Egypt was the first of many diasporas for the Jewish people. Whether at home or on the road, how do we fulfill the command to “be fruitful?”
Table for Five: Vayigash
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
And Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt in the land of Goshen, and they acquired property in it, and they were fruitful and multiplied greatly. -Gen 47:27
Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld, Scholar In-Residence, JMI/Aish
I grew up in a bubble. Jewish schools, camps, synagogues, neighborhoods. My birth essentially moved me from one womb to another as I entered the nurturing environment known as the Jewish Community. The transition was seamless.
Goshen was the first bubble in Jewish history. It was the brainchild of Jacob and Joseph and was the first planned Jewish community. It cultivated contemplation, service and morality and was a place designed to nourish souls and shield its inhabitants from the corrupting impulses of the world around them. We thrived there and proliferated there. But here’s the thing. There’s no proof that we had any sublime impact on the world outside of our bubble.
I have absolutely no source for what I’m about to share but I’m left to wonder whether our failure to influence the hearts and souls of the Egyptians was a result of a bubble experience that sought to protect, not to inspire.
Our verse can be interpreted as “the land acquired us” rather than “we acquired land”. The bubble experience is comfortable and secure and it’s easy to be “acquired” by the warmth and depth of such a life. While it’s perhaps justifiable to prioritize one’s own fulfillment and security, I suspect that G-d has a higher aspiration for us. At the risk of “bursting our bubble”, the Jewish people aren’t here to merely live elevated lives. We’re here to be beacons and “influencers” and our bubbles should launch us and prepare us for those roles.
Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, Associate Dean, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at AJU
Reconciling with his family, Joseph brings them to Egypt promising a better life than the starvation and depravation that had befallen them in Canaan. Twenty verses prior, we are told that Joseph’s family and those who accompanied them ‘sojourn’ in Goshen, the Hebrew word lagur indicating they are thus fulfilling the strategy Joseph earlier outlined to his brothers.
Now we read that the collective group of Joseph’s family and those who accompanied them are ‘settled’ in Goshen, the finest area of Egypt, amassing property and multiplying.
Commentators question this evolution from alien sojourner to land-owning settlement. Eleventh century commentator Ibn Ezra contends that the people are no longer happy with Joseph’s allocation of property, so they purchase even more land. Other commentators label this an act of assimilation into Egyptian culture. But 16th century commentator, Kli Yakar, offers a different take. For him, the establishment of deeper roots in Egypt shows that the people no longer saw themselves as alien sojourners, but rather as permanent residents and that this is necessary for the later fulfillment of God’s promise to free the Israelites with an outstretched arm. Still, the challenge to this type of determinism lies in the final phrase – Israel living out the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise of progeny.
The enduring message?
The path is never guaranteed nor is it necessarily circuitous, but God’s promise for each one of us travels with us wherever we go. It is in front of us and is ours to make permanent and create meaning.
Romain Hini-Szlos, Photographer, rhsgallery.com
Throughout history, the Jewish people have settled in an array of countries. With great hardship, some communities found success and were fruitful in the galut. But like their namesake, Israel (which means “to wrestle”), Jews outside the land of Israel have wrestled with the dual challenges of assimilation and anti-Semitism for thousands of years.
At surface level, this pasuk tells us that Hashem will give Jews the capability to “be fruitful and multiply greatly” in other lands (here meaning Egypt). But the deeper meaning of this promise is not without its conditions: in the diaspora, the Jewish people will have the capacity to thrive materially, but the temptation to forget the source of these blessings will be great. The moment the Jewish people forget that their blessings are given by God (and God alone), they will have to toil and wrestle to maintain these blessings.
Such effort also applies to the Jewish state itself. God gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people as a covenant, and it is precisely in moments when we forget (or even shun) the gift of this land that we return to a state of wrestling: wrestling with a lack of connection to Israel as well as wrestling with the notion that Israel is God’s gift to us.
To that end, we would be wise to remember Deuteronomy 8:18: “You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gave you strength to acquire wealth.” It is a remembrance that precedes gratitude.
Miriam Mill-Kreisman, Tzaddik Foundation
This pasuk may be a description of the first exile when the Israelites went down to Egypt but it is really the archetypical exile to happen time and time again. How often did we leave (or more often were forced from) a land, arrive at another land as figurative shepherds, simple and holy, sheltered from outside influences, and proceed to have unbelievable success materially?
We arrive, we grow, we expand, we influence, we leave and the cycle continues. For what? And what should we say to the non–Jews who ask “What are you doing here in our land?” We need not say the easy answer such as “for religious freedom, or security or prosperity” which are all nice things. Instead, we should tell them the plan that we are not here to stay but to transform and help perfect the world, to bring down the light of the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, to share the truth of the Torah just by our presence and by living Torah-true lives.
But why the success? Maybe the answer is simply that our growth and success gets us noticed, raises eyebrows, and makes us heard. Because the job we have to do is not easy, but someone has to do it. G-d entrusted the Jewish people with that holy mission. May we all be successful both materially and spiritually.
Salvador Litvak, Executive Director, accidentaltalmudist.org
We could all be more productive. Because I run a Torah education nonprofit, I know that any time I waste on the organization’s dime is tantamount to stealing from a public trust, so I’m strongly incentivized to be productive at work. But what about when I’m wearing my screenwriting hat, and working on a spec script? No one pays for my time, so the only person I let down is myself, right?
Wrong. All of us were sent into this world on a mission. The nature and extent of that mission are not spelled out in some kind of contract available for review, but we get a strong sense of its terms when we ask, “What contribution can only be made by me?”
Earlier this year, as I prepared for Rosh Hashana and the Days of Awe, I was wondering if I could find some support from halacha, Jewish law, for becoming more productive in my own projects. I found it in the very first commandment written in the Torah: p’ru ur’vu, be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:22), the same words used in our verse. The command is normally understood to mean “reproduce!” but if that’s all it means the second word, multiply, would have been sufficient. How then are we to “be fruitful?”
I believe it means I’m commanded to make the unique contribution only I can make, just as you are commanded to offer your unique gift to the world. Are you creative? Are you generous? Are you funny? Are you a great listener? A great ball player? Do you come up with the best recipes or costumes or gadget ideas? Then be fruitful!
With thanks to Romain Hini-Szlos, Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld, Miriam Mill-Kreisman, and Rabbi Cheryl Peretz.
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