Having learned that Yosef (Joseph) was alive and well as viceroy of Egypt, our Patriarch Yaakov (Jacob) transported his family to what would be the Children of Israel’s first taste of exile. The Torah takes a census of the seventy members of the family settling in Egypt prior to their arrival. “And these are the names of the children of Israel who are coming into Egypt – Jacob and his children.” (Beraishis/Genesis 46:8) Why does the Torah use the present “who are coming”? Why not use the past “who came”? Rashi elucidates that the Torah is simply capturing that moment as it happened, a sentence structure that should not alarm the reader.
That answer may suffice at this point in the narrative. But the book of Shemos/Exodus opens, “And these are the names of the children of Israel who are coming to Egypt.” At that point in history, the arrival in Egypt had been decades earlier. Rashi’s answer for the anomaly in our parsha (Torah portion) would not seem to apply here. So why does the Torah again use the present tense?
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986; Rosh Yeshiva/Dean of Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem in New York City; the leading Halachic/Jewish legal decisor and foremost leader of Jewry of his time) determines that the statement in Shemos is a statement of the spiritual fortitude of those children and grandchildren who accompanied Yaakov. Throughout their years in Egypt they were not corrupted by the idolatrous, immoral Egyptian culture; rather, they were able to maintain the purity of spirit that they brought with them from their pre-exile experience. At the beginning of Shemos, although decades had passed and these generations had reached the end of their lives, they preserved their youthful vigor of spirit in the service of G-d and were, thus, considered to still be “coming” to Egypt.
Rabbi Feinstein similarly explains the verse at the end of the parsha, “And Israel settled in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen.” (47:27) The Torah established earlier that Goshen was a region within Egypt. Since the Torah does not even use one letter needlessly, no less extra words, why does the Torah not mention Goshen exclusively? Because, answers Rabbi Feinstein, while they were, indeed, within the borders of Egypt, they confined themselves to the region of Goshen. They set themselves apart to shield themselves from the decadence of Egyptian society. The Torah’s expression at the beginning of Shemos that they were “still coming” to Egypt, even as they passed from this world, is testimony to the success of their method.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
We are all active members of contemporary society, dealing with so many different people with so many different value systems, and we have much to learn from those with whom we interact. But we must also appreciate that many of the tenets of Jewish faith are not universally accepted, and prolonged exposure to the corrosive influence of the decadence about us is a threat from which we must seek protection. Fire, which is essential for heat, light and cooking, is also an awesomely destructive force that must be handled with great caution. We recognize its threat to life and limb, and protect ourselves accordingly. We, too, as we go about our business, must maintain an awareness to safeguard ourselves from threats to our spirit. If our forefathers, with their supreme appreciation of G-d, had to protect their spiritual compasses, then, 3300 years after the revelation at Sinai and 2000 years after our exile, what steps are incumbent upon us?
Have a good Shabbos!
Copyright © 2001 by Rabbi Pinchas Avruch and Project Genesis, Inc.
Kol HaKollel is a publication of the Milwaukee Kollel Center for Jewish Studies 5007 West Keefe Avenue; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; 414-447-7999