Parshas Vayigash (5770)
In this week’s exciting Torah portion, the ongoing saga of Joseph and his brothers reaches its dramatic climax, as Jacob finds out that his beloved son Joseph is still alive and has been made the Viceroy of Egypt (definitely not the typical job for a nice Jewish boy!), and he and his entire family move down to Goshen, a nice, wooded Egyptian suburb, so that he can be near Joseph in his old age.
Before Jacob makes the move, however, he does three very strange things. The Torah records in Genesis 46:1 that on his way down to Egypt, Jacob makes a stop in Be'er Sheva, offers sacrifices to the G-d of his father Isaac, and sends his son Judah ahead to Egypt to set up a house of Torah study in Goshen.
Very strange indeed! The old and frail Jacob hasn't seen his long-lost son for 22 years and is about to move to Egypt to see him, and all that's on his mind is a vacation in Be'er Sheva, a few ritual sacrifices, and the building of a new Jewish Day School?!
The answer to this perplexing question can be found in the Midrash, which is part of the collected wisdom of the Oral Torah. The Midrash explains that Jacob went to Be'er Sheva to cut down cedars that his grandfather Abraham had planted there many years ago for shade for the many guests that he and Sarah had entertained. Jacob planned to take these cedars with him to Egypt.
And herein lies the key to Jacob's mysterious actions. Jacob knew that his children, the Jewish People, would be moving into a "new neighborhood" in a foreign land, a place very different from the spiritual habitat that he had created for them in the Land of Israel. So he made sure to take care of certain things that are absolutely crucial for their continuity and survival as a nation, even before moving down there.
The first thing he did was to pick up the old "cedars of hospitality" from Be'er Sheva and bring them with him to Egypt, thereby ensuring that the new community would have lots of chesed and philanthropy, which are the legacy of our ancestors Abraham and Sarah, and are the very core of the Jewish people.
He offered sacrifices to the G-d of his father Isaac, which represented service and prayer to G-d. In other words, Jacob made sure there would be a vibrant synagogue in Goshen, (or, more likely, two synagogues ….. "That synagogue over there I would never step foot in!"). Jacob was teaching us that without a strong connection to a synagogue where a Jew can go pray and hear a good, uplifting sermon from his/her Rabbi, it is very difficult to live a spiritual life.
And, most importantly, Jacob sent his son ahead of him to establish a place of Jewish learning. He understood that with all the philanthropy in the Jewish community, and all the beautiful synagogues and social halls filled with Jews praying and eating sliced corned beef at lavish smorgasbords during Bar/Bat-Mitzvah "shebangs" – if there is no Jewish learning, no Torah study on all levels for all ages, we cannot survive as a nation.
If we want our own Judaism to continue to play an important role in our lives and in the lives of our children, we would do well to learn from our ancestor Jacob’s “moving” experience. And we should make sure that in the community in which we live there is a lot of chesed and philanthropy being done, the synagogues are vibrant and conducive to prayer, and ample opportunities for Jewish education are available for us and our children. This way, we can ensure that, no matter what kind of society we find ourselves in, our own little “Goshen” will be a safe and secure place for our Judaism to grow and thrive.