Contemplating big moves

The Torah portion Vayigash is read on Shabbat, January 7.

Art by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Art by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
I HAVE made a couple of major international moves in the last decade and I anticipate making another such move in the future. Moving house is no simple matter, even if it is just down the road. Knowing the neighborhood, its people and institutions eliminates at least some worries and limits the upheaval of relocation. Changing countries, on the other hand, requires adapting to new cultures and different societies, finding good schools, learning what the local challenges are and how to deal with them.
After over two decades of mourning Joseph’s death, Jacob descended to Egypt, reuniting with Joseph as well as escaping the famine that plagued the region. The Torah informs us of two events that happened upon his arrival. First, we learn that Jacob had sent his son Judah ahead to prepare for the family’s arrival in Goshen. Next, the verse describes Joseph’s enthusiasm to meet his father in Goshen, where Jacob and his family were to reside.
“He sent Judah before him to Joseph, to instruct ahead of him to Goshen, and they arrived in the region of Goshen. And Joseph harnessed his chariot and he went up to meet his father Israel in Goshen, and he appeared to him, and he fell upon his neck, and he wept on his neck exceedingly.”
(Gen. 46:28-29) The great medieval commentator Rashi cites Midrashic interpretations of both the above verses. The simplest reading is that Judah was sent ahead of the family to prepare the logistics for their arrival. But Rashi adds a second explanation: Judah was to establish a house of study as a source of learning.
And this, according to the verse, had to happen before Jacob’s arrival.
Rashi clarifies the next verse as well. In the simplest reading of verse 29, the subject is Joseph and the object is Jacob. Thus, Joseph appeared before Jacob, Joseph fell upon Jacob’s neck and Joseph wept on Jacob’s shoulders. Rashi endorses this reading of the verse as do most other commentators.
Rashi again cites the sages, explaining that although Joseph wept, Jacob did not. Jacob was engaged in reciting the shema (Hear, O Israel) prayer.
Our tradition accounts for blessings and prayers on special occasions such as this.
The blessing of shehecheyanu, usually said at the beginning of a holiday or eating a seasonal fruit for the first time, is prescribed by halakha when meeting a close friend or relative after a 30-day absence. The blessing of reviving the dead is appropriate when meeting such a person after the lapse of a year. But the shema is not required on such occasions. Yet the Midrashic narrative insists that Jacob did not cry because he was reciting the shema. What inspired Jacob to recite the shema immediately upon meeting Joseph? Many commentators search for explanations.
One inspirational idea is ascribed to the great 19th century Hasidic master, the Rebbe of Chortkov. Jacob, he explains, was concerned about the foreign influences he would encounter in Egypt, a culture which differed drastically from the values with which he built his household. Jacob felt the need to fortify himself and his family with every means available.
The Talmud states that Rabbi Levi bar Chama related in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, “One should always unleash his good inclinations to overcome his more base urges. …If he prevails – good. If not, he should engage in the study of Torah. …If he prevails – good. If not, he should recite the shema. …If he prevails – good. If not, he should remind himself of the day of death...” (Brachot 5a) Jacob employed a three-pronged defense, using all the elements mentioned in the Talmud.
He sent his son Judah ahead to ensure a Torah academy would be open and ready for study in time for their arrival. Aware that this defense alone is not fail-safe, Jacob recited the shema immediately upon entering the country, adding a second layer of protection.
This defense was so important to Jacob that he prioritized reciting the shema even over greeting his long-lost son. Finally, knowing that he was still vulnerable, he reminded himself he was mortal. After Joseph wept on his shoulders, Jacob finally spoke to Joseph.
But the first words out of Jacob’s mouth were about his death. “And Israel said to Joseph, “Now I may die, after I have seen your face for you are still alive.” (Gen: 46:30) We each feel different pressures when contemplating big moves and Jacob’s primary concern was maintaining his values and spiritual health. These three measures of defense, study of Torah, reciting the shema, and recalling the day of death were first utilized by Jacob to protect himself and his family from the challenges they would inevitably confront in Egyptian society.
Rabbi Yitzchak Mizrahi has served the Wellington Jewish Community Centre in New Zealand since 2012