First Things First
Pure euphoria is a transcendent feeling that passes, and then it is
time to get practical. When Jacob discovered, after twenty-two years of
ceaseless grieving, that his son Joseph was still alive, he was ecstatic.
The Torah tells us that “his spirit was revived.” He literally came back to
life. But now it was time to make plans for the reunion.
In the intervening years, Joseph had risen to the position of viceroy
in the ancient Kingdom of Egypt, the second most powerful position in
the most powerful state on earth at that time. Because of the continuing
famine throughout the region, Jacob and his entire family would join
Joseph in Egypt and settle in for the duration.
The migration of such a large clan, with numerous possessions and
livestock, must have been a major logistical undertaking, but Jacob’s
first thought was to send Judah ahead to Egypt to establish a house of
study in the land of Goshen.
Why was this necessary? Granted that a house of study is an
essential component of a vibrant Jewish community, but would it not
have been sufficient to give this matter first priority upon their arrival
Goshen? Couldn’t the house of study been established while they were
The commentators explain that Egypt was such a den of iniquity,
such a morass of promiscuity, corruption and outright evil, that Jacob
was reluctant to bring his family down for even a single day without a
place of refuge. He knew that it was possible for his family to survive
and even flourish in such an environment, but only if they had an
impregnable sanctuary to which they could always withdraw to
reinvigorate themselves spiritually.
Therefore, even if they gave the construction of a house of study
the highest priority, there would still be an interim, albeit brief, during
which the family would be exposed to the contamination of Egyptian
society without an available antidote.
This, too, was an unacceptable risk Who can know what longlasting
damage can be caused by a brief exposure to immorality without
the proper fortification? Who can measure the insidious effects of a
momentary lapse of spiritual defenses?
This is why Jacob decided it was critical to send Judah ahead to
prepare a house of study for his family. In this way, from the moment
they stepped off the wagons, his family would always have the
opportunity to withdraw into their own private island of purity and
spirituality and thereby be fortified against the influence of Egyptian
society. They would always have a place where they could reaffirm their
own unique identities before going out to take on the outside world.
The king of a large tropical nation, whose population was
concentrated along the seashore, was eager to open the jungle-covered
interior to exploration and development. He decided to clear a certain
large area deep in the jungle and build a modern city.
The project director assembled a huge convoy of construction
equipment and vehicles. On the day they were ready, thousands of
people came out to see them off.
When the convoy passed the royal palace, the king came out to
wish them farewell.
“Have you thought of everything?” the king asked the director.
“Indeed, I have, your majesty,” he replied. “We even brought along
food to last us two months.”
“Very good. And what will you drink?”
“That will be no problem. There are several rivers in the area.”
“My dear fellow,” said the king, “you are going into a jungle. Did it
ever occur to you that the water may be malarial? Before you bring all
these workers and equipment out there, make sure you send your
engineers to dig wells and set up a water purifying system. Otherwise,
you will not survive even a single day.”
In our own lives, we find ourselves in a society which is probably
not much less insidious than the Egypt of ancient times. The age-old
evils and immoralities clothe themselves anew in attractive garb and
beckon to us seductively from every direction. Media, books, Internet,
billboards. All these things can be forces for the good, but they
undeniably send period blasts of immorality at us and our children. How
do we protect ourselves and our families? By creating a small sanctuary
in our private lives which will act as a spiritual shield. By setting aside
family time each day for Torah study and introspection, we can fortify
and reinvigorate ourselves so that we can take on the world around us.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanenbaum Education Center.