Parshas Vayigash: The Power of Our Past

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Vayigash, after the viceroy of Egypt reveals himself to be Yosef ha’Tzadik, the long lost brother of the sons of Yaakov, the brothers ascend to Egypt to bring Yaakov and their families down to Goshen.  This joyous reunion is actually the beginning of the Egyptian exile, where the Bnei Yisrael will spend a total of two hundred and ten years in Egypt, one hundred and sixteen of those in slavery.

The pasuk tells us: וַיִּסַּ֤ע יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְכׇל־אֲשֶׁר־ל֔וֹ וַיָּבֹ֖א בְּאֵ֣רָה שָּׁ֑בַע וַיִּזְבַּ֣ח זְבָחִ֔ים לֵאלֹהֵ֖י אָבִ֥יו יִצְחָֽקAnd Yisrael set out with all that was his, and he came to Be’er Sheva, and he offered sacrifices to the G-d of his father, Yitzchak (Bereishis 46:1).  After G-d appears to Yaakov in night visions in Be’er Sheva (v.2-4), the family journeys on from Be’er Sheva in the wagons that Pharaoh sent to transport them to Egypt (v.5).  וַיִּקְח֣וּ אֶת־מִקְנֵיהֶ֗ם וְאֶת־רְכוּשָׁם֙ אֲשֶׁ֤ר רָֽכְשׁוּ֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן וַיָּבֹ֖אוּ מִצְרָ֑יְמָה יַעֲקֹ֖ב וְכׇל־זַרְע֥וֹ אִתּֽוֹand they took along their livestock and their possessions that they had amassed in the land of Canaan. And Yaakov and all his offspring with him came to Egypt (v.6).  

The question is: why did Yaakov stop in Be’er Sheva en route to Egypt?  Wasn’t he more than eager to arrive in Mitzrayim, to be reunited with his long lost son, to close the gap of twenty-two years, and to have his family whole again, all together, living in the land of Goshen, where food would be plenty and a yeshiva had been set up?

In his Peninim on the Torah, Rabbi A.L. Scheinbaum writes, “It (stopping in Be’er Sheva) should not normally have been a part of his itinerary.  The Medrash teaches that Yaakov stopped there to cut down cedar trees that had originally been planted there by Avraham Avinu.  Yaakov knew that one day Klal Yisrael would be redeemed from Egypt, and they would build a Mishkan, the Sanctuary, in the desert.  The wood of these cedar trees – which Yaakov took down with him to Egypt – would serve as the foundation for many of the keilim (vessels) of the Mishkan, as well as its walls and beams.  

“What was so significant and important that the wood for the Mishkan had to come from these cedar trees, which Avraham had planted in Be’er Sheva?  Why would wood from Egypt not have sufficed?  Ha’Rav Eliyahu Schlesinger explains that people by nature attribute their success to their own endeavor and efforts; to the erroneous belief of: כֹּחִי֙ וְעֹ֣צֶם יָדִ֔י עָ֥שָׂה לִ֖י אֶת־הַחַ֥יִל הַזֶּֽה, the strength and might of my hand made me this wealth (Devarim 8:17).  People like to think ‘I did it without anyone’s help; the success is all mine.’  This is the prevalent attitude amongst so many.  

“People forget that they are part of a historical continuum, that there were others before them who laid down the foundations for their successes.  The Gemara (Taanis 23b) relates how Choni ha’Maagal once questioned an old man who was planting a carob tree.  ‘Why are you planting a tree that will not produce fruit for another seventy years?’  The man replied, ‘My ancestors planted carob trees for me to enjoy, and I am doing the same for my descendants.’

“In stopping in Be’er Sheva to retrieve the cedar trees of his grandfather, Avraham, Yaakov Avinu was teaching his children an important lesson.  History does not begin today, with us, in the here and now.  It is a continuation of events dating back in time – all the way back to our first forefather and foremother, Avraham and Sarah.  Just as the wood that the Bnei Yisrael used for the Mishkan was derived from trees planted generations earlier by their ancestor Avraham, so too, do their own spiritual and biological roots date back to another time.  The lesson is that they must build upon the foundations of the past, so that their future will be one of stability, security and sanctity” (Peninim on the Torah, Eleventh Series, p.77-78).

This timeless lesson applied not only to the generation of those who descended to Egypt, and those who ascended from Egypt, but to us as well.  Each generation builds upon the foundations of our forefathers, and our future lies in our past.  

In the Janowska death camp, one cold, dark, wintery night, a shout pierced the air, ordering all prisoners to report to the large open field immediately.  Upon arrival, the prisoners stood facing large open pits.  The German voice shouted its ruthless and sadistic orders, “Each of you who values his life must jump over one of the pits and land on the other side.  Those who cannot jump to the other side will be shot.”  It was clear to the starving, feverish and diseased inmates that they would all die that night.  They knew they did not have the strength to jump, and that to the SS and Ukrainian guards, this was just another devilish game.  

Among the thousands of Jews on that field in Janowska was the Bluzhover Rebbe, R’ Yisrael Spira zt’l (1889-1989).  He was standing with a friend, a non-religious Jew from a large Polish town, whom the rabbi had met in the camp.  A deep friendship had developed between them.  “Rabbi,” the friend said, “all our efforts to jump will be in vain.  We will only entertain the Germans.  Let’s sit down and wait for the bullets to end our wretched existence.”  “My friend,” the rebbe answered, “man must obey the will of G-d.  If it is G-d’s will that we jump, then we must jump.  If we fall into the pit, we will reach the World of Truth one second later.”  The Rebbe and his friend were nearing the edge of the pits, which were rapidly filling up with bodies.  As they reached the pit, the Rebbe closed his eyes and commanded in a powerful voice, “We are jumping!”  When the rebbe and his friend opened their eyes, they were on the other side of the pit.  

“We are alive!” the friend repeated over and over again.  “Rabbi, for your sake, I am alive!  There must be a G-d in Heaven!  Tell me, rabbi, how did you do it?”  The Bluzhover paused, and then he said, “I was holding on to my ancestral merit, clinging to the coattails of my father, grandfather and great-grandfather, of blessed memory.  But tell me, my friend, how is it that you reached the other side of the pit?”  Replied the rebbe’s friend, “I was holding on to you” (Heroes of Spirit, R’ Dovid Hoffman, p.135-137).

Our history does not start today, and our future does not begin tomorrow.  The cedar trees that Yaakov took from Be’er Sheva to Egypt would remind the generation of the Exodus as they built the Tabernacle for the Divine Presence, that we have a long history, a strong mesorah, and a glorious past, upon which we build the future.  And this eternal message and lesson must remain with us for all generations and all times.  שאל אביך ויגדך זקניך ויאמרו לך.

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,


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