acquired holdings in it, and were fertile and increased greatly.” (Genesis 47:27)
Targum Yonatan ben Uziel – a 2nd Temple era Aramaic translation and commentary, translates “they acquired it” as “they acquired acquisitions of land.”
Rabbi Ephraim Lunshintz, (16th-17th century Europe) in his commentary to the Torah expands on this point.
This entire verse speaks of the guilt of the Children of Israel. God decreed upon them ‘that your offspring shall be strangers’ and they sought to become permanent citizens in a place where they were supposed to be foreigners… This verse finds them guilty of seeking land holdings in a land that is not for them. Did they not say to Pharaoh ‘We have come to dwell as strangers in the land,’? At first, they came only on a temporary basis as short term dwellers. And now they had retracted their words. They became so permanent there that they did not want to leave until God took them out with a mighty Hand. Those who did not want to leave died in the darkness.”
During the centuries of exile, no one would have imagined that Jews who would be given the opportunity and ability to return to the Land of Israel would choose not to. And yet, we see this phenomenon happening in our times. The fact that there are many American Jews with the financial resources to do so have not flocked to the modern State of Israel is emerging as one of the great failures of Jewish history. Like the early generations of Israel in Egypt, Jews in the current exile have grown quite comfortable. Too many have forgotten that exile is an undesirable predicament, that it is a punishment; that we wait in the temporary exile for the opportunity to go home.
The famine in the land is over. It’s time to go home.