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But They Did Not Leave

By: Rav Avigdor Meyerowitz

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"And Ya'acov lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years."[1]

This apparently simple verse raises a question: Why did Ya'acov live in Mitzrayim for seventeen years until his death? When Ya'acov went down to Egypt the famine had begun two years previously[2], and according to the pshat there were to be five more years of famine. According to Chazal, when Ya'acov met Par'oh he blessed him that the famine should end, and indeed it did[3]. Why did Ya'acov and his family remain in Egypt despite the fact that the reason for them coming was merely to survive the years of famine?

The immediate answer that comes to mind is that Bnei Yisrael stayed in Mitzrayim as part of the fulfillment of Brit Bein Ha'betarim where Hashem told Avraham that his descendants would be "strangers in a foreign land" and would be "enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years"[4]. Thus Bnei Yisrael were fulfilling this prophecy. In general, often the approach taken towards the entire episode of Yoseph and his brothers is that of the fulfillment of that covenant, a situation unavoidable. This would require from us to assume that Ya'acov Avinu knew of this prophecy and apparently transmitted it as well to his children, which is not evident from the Torah itself.

Futhermore, Ya'acov Avinu on his way down to Mitzrayim stopped in Be'er Sheva, and after offering sacrifices to "the G-d of his father Yitzchak", specifically Yitzchak who was not allowed to leave Eretz Yisrael, was told by Hashem to go down to Mitzrayim:

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"And He said, "I am G-d, the G-d of your father. Do not be afraid of going down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation.

I will go down with you to Mitzrayim, and I will also bring you up, and Yoseph will place his hand on your eyes."[5]

Though he is told to go and that Hashem will be with him, Hashem also promises Ya'acov that He will also bring him up from Mitzrayim. Yet we see that the second half of that promise was not fulfilled. Almost all the commentators explain, apparently in hindsight, that it was fulfilled by the fact that Ya'acov was buried in Eretz Yisrael, thus Hashem fulfilled "and I will also bring you up", though the verse's initial implication does not seem to imply that, especially since it seems to be that Hashem is reassuring Ya'acov and calming him saying not to be afraid of the descent to Mitzrayim. What is comforting in telling someone that you will accompany them to a place they are afraid of going to, and then not let them be buried there? In addition, if the verse is in reference to Ya'acov's death and burial, the Torah has a more appropriate way of saying the same - as for example Hashem says to Avraham in Brit Bein Ha'betarim:

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"But you will come to your forefathers in peace; you will be buried in a good old age."[6]

The above mentioned commentators bring in support of their understanding the words "for there I will make you into a great nation", implying that Bnei Yisrael would first become numerous before they leave Mitzrayim. Yet  the Midrash says[7] that before Ya'acov died Bnei Yisrael already were a "great nation" numbering 300,000 men!

So back to the original question: Why did Ya'acov and Bnei Yisrael not leave Mitzrayim immediately after the famine was over?

The Ramban on this first pasuk of the Parsha says:

"I have already mentioned that Ya'acov's descent into Mitzrayim alludes to our present exile at the hand of the "fourth beast", which represents Rome. There are many parallels. For it was Ya'acov's sons themselves who, by the sale of their brother Yosef, caused their going down there.

Ya'acov, moreover, went there on account of the famine, thinking to find relief with his son in the house of his son's friend, for Par'o loved Yosef and considered him as a son. It was their intention to ascend from there as soon as the famine would cease in the land of Canaan, just as they said; And they said to Par'oh, ‘We have come to sojourn (lagur) in the land, for your servants' flocks have no pasture, for the famine is severe in the land of Canaan. Now, please let your servants dwell in the land of Goshen.’ "

The Ramban holds the household of Ya'acov responsible for the course of events. He also affirms our assumption that their intention was only temporarily to remain in Mitzrayim, until the end of the famine. Now we can expect the Ramban to enlighten us as to what happened; what went wrong that they didn’t leave? Yet the Ramban shockingly says three simple words:

- And behold (but) they did not ascend"

And we are left asking, why not? But the Ramban does not have an answer or explanation, he simply says "they did not leave" and continues: "but instead the galut prolonged on Ya'acov and he died there and his bones ascended from there accompanied by all the elders and ministers of Par'oh…."

The Ramban then draws the parallel to our galut:

Our relationship with our brothers Rome and Edom is similar. We ourselves have caused our falling into their clutches, as they (the Chashmona'im rulers during the Second Beit Mikdash era) made a covenant with the Romans, and Agripas, the last king during the Second Beit Mikdash, fled to them for help. It was due to famine that Yerushalayim was captured by the Romans, and the exile has exceedingly prolonged itself over us, with its end, unlike the exiles, being unkown.

We are in it as the dead, who say, 'Our bones are dried up, we are completely cut off.' But in the end they will bring us from all the nations as an offering to Hashem, and they will be in deep sorrow as they will behold our glory, and we  will see the vengeance of Hashem."

We could forward explanations for why they did not leave galut, and maybe we will in a future shiur, however the Ramban's words are worthy of pondering on their own, as no matter what the justification, the bitter truth remains, .

In conclusion, I leave you to read through the following brief exchange between the King of the Kuzars and Rabbi Yehuda Halevi. Rabbi Yehuda Halevi in Sefer Hakuzari explains beautifully at length to the King the uniqueness and centrality of Eretz Yisrael to Am Yisrael. The King then turns to him and says:

If this be so, you fall short of the duty laid down in your law, by not endeavoring to reach that place, and making it your abode in life and death, although you say: "Have mercy on Tzion, for it is the house of our life," and believe that the Shekhina will return there. And had it no other preference than that the Shekhina dwelt there for five hundred years; this is sufficient reason for men's souls to retire there and find purification there, as happens near the abodes of the pious and the prophets. Is it not "the gate of heaven?" All nations agree on this point. Christians believe that the souls are gathered there and then lifted up to heaven. Islam teaches that it is the place of the ascent, and that prophets are caused to ascend from there to heaven, and, further, that it is the place of gathering on the day of Resurrection. Everybody turns to it in prayer and visits it in pilgrimage. Your bowing and kneeling in the direction of it is either mere appearance or thoughtless worship. Yet your first forefathers chose it as an abode in preference to their birthplaces, and lived there as strangers, rather than as citizens in their own country. This they did even at a time when the Shekhina was yet visible, but the country was full of unchastity, impurity, and idolatry. Your fathers, however, had no other desire than to remain in it. Neither did they leave it in times of dearth and famine except by God's permission. Finally, they directed their bones to be buried there.[8]

Quite an accusation! Then, for the first and only instance in the Sefer Kuzari, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi admits to having no answer:

You have found my place of shame, O king of the Kazars. It is the sin which prevented the Divine promise with regard to the second Temple: "Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Tzion" (Zekharya2:10), from being fulfilled. Divine providence was ready to restore everything as it had been at first, if they had all willingly consented to return. But only a part was ready to do so, while the majority and the aristocracy remained in Babylon, preferring dependence and slavery, and unwilling to leave their houses and their affairs. An allusion to them might be found in the enigmatic words of Shelomo: "I sleep, but my heart is awake" (Shir ha-Shirim 5:2-4). He designates the exile by sleep, and the continuance of prophecy among them by the wakefulness of the heart. "It is the voice of my beloved that knocks" means G-d's call to return; "My head is filled with dew" alludes to the Shekhina which emerged from the shadow of the Temple. The words: "I have put off my coat," refer to the people's slothfulness in consenting to return. The sentence: "My beloved stretches forth his hand through the opening" may be interpreted as the urgent call of Ezra, Nechemya, and the Prophets, until a portion of the people grudgingly responded to their invitation. In accordance with their mean mind they did not receive full measure. Divine providence only gives man as much as he is prepared to receive; if his receptive capacity be small, he obtains little, and much if it be great. Were we prepared to meet the G-d of our forefathers with a pure mind, we would have found the same salvation as our fathers did in Egypt. If we say: "Worship His holy hill, worship at His footstool, He who restores His glory to Tzion" (Tehilim99:9, 5), and other words, this is but as the chattering of the starling and the nightingale. We do not pay attention to what we say by this sentence, nor others, as you rightly observe, O Prince of the Kuzars.[9]

Regarding the Ramban and Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, we know , they made Aliyah.

Shabbat Shalom



[1] Breishit 47;28.

[2] Breishit 45;11.

[3] Breishit 47;10 and Rashi.

[4] Breishit 15;13.

[5] Breishit 46;1-4.

[6] Breishit 15;15.


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[8] Sefer Hakuzari 2;23.

[9] [9] Sefer Hakuzari 2;24.



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