Commentary for Vayigash

22 Dec

In this week’s parshah, Jacob makes a very difficult decision. Faced with a harsh famine in the land of Cana’an and many more years of famine to come according to Joseph’s message, he accepts an invitation from Joseph to move the whole family down to Egypt, where Joseph’s management skills have ensured that there will be enough food to last through the famine. This is not a decision that he takes lightly. He is moving his family off of the land that God has promised to them, and is taking them to a country where God has prophesied that they will wind up being oppressed and enslaved. God has never failed Jacob or his family before, and yet now their only chance for survival seems to be to give up the inheritance that God has granted them and to travel to a foreign land where God has decreed that they will suffer.


Jacob is clearly troubled by this decision, but God calls down to him to assuage his fears. God calls to Jacob by repeating his name twice, to which Jacob answers, “here I am (Gen. 46:2).” This same formula appears earlier in Genesis, which an angel calls down to Abraham when he is about to sacrifice his son Isaac. In both of these cases, our forefather is about to do something that he doesn’t want to do but feels that he must do, despite the fact that he fears it will cause grave harm to the future of the Jewish People. In both cases, God (or a licensed messenger thereof) shows up to provide clarification as to the correct course of action, followed by a message of God’s continued commitment, both to the patriarch personally and to the Jewish People as a whole, and then, slightly later, by a physical manifestation of this promise.


In the case of Abraham, the physical manifestation of this promise, while not framed as such, is directly stated in the text. When he returns home, Abraham receives a message informing him of some major updates to his family tree. Not only has his brother had children, but his brother’s children have had children as well.   One of these new family members is a granddaughter, Rebecca, who Abraham will soon send for to marry Isaac and become the next matriarch of the Jewish People.


For Jacob, the physical manifestation of God’s promise is much less clear from a direct reading of the text. The next section after God reassures Jacob is the list the people who go down to Egypt with Jacob. Jacobs children and grandchildren are all tallied up, each divided into groups based on who their mother is. This accounts for sixty-six direct descendants of Jacob that come down to Egypt with him. When we add in Jacob himself, as well as Joseph and his two sons who were already in Egypt, we get a grand total of seventy people (excluding spouses) in Jacob’s household in Egypt. A more careful reading of the text reveals one problem with this: there are only sixty-nine people listed.

Leah’s total is listed as thirty-three offspring, but there are only thirty-two (living) descendants listed.


Rashi solves the mystery thusly: The missing name is that of Leah’s son Levi’s daughter, Yocheved, who isn’t listed by name because, at the time the family was traveling down to Egypt, she hadn’t been born yet. Rather, Yocheved was born as they crossed the border into Egypt. Just as the introduction of Rebecca is a sign to Abraham of God’s continued commitment to the Jewish People, so is the birth of Yocheved as the family crosses into Egypt a sign to Jacob of God’s continued commitment to the promise of the continuation of the Jewish People even as they enter into this new chapter in a land that is not their own. Additionally, with the benefit of hindsight, we today can see that the birth of Yocheved as the family entered Egypt was not just a sign of God’s commitment to t he continued growth of the Jewish People, but also a sign of God’s continued commitment to the promise of redemption, as Yocheved’s son Moses would be the one to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.

Just like our forefathers, we, too, often face difficult decisions in our lives. God is there for us to help us face these decisions, so long as we are able to recognize the signs.

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