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Down to Egypt

September 9, 2012 | by Rabbi Shraga Simmons

Our forefather Jacob did not go to Egypt to settle permanently, but only to reside temporarily.

Favoritism to Joseph

Go and learn what Lavan the Aramean wanted to do to our father Jacob. Because Pharaoh's decree only applied to the male children. But Lavan sought to uproot everyone, as it says: "The Aramean sought to destroy my father. He (Jacob) went down to Egypt, and dwelt there with few in number. There he became a nation - great, mighty and numerous." (Deut. 26:5)

What is the connection of Lavan to the Egyptian exile?

The Alshich explains that really Joseph ― as the first born of Rachel ― was destined to become the leader of the Twelve Tribes. But Lavan deceived Jacob and had him marry Leah instead ― and other sons were born first. Then when Jacob gave preferential treatment to his beloved Joseph, it aroused the jealousy of the older brothers ― who eventually sold Joseph into slavery and began the Egyptian exile!

If not for Lavan's deceit, Jacob would have married Rachel, had Joseph first, and the preferential treatment toward the first born would have been expected and accepted.

House and Home

Rabbi Stephen Baars

"And he dwelt there." This teaches us that our father Jacob did not go down to Egypt to settle permanently, but only to reside there temporarily. As it says: "And they (the sons of Jacob) said to Pharaoh, 'We have come to dwell temporarily in this land, for there is no pasture for your servants' flocks, because the famine is severe in the land of Canaan. Now please let your servants dwell in the land of Goshen.'" (Genesis 47:4)

"When does a house become a home? When does a job become a cause? An obligation become a responsibility? An acquaintance become a friend? A teacher become a mentor? Affection become love?"

With everything in life, definition is the key. Definition is the first step to living as opposed to existing, of finding purpose in life as opposed to going through the motions. Otherwise ― house, home ― what's the difference?!

Many of us travel during the course of our lives, some more and some less. But is there a point at which we spend so little time in our home that it becomes just another step along the journey? Alternatively, how long do you have to stay at any particular destination to turn that place into a home?

The Torah lists the 42 stops that the Jewish people made while wandering in the desert. These are called "journeys" (Exodus 40:38). This indicates that if you travel so frequently, then you are experiencing a "journey" ― and not a series of homes.

There are two types of lifestyles: One in which the person moves to a place because this is the place he ultimately wants to live. The other is where a person moves but never intends to stay permanently. Emotionally, he is constantly on the move.

Living in a house as opposed to living in a home is like living out of a perpetual suitcase. Houses are great for holding families in, or storing our clothes and books. But they are rarely used to 'live' in. Houses are often only fancy bases from which to vacate from, or leave for work from ― a sort of "base camp for the summit." We stay until they get too small for the new family, or too big for just us two, or too far away from the new job, or too close to the new enemies.

It could very well be that your 'home' is really just a house.

Houses often tend to be places we happen to be in because we can't afford anything else, or we can't be bothered to move anywhere else. And if someone does stay for any length of time, it's often not because he wants to stay, but rather because there's nowhere else to go!

Have you ever tried wearing someone else's clothes? They never quite fit. If you are living in a house and not a home it's like living in someone else's clothes. You call it your home, you go 'home' to it, but it's just an address, a P.O.B., a convenience, somewhere to hang your clothes and sleep at night. It's an estranged feeling of not quite fitting; you can ignore it but it under-pins everything.

No one likes to think of themselves as a wanderer, transient, passerby, drifter, nomad. To do so is to realize you have no place called "home." We like to think of our houses as homes, because it's far more comforting.

It may be comforting, but is it true? Is it really home?

Here's a good litmus test: How many of us look at the place we now live as the place we also want to die?

Is your work very personal to you, more than your home? We often relate to work far more deeply, and fight for it far more strongly, beyond its financial aspect. Many of us relate to our work as personal and our house as disposable. If you feel more at home with your work, it's probably because you are not at home with your 'home.'

Marx said that capitalism alienates the worker from his work. A far deeper alienation is taking place in the human being from his very environment. We move to find a home, a place to fit in. Few if any find it.

The Kabbalists say that our desire to travel and move is actually an expression of our souls' yearning to find its place in this world. So really we aren't running from, we are running to! We are not fleeing ― but searching, looking not hiding, questioning not disappearing.

All of life is really just a journey. The story is told of the Chafetz Chaim, the greatest sage of the 20th century. The Chafetz Chaim lived in an extremely modest house in a village in Poland, with sparse and simple furnishings.

A reporter came to interview the eminent rabbi. After conversing together for some time, the reporter posed the question he'd been waiting to ask: "For such a great and important rabbi as yourself, where's all your furniture?"

"Let me ask you a question," the Chafetz Chaim replied. "For such an important reporter as yourself, where's all your furniture?"

"Well," the reporter said confusedly, "I'm only travelling through."

"I, too, am only travelling through", the Chafetz Chaim replied.

The rabbi was trying to illustrate that we are all just travelling through. We have yet to arrive at our permanent destination. This world is extremely temporary.

You wouldn't take a crystal chandelier on a camping trip; you only take along those things you really need. Life is ultimately a journey. And your chandelier is not going with you.

We know Jacob only went down to live in Egypt temporally because he only went there to find pasture for his flocks. Therefore living in a place because it provides the best economic opportunities is not called 'living permanently.'

Even though Jacob died in Egypt, and knew he would die there, it is still not called a permanent dwelling. Permanence has nothing to do with the amount of time or frequency of movement, it has to do with the essential commitment you have to the place. It was a place valued only for its ability to help him economically, rather than that he had no other commitment to it.

The place we call 'home' should be a place of meaning, a place in which we find purpose to life. That place is made more through the quality of the books on our shelves and the relationships it nurtures that it is in the cut of our carpets.

Because ultimately, we are all "just travelling through."

A few questions to ponder:

1) What three things in your house make it a home?

2) Do you feel more at home with your work than your home?

3) If you took the TV, telephone and computer out of your home, would you feel comfortable spending a lot of your time there? If not, what is missing?

Hanging onto Jewish Identity

Rabbi Tom Meyer

"With few in number." As it says: "Your ancestors went down to Egypt with 70 people, and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars of the sky." (Deut. 10:22)

"There he became a nation." This teaches that the Jewish people were a distinct group there.

The Haggadah says that 70 Jews went down to Egypt. The number 70 is no accident. At the Tower of Babel, there were 70 basic nations of humanity. So when the Jews go down to Egypt, they are 70 souls because really within the Jewish people there are 70 root types of Jews. And each one of these "root souls" corresponds to one of the different nations of the world. The Jewish people are a microcosm of humanity. This gives us the ability to relate to non-Jews wherever we go.

"Great and mighty." As it says, "And the Jewish people were fruitful, prolific and they multiplied and they became extremely mighty, and the filled the land." (Exodus 1:7)

Egypt is a big country, yet when the Jews finally left Egypt, they only numbered three million. Was the land really full of Jews? Rather, "filled the land" means that the Egyptians felt their influence everywhere. The Jews demonstrated special abilities in the arts and finance. They were distinguished and distinguishable.

The Hebrew word used here to describe the Jews is va-yish-retzoo ― literally "they swarmed." This root, sheretz, is not a very nice word. It means creepy crawly things, like a lizard. Why would the Haggadah speak about the Jews so despairingly?

The Talmud says that the Jews didn't just multiply in numbers. They started assimilating and adopting all the lowly Egyptian behaviors. They swarmed. And they put these assimilated values into their children.

You came to be of great charm, beautiful of form, and your hair was grown long; but you were naked and bare. And I passed over you and I saw you downtrodden in your blood. And I said to you, "Through your blood you shall live." And I said to you, "Through your blood you shall live." (Ezekiel 16:6-7)

The Haggadah presents a poetic image of a young girl starting to reach womanhood: "You came to be of great charm, beautiful of form, and your hair was grown long." This is a description of reaching puberty. The Jews are about to become a nation. "But you were naked and bare" ― the Jews have forsaken their essence. They've forgotten who they are.

The Haggadah continues: "Through your blood you shall live" ― the one thing Jews kept was the mitzvah of circumcision. Despite the assimilation, deep down they knew they were Jews and preserved that level of identity. It's an image of a Jew that has lost almost everything, has assimilated ― yet won't fully let go. And it is through this merit that they will be redeemed. Otherwise, if you totally forget you are a Jew, you won't even leave Egypt.

Thriving Under Pressure

Rabbi Shraga Simmons

"Great and mighty." As it says, "And the Jewish People were fruitful, prolific and they multiplied and they became extremely mighty, and they filled the land." (Exodus 1:7)

"And numerous." As it says, "I made you thrive like the plants of the field, and you grew big and tall. And you came to be of great charm, beautiful of form, and your hair was grown long; but you were naked and bare... "

The Haggadah quotes: "I made you thrive like the plants of the field."

Why are the Jewish people compared to "plants of the field?"

With grass, the more it's cut, the more it grows. So too the Jewish people. That's why the verse states: "The more (the Egyptians) afflicted the Jews, the more they increased and spread out" (Exodus 1:12). Nachmanides explains this is why the tribe of Levi came out of Egypt with the smallest population ― since they were never enslaved, they didn't increase accordingly.

This idea is represented by the egg which appears on our Seder plate. Most foods when cooked become softer. But the egg, when cooked, becomes firmer. So too the Jews: Oppression and persecution does not weaken us, it only strengthens our resolve to continue onward in our mission.

The Jewish nation thrives under pressure. That's why the Jewish people are compared to an olive, whose oil only emerges when pressed. And it is an oil which is pure and clear, which rises to the top, and which sheds a brilliant light.


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