The Midrash states that the entire saga of Yosef and his brothers—the brothers’ seemingly uncontrollable jealousy of him; his sale, imprisonment, and rise to power; their eventual confrontation and rapprochement—was all an “awesome plot” devised by G‑d to bring Yaakov and his family to Egypt.
When Yaakov sent Yosef to go check up on his brothers—a mission from which Yosef did not return and was lost to his father for the next 22 years—the Torah describes it thus: “And he sent him from the valley (literally, “the depth”) of Hebron, and he came to Shechem.” Our Sages ask, Where is the “valley of Hebron”? Hebron sits on the high ground! But the meaning of the phrase, they explain, is allegorical: Yosef was dispatched on his way from “the depth of Hebron”—from the depths of the Divine plan that had been confided to Avraham, the patriarch buried in the Cave of Machpeila in Hebron.
At the “Covenant Between the Pieces,” Avraham had been given a choice by G‑d: Shall your children suffer galus (exile) or gehenah (hell)? Avraham chose galus, thus sending Yosef on the road to Egypt, to be followed by the rest of his family, so that the Children of Israel should experience four generations of exile and slavery before proceeding to Mount Sinai to receive their mandate as G‑d’s chosen people.
But why did it have to be so complicated? Was there no other way to get Israel and family to Egypt? The Midrash offers the following parable in explanation:
This is comparable to a cow upon whom it was desired to place a yoke, but the cow was withholding her neck from the yoke. What did they do? They took her calf from behind her and drew him to the place where they wanted her to plow, and the calf was bleating. When the cow heard her calf bleating, she went despite herself, because of her young one.
By the same token, Yaakov might have had to be brought down to Egypt in chains, but then G‑d declared: “He is My firstborn son; shall I then bring him down in disgrace?” Now, if I provoke Pharaoh [to forcefully bring him to Egypt], I will not bring him down with befitting honor. Therefore I will draw his son before him, and so he will follow despite himself.
This explanation, however, seems to raise more questions than it answers. Was the manner in which Yaakov was made to arrive in Egypt any more pleasant than if he’d been brought down as a prisoner of Pharaoh’s? Were the pain and despair of the 22 years in which he mourned his beloved son preferable to the discomfort of physical chains? Certainly Yaakov would have readily suffered that indignity to spare Yosef his years of slavery and imprisonment, and his other sons their years of guilt and remorse!
Furthermore, in the final analysis, Yaakov was forced to go down to Egypt, by the fact that G‑d had sent Yosef there; in what way was this any less coercive than if he had been physically forced? Why, for that matter, did he have to be coerced in any way? What if G‑d had simply appeared to him one day, and said, “Yaakov, take your whole family and go to Egypt. It’s all part of My grand plan for the people of Israel.” Would Yaakov not have complied?
Chassidic teaching explains that two counter-objectives had to be achieved. On the one hand, Yaakov had to be compelled to relocate to Egypt—a voluntary migration would not have been an exile! Galus, by definition, is a place where one does not want to be, a place that is contrary to one’s intrinsic self and will. On the other hand, the fact that Yaakov arrived in Egypt in honor and glory, and in a position of power as the father of that country’s ruler—rather than as a prisoner in chains—meant that he and his descendants would never truly be subject to their host country. Thus the key to Israel’s eventual liberation from Egypt was already “programmed” into the circumstances under which their galus commenced.
This was G‑d’s “awesome plot”: to force Yaakov to go down to Egypt, but to do so in a way that did not entail Egypt’s power over him, but his power over Egypt. What brought Yaakov to Egypt was the fact that his son was the ruler of the land; but the chain of events that brought this about had to develop without his knowledge and contrary to his will.
Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe; adapted by Yanki Tauber. Courtesy of MeaningfulLife.com via Chabad.org. Find more Torah articles for the whole family at www.chabad.org/parshah.