Make the Most of It
The book of Bereshith ends this week on a seemingly upbeat note. The family
of Yaakov, united and now more numerous, live in an apparently friendly
Egyptian environment, rather smugly protected by their political influence
and their growing wealth.
The last seventeen years of the life of Yaakov are the most serene of his
existence. He studies Torah with his descendants and the Lord does not allow
him, so to speak, to truly envision the disaster to his people and family
that looms in the coming years. In the back of everyone’s mind is the
haunting vision shown to Abraham that his children will be enslaved and
brutalized, but that prophecy apparently does not yet weigh heavily on the
minds and behavior of Jacob’s children and family living currently in Egypt.
The nature of humans is to postpone acting on troubling signs and biter
forecasts. So the immediate troubles of the book of Shemot do not make their
appearance or mark here at the conclusion of the book of Bereshith. The
Torah itself apparently wishes to dwell on the good part of the narrative of
Israel in Egypt before continuing later to detail the horrors of slavery and
persecution that are already lurking in the wings.
Why is this so? Why is the Torah not more straightforward early on in the
Egyptian section of the story of the Jewish people? And even more puzzlingly
why didn’t God speed up the process, so to speak, and begin the bondage
sooner so that the redemption would also have happened earlier? What was
this 130 year delay meant to accomplish?
There is a pattern set here that continues to appear throughout Jewish
history. Our story always goes in waves and not in lurches. The problems
that befall us may seem to be sudden and unexpected but in the long view
that retrospective history provides, they arrive inevitably and gradually.
The Lord, so to speak, provides us with respite between tragedies.
The 130 years of good times in Egypt enabled the Jews to somehow survive the
eighty years of slavery and persecution. Spanish Jewry enjoyed a “golden
age” of centuries before its three century decline into expulsion and forced
apostasy. Polish Jews also enjoyed hundreds of years of autonomy and
governmental favor and protection before declining in the three centuries
which ended with its destruction.
Eighteenth and nineteenth century anti-Semitism clearly laid the groundwork
for the murderous Holocaust. Yet, at the same time Western and Central
European Jewry enjoyed civil rights and great social and economic success
and achievement. In the constant turbulence of First Temple times, the Bible
nevertheless records for us peaceful and prosperous times – forty years,
eighty years – and diplomatic and military stability.
Nothing lasts forever but the history of Israel as a people provides us with
the understanding that God’s will will be done but that the periods of
respite afforded us are necessary for our survival and development as a
people. Far be it from me to analyze our current situation and what wave of
history we are in. But whatever it is we should attempt to make the most of
it for now and for our future.
Rabbi Berel Wein