By Rabbi Yitzchok D. Frankel
Agudath Israel of the Five Towns
Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt 17 years . . .
The beginning of Parashas Vayechi is hard to find. It is not separated from the previous parashah by the usual nine spaces; there are a mere three. Vayechi is not “open” but rather “closed.” Rashi immediately notes this and offers two explanations for this strange Torah phenomenon.
The first is: “When Yaakov Avinu died, the eyes and hearts of the Jewish people became stopped up, due to the trouble of the servitude—for they began to enslave them” (Rashi, ad loc.).
The “closed” nature of the parashah symbolizes the fact that when Yaakov Avinu died, Bnei Yisrael became blinded to what was going on around them. Their eyes and hearts were stopped up and “closed.” They were spiraling downward into Egyptian servitude but did not recognize it. They didn’t understand or sense what was happening. It was “closed” to them. Ultimately, they sank into the harsh and abject slavery that characterized the last 86 years spent in Egypt, which is what we speak about on Pesach.
This explanation of Rashi seems not to be in concert with the other teachings of Chazal, which indicate that the servitude didn’t begin until Levi died. Chazal tell us that until Levi died, which was much later, Bnei Yisrael did not undergo any serious aspects of galus at all. If we consider the facts, we will see that when Yaakov Avinu died, Yosef was only 54 years old. And Yosef himself died at the age of 110. That leaves another 56 years during which Yosef was the viceroy of Egypt, and Bnei Yisrael lived under royal auspices. Levi’s death was after Yosef”s, for Levi was the last of the brothers to die.
So how can Rashi say that Bnei Yisrael were spiraling downward into servitude while Yosef was the acting king? How may we understand this?
I believe the answer can be found later on:
“And all the house of Yosef and his brothers and his father’s house; only their young children and their flocks and their cattle did they leave in the land of Goshen” (Bereishis 50:8).
When Yaakov Avinu died, a great entourage of Bnei Yisrael accompanied his bier on the journey back to Eretz Yisrael for his burial in Me’aras HaMachpeilah. Although great numbers came along for the journey, the pasuk strangely emphasizes that the children had to remain at home in the land of Goshen. The children stayed in Mitzrayim, along with the livestock.
Why do we have to know this, and why didn’t the children go? What was wrong with them going along and being part of the entourage of the burial of Yaakov?
The answer is quite simple: Bnei Yisrael didn’t have a choice. Pharaoh didn’t let the children go. Pharaoh was concerned that if Bnei Yisrael would take their children and their livestock along with them, they would certainly never return. They had all the freedom in the world to do whatever they wanted, but one freedom they lacked: the right to permanently leave Mitzrayim. They were locked in!
That’s what the pasuk is coming to tell us. Initially, Klal Yisrael didn’t realize the significance of this. In other words, “the eyes and hearts of the Jewish people became stopped up, due to the trouble of the servitude.” Yes, they lived in the “Goldena Medinah”; they lived on the fat of the land. Yes, Yosef their brother was the chief architect of all that took place in Egypt, and presided over the greatness of Egypt as a world power. But the fact that Bnei Yisrael couldn’t leave was the beginning of the servitude. It was not an easily recognizable servitude, because at this point it was not a harsh and oppressive galus; the real trouble was still ahead of them. And that was why their eyes and hearts were stopped up and they didn’t see what was happening to them. They didn’t comprehend the significance of it, what it would lead to.
While the tangible, visible servitude began only after Levi died, the hidden servitude began as soon as Yaakov died.
Subsequently I discovered this explanation explicitly in the commentary of the Akeidah.
“‘Yosef ascended . . . only their young children and their flocks and their cattle did they leave in the land of Goshen. . . .’ This means that when the elder passed away, his sons wanted to leave from there with all they had, but the Egyptians would not allow them [to leave] unless their children and flocks and cattle would be detained. This is because the Egyptians already planned to take possession of them and their property, to hold them as forced laborers.
“This is what Chazal said (Bereishis Rabbah 56): ‘Why is this parashah closed, among all the parashiyos? It is to teach you that when Yaakov Avinu passed away, Egyptian servitude began upon the Jews.’ In other words, at that time they realized that the Egyptians did not intend to send them away as they wished. This is the meaning of what Yosef said: ‘G‑d will surely remember you, and will bring you out . . .’ This shows that Yosef already knew that they would need to be remembered by G‑d.” (Akeidas Yitzchak, Shaar 33)
Baruch shekivanti. v
Rabbi Frankel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. At local stores: Machat shel Yad Shemos