"And Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years; and the days of Yaakov, the years of his life, numbered one hundred and forty seven years" (xlvii, 28). The Netziv comments: "The first part of the pasuk is superfluous, for it writes that the days of Yaakov numbered one hundred and forty seven years, yet it was already stated that he came to Egypt at the age of one hundred and thirty. Rather 'And [Yaakov] lived' implies that he lived a good and fulfilling life, of the kind that he was not used to in Eretz Yisrael." In other words, Yaakov lived a good life only in the land of Egypt, as opposed to all that had happened to him until then. This is why the Torah emphasizes "lived," implying a good and happy life.
The Neziv adds: "And the reason for this is that most of our lives will be spent in exile, for Hakadosh Baruch Hu revealed to Avraham that his sons were created in order to serve as a light to the nations, and this is possible only when they are scattered in exile. Likewise when our father Yaakov went to Egypt, which was the main center in those times, Hashem's blessed Name was exalted when His providence over Yaakov and his descendants was displayed."
Rav Kook, of blessed memory, also explains that in exile we influenced the nations in matters of morality and integrity. He writes as follows: "The dispersion of the belief in G-d along with all its many implications and repercussions for morality and integrity, glory and hope, peace and everlasting comfort, that have already been spread amongst numerous and mighty nations through our dispersion amongst them, through the spreading of the beliefs that sprout from the source of the Holy Scriptures…" (Orot p. 75). Certainly, had we been worthy we would have been able to provide the same influences while remaining in our Land, on condition that we would have lived a perfect and pure life.
Perhaps it is possible to suggest a different explanation to that of the Netziv. Yaakov lives a good and happy life in the land of Egypt because it was only there that the entire family united. After years of arguments and struggles between the brothers, each of them now recognizes his place and mission. Now the Israelite nation can commence its march on the stage of history, as their relationship is one of unity without identity. Hence Yaakov senses that he is fulfilling his destiny and this is his real life – And Yaakov lived.
It is a common misconception that unity cancels individual identity, one that leads people to emphasize the private as opposed to the communal, which appears to them to threaten their uniqueness. Rav Kook writes (Orot Hakodesh, III, p. 403): "There is a claim which borders on incitement, that paganism boldly emphasizes all walks of life, by expressing privacy, by its penetration into beauty and its multifaceted wealth. (Conversely) Divine unity blurs everything, forming a single color from all strains, impoverishing the wealth of life." Paganism grants every force in the world independent power, and thus all aspects find expression. Judaism's unified conception, by contrast, blurs everything, which appears to entail a great loss. "This claim results from a lack of knowledge and dulled senses. Divine unity, in its particular unity, is far above the regular understanding of unity, and it is as elevated above unity as it is over pluralism. It includes any wealth that pluralism possesses in a brighter, unending form." Regular unity is lowly and small-minded, and hence it seems that unity contradicts identity. Divine unity, however, provides the pluralism of the world with its unending brightness. Thus each individual is enlarged and achieves its perfection. The conclusion: "Unity gives life to pluralism."
Our teacher and Rabbi Rav Zvi Yehudah Kook also emphasizes the pluralism of unity (Le-Netivot Yisrael, A – Israelite Culture): "Even the ideology of unity in the Israelite culture did not deny the manifold nature and contradictions of reality, nor did it ignore them. It was not blind to the great value of the various forces of nature, the forces of might, the forces of beauty, the forces of morality etc. Rather, despite this, it acknowledged and taught: 'Hashem our G-d, Hashem is One.'"
The individual personalities of each one of the tribes were formed before Egypt. The concern is that this situation might lead to a break-up later in the history of Yaakov's family. Yaakov worries over this frightful possibility. The Midrash Rabbah states (98:2): "'And he said: Gather round etc' – the Rabbis state: He instructed them regarding disputes, saying – You must all be one gathering. As it states, 'And you, son of man, take for yourself one wood and write on it: For Yehudah and the children of Israel his friends…and all the house of Israel his friends' (Yechezkel, xxxvii, 16). The written form implies 'his friend' (in the singular), making all the children of Israel into one group." Yaakov emphasizes to his sons their common obligation to unite into a single body. Only in such a manner can Am Yisrael survive and remain one people in all the upheavals it will undergo. There is no doubt that if the communal and unified aspect were not imprinted within us, we would be unable to remain one nation over the lengthy exile. Additionally, during the period of exile it was necessary to blur the differences between the tribes in order to emphasize the unity of the nation. The Rav writes (Orot, p. 43, 27): "The tribes' forgetting of their lineage is a preparation for the nation's unity. The insistence on the tribal division was a factor in the exile, for every tribe and faction separated itself entirely from the nation in general, and the foreign poison seeped into these isolated and lone pieces." The Rav explains that our ability to deal with gentile culture and foreign outlooks depends on our united strength. Were each tribe to attempt to deal with them through its own private strength, we would not be able to retain our Israelite purity. Yet this situation, of the cancelling of the tribal divisions, includes some negative side-effects – "yet this forgetting of the private aspects has served to increase confusion and muddle; not only have the unique and fitting prayers for each and every tribe in the correction of the world been jumbled together, but also the internal and external life-values of their studies, their customs and teachings, each one of which in its proper place adds to the correction of the appropriate light and life for the soul of that tribe and constructs its world (have also been confused)." Yet it is certain that through the process of redemption the private forces will once again be revealed through a connection to the general forces of the nation. "Israel will return to its place, the strengths of its tribes will be restored in harmonious unity, and the destroyed altar of Hashem will be rebuilt by twelve stones."
Earlier we quoted our teacher and Rabbi Rav Zvi Yehudah Kook, that even though the nation recognizes the private strengths of might and beauty etc, it nonetheless knows to say Hashem our G-d, Hashem is One, the prayer of Keriyat Shema. This understanding is made clear by our father Yaakov. The Midrash Rabbah (98:3) comments on the pasuk "…and listen [shimu] to [el] Yisrael your father": "Elazar ben Achvi states: It is from here that Israel merited Keriyat Shema. At the hour when our father Yaakov was about to pass from this world he called his twelve sons and said to them: Listen, the G-d [El] of Yisrael in heaven is your Father. Perhaps in your hearts you have a dispute against Hakadosh Baruch Hu. They replied: Listen, Israel our father, just as you have no dispute in your heart with Hakadosh Baruch Hu, so there is no dispute in our hearts, but Hashem our G-d, Hashem is One. He too gave expression and stated: Blessed be the Name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever." Yaakov our father is concerned that every son of his has a special way of serving Hashem, each one thinking that his is the only correct method. In this state of affairs the name of Hashem will not be revealed in the world, which amounts to a dispute with Hakadosh Baruch Hu. His sons answered: Just as by you there is no division, so by us – despite the differences there is no division but rather unity.
This state of affairs is the perfect one, and thus the kingdom of Hashem can be revealed in the world. This is why Yaakov replied with "Blessed be the Name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever."
The beginning of the Midrash relates that Yaakov called his sons and said to them, "Listen, the G-d of Yisrael in heaven is your Father." These words are difficult [there is no nation of Yisrael yet]. Perhaps it can be explained that understanding the foundation of G-d's unity begins from listening to the foundation of the Israelite nation's soul, even before its appearance and revelation in the world.
This is how the Rav explains it (Orot, I, p. 110): "'Listen Israel' – the unifying Israelite listening, fully sown with the seeds of the light of the holy of holies in the depths of the ancient Israelite soul, rising to the loftiest thought." The Israelite nation possesses a special potential for listening in its ancient and original foundation from our original soul. Through this listening we are capable of understanding the foundation of Divine unity. We are capable of understanding this through Hashem our G-d, who is revealed as Hashem our G-d through His giving of the Torah to us. "'Our God' – that we recognize (and here we achieve recognition and profound understanding of Divine unity) the unification of G-d's Name over us, through the appearance of the unique revelation of Hashem to our souls, through the light and splendor of the Torah of truth."
From this we can pronounce and declare that Hashem is One. "The essential unity in its absolute purity will not be grasped through any logic, by any human comprehension, by any understanding. Only in the assembly of Israel does the dew of the light of the revelation of the Divine Presence [Shechina] saturate us with the revelation of the unity of Hashem in the glory of His holiness." Human understanding on its own is incapable of grasping the knowledge and recognition of the unity of Hashem. A loftier and purer source is required. This source appears in the world in the guise of the assembly of Israel and Hashem's revelation to it through the Torah. Only in this manner can the world achieve the perfection of its purpose and reveal the unity of Hashem. We must further clarify our meaning. We must not mistakenly think that the intellect denies the Divine unity, rather the meaning is that if we follow only the rational intellect we will fail to encompass the depths of the Divine unity. Yet after listening to the soul of the nation and the Torah, the intellect will be uplifted and will also be able to recognize and understand Hashem's unity. Therefore we are required to live a deep and pure life through which all of our life's forces will be raised and we will truly understand the Divine unity in an internal and essential manner.
When Yaakov hears his sons' words he understands that the Divine kingdom revealed in the actual world will last and provide blessing for ever and ever.
Now Yaakov realizes that his task in the world is complete and he can feel that his life is meaningful, for he has fulfilled his destiny. Hence, "And Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt."
In light of this explanation Rashi's comments at the beginning of Parshat Vayigash are very clear. When Yaakov and Yosef meet after a lengthy break of twenty-two years, Yosef falls on his father's neck: "…and he showed himself to him, and he fell on his neck, and he wept greatly on his neck" (xlvi, 29). Rashi explains: "But Yaakov did not fall on Yosef's neck, nor did he kiss him. Our Rabbis state that he was reading the Shema." This is surprising – could Yaakov not find any other time to read the Shema?! Based on our approach we can say that now that Yosef has been revealed as alive, and has preserved his Israelite identity without being assimilated into or influenced by the gentiles, Yaakov realizes that his Divine destiny is complete. This destiny is expressed through Keriyat Shema (as explained above). Yaakov's main thoughts and grief over Yosef were that the name of Hashem revealed through the twelve tribes of G-d would be deficient through the absent Yosef. Now that Yosef has been found, Yaakov's bed is whole, and therefore he reads the Shema.
In our generation, as we return to our Land and the nations renews its life, it is necessary to comprehend the uniqueness of each and every one of us, as well as the unique aspect of each group. At the same time, the unity of the nation must be reemphasized. Unfortunately, we occasionally hear divisive voices. Such voices stem from desperation and error, yet we are sure that the Israelite unity is destined to be revealed to the eyes of all. Through this we will be able to fulfill in practice the pasuk: "Listen Israel, Hashem our G-d, Hashem is One."
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