Parashat Vayigash: Going Down to Egypt
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"Yerida," descent, refers to Egypt only; yet the verse after G-d's revelation to Yaakov and the difference in the obligation of ma'aserot between Egypt and Amon and Moav, helps us understand Egypt's essence and the goal of our descent there.
"G-d called to Israel in a vision by night … 'I am G-d, the G-d of your father. Fear not to descend to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation. I Myself will descend with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back' … Thus Jacob and all his offspring … came to Egypt" (Bereishit 46: 2-6).
Descending vs. Going
It is difficult for us to grasp the depth of Ya'akov's spiritual experience in his vision at Be'er sheva, on his way to Egypt. One thing stands out, however: since Avraham's time the journey to Egypt was called yerida, "descent"; from now on—at least with reference to Ya'akov and his family, the root יר"ד is no longer used. The following verses employ verbs with the root בו"א, "come."
It is interesting that the root יר"ד is unique (at least in the context of the patriarchs) to going to Egypt. When Ya'akov traveled to Haran the term vayelech is used—he "went" to Haran—he did not "go down"; although Haran is situated on the other side of the Euphrates River, and beyond even the broadest borders of the Land of Israel (this is perhaps because eventually Haran would assume the status of Syria, which has intermediate halachic status—it is on the seam between the Land of Israel and "chutz la'aretz").
We cannot say that the term yarad is used simply because Egypt is geographically south of the Land of Israel, and thus below Israel on the map. In ancient times the East was viewed as the upper part of the world, which is why it is called kedem (lit., taking precedence). Ancient maps were not oriented northwards, as are modern maps, rather eastwards. That is, they depicted the East as the top and the West as the bottom. Thus, we must conclude that the transition from the Land of Israel to Egypt is considered a descent in spirituality, due to the spiritual gap between the two locations.
Egyptians are depicted by the Biblical account as steeped in base, animalistic desires. When Pharaoh discovers that Sarah is Avraham's wife, and not his sister, he does not offer Avraham to stay in his land (as does Avimelech, king of the Philistines). Rather, he sends Avraham away (with generous reparations). Our Sages explain that because Pharaoh was concerned that the Egyptians, due to their intense lustful desires, would not be able to control themselves and would sin.
The word Mitzrayim, Egypt, implies meitzar, constraint or limit—which applies to the body only, as opposed to the eternal, unlimited, G-dly soul (Mitzrayim is an ancient Hebrew term, not used by the Egyptians or any other ancient civilization in reference to Egypt). The Egyptian exile is explained by the Ba'al Shem Tov as the soul being enslaved to the body. The Egyptian exile is fundamentally internal. Leaving Egypt-Mitzrayim essentially means leaving the constraints that prevent the soul from growing as it should. With this understanding, we can better grasp why G-d orchestrated the situation such that the Jewish People descended to Egypt in the first place.
Terumot and Ma'aserot Abroad
To further understand this, let's consider the following halacha based in the Mishna in tractate Yadayim (4:3), which deals with the question for which type of ma'aser is taken in Amon and Moav territory during the shemita year.
Despite the fact that terumot and ma'aserot apply only to the Land of Israel, the produce of surrounding countries is subject to terumot and ma'aserot, miderabanan. This includes Babylon (instituted by the Prophets), Egypt (instituted by the Elders, who came after Ezra), and Amon and Moav, situated on the eastern side of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. The order of giving terumot and ma'aserot is as follows: first teruma gedola is given to a kohen, then ma'aser rishon is given to a levi (whereas the levi givens a tenth of this to a kohen as terumat ma'aser). After this, another ma'aser is given depending on the year: ma'aser sheni in years 1, 2, 4,5 of the shemita cycle; and ma'aser ani in years 3 and 6. During the shemita year itself no ma'aser is mandated, since any produce is ownerless, and ownerless produce is exempt from tithing.
The halacha of obligating Israel's surrounding countries in terumot and ma'aserot created a somewhat bizarre situation: on the one hand, there is no shemita, since it's not the Land of Israel (at least not the part obligated in shemita; Ammon and Moav are included in the borders of the Land of Israel promised to the forefathers, gevolot hahavtacha); on the other hand, terumot and ma'aserot are still required. Similarly, we need to take terumot and ma'aserot today during shemita from heter mechira produce.
Ma'aser Sheni or Ma'aser Ani
But here comes the problem. The first gifts: teruma gedola, ma'aser rishon, and terumot ma'aser need to be taken like in any other year. The big question is: which ma'aser should be given at the end: ma'aser sheni or ma'aser ani? The prophets and elders who instituted terumot and ma'aserot abroad thought about this, too. In Babylon, ma'aser sheni was mandated, while in Egypt, ma'aser ani. There is a dispute, though (a rarity in the Mishna), about Amon and Moav between Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria (who holds that ma'aser sheni should be taken) and Rabbi Tarfon (who believes that ma'aser ani should be taken). The Mishna concludes that ma'aser ani should be taken in these areas. This conclusion is bolstered considerably when Rabbi Eliezer (following the affair of the Oven of Achnai sits in his hometown Lod and receives updates of the goings on in the Beit Midrash) conveys that as a halacha leMoshe miSinai (!) ma'aser ani should be taken in Amon and Moav during the shemita year; this means that the obligation in these areas is of a more stringent level than that of Babylon and Egypt (as ruled by the Rambam, Hilchot Matanot Ani'im 6:5). From the Rambam's wording it seems that that since most years ma'aser sheni is taken, it should apply in Egypt, Amon, and Moav during shemita (as instituted in Babylon). However, since these countries are close to the Land of Israel, ma'aser ani was instituted so that Israel's poor could go there and receive ma'aser ani.
It is interesting to note that in practice, despite the Mishna's conclusion and Rambam's ruling, the Radbaz testifies that in his time (circa 15-16th century), terumot and ma'aserot were no longer taken in Egypt. The Sages of Aleppo also state that they did not take terumot and ma'aserot—despite the Mishna's ruling.
Egypt vs. Amon and Moav
Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura raises an interesting question: why was it clear what to separate during the shemita year in Egypt, while in Amon and Moav, closer to the Land of Israel, it was not? He answers that the matter may have been forgotten. The Tiferet Yisrael does not accept tis answer: how is it possible to forget a law applicable every year—and if so, how was this not forgotten in Egypt? He answers that the relations between Amon and Moav and the Jewish People were fundamentally different than those with the Egyptians. While the former were the Jews' bitter enemies, Egypt had warm relations with the Jews: Pharaoh's daughter marries King Solomon, and Egypt was viewed as a possible savior when Babylon attacked Judea. Also later on in history we see a large Jewish community settling in Egypt—with the Onias Temple established there, and the enormous synagogue in Alexandria. It seems, therefore, that these halachot were applicable on a regular basis in Egypt, with Israel's poor coming to Egypt for ma'aser ani—which is why this was not forgotten—in contrast to the situation in Amon and Moav, where not many Jews lived.
The Tiferet Yisrael teaches us an important principle: as opposed to what we might think, since we are surrounded by enemies, Egypt is actually one of our better neighbors. This is especially interesting since the origin of the original dark-skinned Egyptians is from Cham, far from the Semitic origin; while Amon, Moav, Edom, Assyria, and Babylon are all Semitic (Babylon is Avraham's native land).
Distance—the Basis for Closeness
It seems that precisely this distance is what formed the basis for the relatively warm relations between the two nations. Egypt's message was the body and physical desires, while the Jewish People's message was that the soul rules over the body; this allowed for a bond of sorts. The nations closer to us had various spiritual ideologies, so they perceived Judaism as a rival ideology. In contrast, the Egyptians specialized in another area altogether, so the Jewish People did not pose a threat. True, there were times in history where there were conflicts over who would have the upper hand; yet, since each party recognized the "specialty" of the other, they enjoyed a relatively good relationship.
When G-d wanted to build the Jewish People, He first built the nation's body. For this reason, He sent it to a place that specialized in the body: Egypt. The blessing that G-d gives to Yaakov prior to his descent to Egypt was that He would protect the Jewish People. While the Jews emerged from the Egyptian exile sustaining spiritual wounds, the harm was not in the area of Egypt's specialty—base physical desires—and for this reason it was only skin-deep. While the Israelites worshiped idols in Egypt, they did not engage in illicit relations. Rashi notes that the Torah relates that Shlomit bat Dibri has relations with an Egyptian to highlight that it was the only time this occurred. For this reason, from the time of G-d's promise to Ya'akov, the journey to Egypt is no longer a "descent," since the primary spiritual danger no longer exists. And the next stage of nation building was forming the nation's spirit—which would happen at Mt. Sinai.