In Genesis 46:1-4, Jacob/Israel (in hebrew, Ya’akov) has a vision on his way to Egypt:
1 So Israel set out with all that was his, and he came to Beer-sheba, where he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. 2 God called to Israel in a vision by night: “Jacob! Jacob!” He answered, “Here.” 3 And He said, “I am God, the God of your father. Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation. 4 I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back; and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.”
One of my favorite authors, 20th century Rabbi Shalom Noah Barzofsky, Slonimer Rebbe, looks at this passage in his work, Netivot Shalom.
He asks a few questions. First, what is Ya’akov afraid of in descending into Egypt? If it is physical suffering, and the exile decreed for his descendants, then Hashem’s answer to him makes no sense. Secondly, why does Hashem say He will make Ya’akov a great nation there (sham)? And thirdly, why mention Joseph/Yosef?
The Slonimer says that Ya’akov is not afraid of physical suffering, or the servitude of his people which he knows is coming, (due to Avraham’s vision from Hashem), because he knows his people are strong enough to survive. Rather, he is afraid Hashem will not be there with them. He is afraid the divine presence will not make the journey. Thus the need for Hashem’s answer—I will go down with you to Egypt.
But why does Hashem first calm Ya’akov’s fears by saying “al tira meir’da mitzrayma ki goi gadol asimcha sham”,—“don’t be afraid of going down to Egypt because I will make you a great nation there”— there, specifically? Here he quotes the Ba’al Shem Tov, on Deuteronomy 4:29—“Uvikashtem misham et Hashem Elokecha umatzata ki tidrishenu bchol levavcha uv’chol nafshecha” –“But if you search there for Adonai your God, you will find Him, if only you seek Him with all your heart and soul.” The Ba’al Shem Tov says from there in particular, as in our case in Vayigash, it is in the purifying power of the iron smelter that Israel is tempered, is made into a great nation. Both the physical suffering of servitude, and the spiritual suffering of being in an unholy place transform us, and clarify our vision. We are not made into a great nation in size or numbers. Rather, the Slonimer says, we are to be made great on another level. The tempering process can give us compassion for the suffering of others that allows us to work for justice in the world.
Not only is Hashem with us, but Hashem is with us there, sham, in our suffering in particular; and here he quotes Isaiah—“b’chol tzaratam lo tzar”— “all their suffering is for Him suffering.” That is, not only is Hashem with us in our suffering, but Hashem takes on the suffering.
The Zohar tells us regarding our passage that “everywhere Israel is in Exile, the Shechinah, (that is, the Divine Presence), is in exile with us”.
Here Hashem says “anochi”, “I” will go with you—and Slonimer points out, numerically, anochi=kisay (throne)=81. The throne of glory, Hashem’s divine presence, will go down with us.
And as verse 4 says “a’alcha gam aloh”—“I will certainly raise you up.” Why certainly, expressed in Hebrew as a repetition of the verb root? Why the emphasis? The Slonimer explains that this means not only are we to be redeemed from our descent, but we are to be raised to a higher level, the level of receiving Torah, which we reach during the Exodus. It is particularly in the tempering process of Egypt, in suffering, that we are transformed, and become able to reach beyond where we have been before.
But another question is raised here—Our tradition says Shechinah doesn’t dwell in sadness, or in places of impurity. How could Her presence come with us to Egypt? The Slonimer quotes Sh’mot Rabbah, which connects the word for Egypt, mitzrayim with mitzar, “from our suffering”. (They are not connected etymologically, but they are homologous.) The Slonimer says there are endless levels to the divine presence. Sometimes the Shechinah comes to us in various levels of holiness, such as in the Mishkan, (the traveling sanctuary that we carried through the desert), or when we engage in Torah study, but there are also times She comes to us out of our suffering. Later in the Egypt story, Torah says we sighed in our servitude and cried out to G-d, and that is what aroused G-d to start the process by which we were liberated from slavery. Our suffering arouses divine compassion, draws the divine presence to us. There are ways we can feel the divine presence when we are in pain that we are unable to reach at other times.
And, the Slonimer says, the collective exile is paralleled by the individual’s own experience of exile. Just as the Shechinah accompanied Israel into every exile, so each of us is accompanied. Whenever any of us feels we are suffering hopelessly, that we are descending into our own mitzrayim, our own servitude, we can have faith that “Anochi Yored imcha Mitzrayma”, “I am going down with you to Egypt.” Hashem is found everywhere, even in the most difficult situation.
Finally, the Slonimer asks, why does Hashem mention Yosef? On the surface, Hashem is comforting Ya’akov that his favorite son will be there in Egypt with him when he dies. But what else is being said? It is Yosef who brings holiness to Mitzrayim, so that the Shechinah may dwell there. Or, another way of putting it, it is the righteous one, the tzaddik, who brings holiness to the places of suffering. And just as earlier in the parsha Yosef tells his brothers that it was Hashem who brought him to Egypt, that all his suffering was in order to save the people from starvation, so are we to understand that our pain and our exiles are for a greater goal, that there is holiness in all that happens to us. All our experiences, says the Slonimer, are there for the good, to help us repair all of creation.
For the individual as well as the broader community, the exile or the pain may seem endless, but as Ps. 136 says “b’shuv Hashem et shivat Tzion hayinu k’cholmim”, “In G-d’s returning us from exile we were like dreamers.” The Slonimer says, we were dreamers like Yosef, we were able to return from exile because we could see that the path we were on led to a greater good.
So I leave us all with these questions: How can we make it more possible for the divine presence to dwell with us? Especially, how can we discern the presence of the sacred in our own difficulties? If we are sad, confused, worried, sick, grieving—how do we find G-d in that? Can we allow ourselves to cry out in our pain, and still, or even particularly, believe that we can find the presence of the sacred there in the midst of pain? And how can we be like Yosef, and recognize that every challenge is an opportunity to manifest divine will, an opportunity to feed the starving, to repair the world? Finally, how can we be like dreamers–what can we do, for ourselves and the world, to live our dreams?