The Jewish people have been guests in foreign lands throughout history. Looking back, the first time the Jewish people left their homeland for another land was when Yaakov’s sons journeyed to Egypt in search of food to relieve their hunger. After discovering that Yosef, their younger brother, was the viceroy to Pharaoh, they sent for their father to come to join them in this foreign land.
Yaakov was convinced and he traveled with his family and settled in Egypt for the remaining 17 years of his life.
The Baal Haturim writes that the numerical value of the word “tov” or “good” in Hebrew, is 17. This alludes to the fact the best years of Yaakov’s life were the 17 years that he spent in Egypt.
Although Egypt was a place far from home, and was not known for its moral and ethical values nor its love of the Jewish people, somehow Yaakov managed to make those years that he spent there the very best ones of his life.
The Rebbe once related a story of his great-grandfather, the third Chabad Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek:
When he was a young boy, his teacher taught him the verse: “And Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt for 17 years,” explaining these were the best years of Yaakov’s life.
The Tzemach Tzedek asked his grandfather, the Alter Rebbe how it was possible that the best years of Yaakov’s life would be spent in a morally corrupt land.
The Alter Rebbe answered that even before he arrived, Yaakov sent Yehudah to Egypt to establish a house of study. When one studies the Torah, one comes close to G‑d. This closeness allows one to live with true and genuine vitality, even in Egypt.
Yaakov knew that it would be extremely difficult to be away from his homeland. He needed a life force to keep him grounded and focused.
In order to prepare for this, before he traveled to Egypt, he made sure to send his son Yehudah ahead and asked him to establish houses of study, where Torah could be learned. That way there would be a place to connect to Hashem regardless of the challenge.
Yaakov knew that in order to be unphased by his surroundings, staying connected to Hashem through Torah study was an absolute must.
Recently, we have been faced with an unprecedented amount of challenges as a Jewish nation. Often one may ask himself, “How can I remain a true proud Jew in the face of so much adversity? How can I fend off the pressures coming from society that may require me to change the way I express my Judaism?”
The lesson Yaakov teaches us is that no matter the pressure, if we have our anchor through connecting to Hashem by studying his Torah and doing his mitzvot, even our very best years can be a land where we face many challenges.
Hashem, who is not bound to the limitations or the confines of the physical world, allows us to connect to Him through His Torah and mitzvot. When we do so, no matter the challenge, we can be assured that we will persevere. pjc
Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld is executive director of Yeshiva Schools and of Chabad of Western Pennsylvania. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.