This column is dedicated to the sacred memory of the author’s sister-in-law, Ruchama Rivka Sondra, and the refuah shlaimah of Yosef Shmuel ben Miriam.
The land of Egypt has always loomed large in the history of our nation. In fact, the word “Mitzraim” appears 680 times in Tanach. In the main, our people’s relationship with this land has been a negative one.
After all, this is the country wherein we were enslaved and tortured for 210 years. Moreover, this land has always been associated with some of the worst forms of depravity and perversion. Thus we read on Yom Kippur afternoon: “Like the practice of the land of Egypt, in which you dwelled, you shall not do and like the practice of the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you, you shall not do, and you shall not follow their statutes.” (Sefer Vayikra 18:3) Rashi, basing himself on the Torat Kohanim, the halachic Midrash to Sefer Vayikra, explains our verse in the following manner:
[This verse] informs [us] that the deeds of the Egyptians and the Canaanites were more corrupt than those of all other nations, and moreover, that the [Egyptians residing in that] region [of Egypt] in which the Israelites had dwelt, were the most corrupt of all. [Torath Kohanim 18:138 Translated by The Judaica Press Complete Tanach]
Little wonder then, that when the Patriarchs were faced with the possibility of going down to Egypt, they experienced fear and trembling. Each knew that their potential y’ridah (act of going down) from the Land of Israel contained the seeds of the spiritual and physical destruction of our people.
In all instances, they were forced to consider going down to Egypt (Yitzhak), or actually went to Egypt (Avraham and Yaakov), because of an unrelenting famine.
The famine that Avraham was forced to face was one of his 10 trials (Pirkei Avot 5:3). This was particularly the case since Hashem was silent in the face of Avraham’s decision to go down to Egypt. No Divine Voice was heard to comfort him. In unremitting loneliness and concomitant fear, he descended to Egypt. In stark contrast, Hashem reassured Yaakov that his journey would not be a one-way one. Moreover, He promised Yaakov that He would stand by him through all of the misery of Mitzraim:
And G-d said to Israel in visions of the night, and He said, “Jacob, Jacob!” And he said, “Here I am.” And He said, “I am G-d, the G-d of your father. Do not be afraid of going down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up, and Joseph will place his hand on your eyes.” (Ibid., 46:2-4)
Yitzhak’s story differed quite markedly from that of his father and son. Although he had made full plans to go down to Egypt, Hashem did not allow him to do so. Moreover, Hashem used this exact moment to promise him that His Divine providence would accompany him and bless him - in the Land of Israel. Additionally, Hashem promised Yitzhak that the assurances He had given his father Avraham would be fulfilled through him, and that He would increase Yitzhak’s offspring beyond anyone’s imagination.
The Meforshim (Torah commentators) all wrestle with the obvious inconsistency with which we are presented. Why were Avraham and Yaakov allowed, if not outright encouraged, to go to Egypt, while Yitzhak was forbidden to do so? Why could Yitzhak’s destiny only be realized in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel), whereas the promises made to Avraham and Yaakov were universal in nature and not place-bound? It is to these questions we now turn.
The vast majority of commentators follow Rashi’s position presented below. It is based upon two Midrashim, Tanchumah Buber and Bereishit Rabbah:
“Do not go down to Egypt” For he had in mind to go down to Egypt as his father had gone down in the days of the famine. He [G-d] said to him, “Do not go down to Egypt.” You are [as] a perfect burnt offering, and being outside the Holy Land is not fitting for you. [Tanchuma Buber, Toledoth 6; Gen. Rabbah 64:3]
Although Midrashically inspired, Rashi deemed this interpretation to be the p’shat (the direct meaning) of this verse. Yitzhak, it appears, was simply too holy to leave the kedushah (holiness) of Eretz Yisrael. His near-death experience at the Akeida (Binding of Isaac) had transformed him into all but an actual korban (sacrifice) within Hashem’s perception. Just as sacrifices would one day be proscribed outside the Land of Israel (and eventually outside the Temple precincts), Yitzhak was prohibited from leaving the Land.
Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim of Luntchitz, known as the “Kli Yakar” after the title of his most famous work, adopted a very different approach from Rashi to explain Yitzhak’s injunction from leaving Eretz Yisrael. While Rashi’s emphasis was placed squarely upon the singular and holy nature of Yitzhak, the Kli Yakar focused upon Hashem’s Divine Presence:
It appears likely to me that the reason why Hashem prevented him [Yitzhak] from leaving Eretz Yisrael was because chutz l’aretz (outside the Land of Israel) is no place for the Divine Presence to make itself manifest. If that is the case, Hashem would have been unable [so to speak] to utter His prophetic utterances to Yitzhak regarding pressing matters of the moment. Therefore, Hashem was really telling him: “Dwell in the land wherein I manifest My Divine Presence, for therein I will speak to you at any moment I so desire regarding any matter of Prophecy.”
While these two approaches follow their own paths in explaining why Yitzhak was forbidden to leave Eretz Yisrael, they nonetheless share a common thread between them. Both explanations squarely focus upon kedushat ha’aretz, the holiness of the land of Israel. Little wonder that our Sages stated:
Our Rabbis taught: One should always live in the Land of Israel, even in a town where most of the inhabitants are idolaters, but let no one live outside the Land, even in a town where most of the inhabitants are Israelites; for whoever lives in the Land of Israel may be considered to have a G-d, but whoever lives outside the Land may be regarded as if he has no G-d. For it is said in Scripture, “To give you the Land of Canaan, to be your G-d.” [Sefer Vayikra 25:38] Has he, then, who does not live in the Land, no G-d? But [this is what the text intended] to tell you, that whoever lives outside the Land may be regarded as if he worships idols. (Translation by Soncino Talmud, Ketubot 110b with my emendations)
In summary, dwelling in the Land of Israel means that, by definition, one has a close and special relationship with Hashem. It is this unique spiritual bond that enables us to feel that we are “home” as soon as our plane lands at Ben Gurion airport. In stark contrast, one who lives outside Eretz Yisrael “may be regarded as if he has no G-d” and “as if he worships idols.” This is because, in a certain sense, one who lives outside of the Land is as if he is not living at all, since his life is devoid of the sparks of kedushah that the Land of Israel, itself, bestows upon us.
May Mashiach Tzidkeinu joyfully bring all of us back from the four corners of the earth to our one and only true homeland, Eretz Yisrael. May this time come soon and in our days. V’chane yihi ratzon.
Rabbi David Etengoff is the Director of Educational Technology at Magen David Yeshivah in Brooklyn and a resident of Cedarhurst. His previous parsha columns can be found at http://reparashathashavuah.weebly.com. Sign up for his weekly parsha email at email@example.com.