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Vayigash | The Nation for Whom Nothing Comes Easily

Harav Yehuda Amital
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The yeshiva wishes a warm mazal tov to Rav Menachem and Thea Leibtag and Rav Shuki and Efrat Reiss upon the marriage of their children Leah and Yedidya - May they be zocheh to build a bayit ne'eman beYisrael!

Translated by Kaeren Fish


            In Yehuda’s address to Tzofnat Paaneah (Yosef) at the beginning of this week’s parasha, he says:


“My lord questioned his servants, saying: Do you have a father or a brother?” (Bereishit 44:19)


The Midrash explains:


“He said to him: From the start you were trying to trap us. How many nationalities come down to Egypt to buy food, but you have never questioned any one of them! Have we then come to take your daughter, or do you perhaps mean to marry our sister?” (Bereishit Rabba 93, 8)


The Midrash portrays the brothers’ frustration graphically. Huge numbers of people, from all over the world, have come to Egypt to buy food. All seem to have an easy enough time of it – they pay, receive their food, and return to their countries. Only Yaakov’s sons have been beset with problems: first, they are suspected of being spies, then one of them is imprisoned, and finally – worst of all – their youngest brother is in danger of being committed to servitude. Yehuda gives voice to what all of the brothers are feeling: why is this happening specifically to us? Why are we different from all the other people?


But the brothers’ distress has another, deeper dimension to it. There is no doubt that our forefathers lived with a special historical awareness. They knew that they were destined to establish the chosen nation, and that everything that happened to them during their lifetimes would define the nature and character of the nation in the future. Beyond the personal difficulty experienced by the brothers in their descent to Egypt, they feared that their problem-ridden experience there was related to future events that the nation was destined to endure. Indeed, this was to be the case: from the time of the brothers’ descent to Egypt and until today, the history of Am Yisrael has been strewn with innumerable difficulties.


Today, after thousands of years of Jewish existence, we are only too conscious of the phenomenon that so aroused the brothers’ bewilderment: things that go smoothly for other nations of the world happen, in the case of Am Yisrael, through struggles and battles. Nations have established states without any special effort; in our case it involved extraordinary exertion. Only in our case is the simple fact of living in our land accompanied by incessant war – and so on, in other areas of life.


Why, in fact, are things that are so easy for other nations, so difficult for us?


The answer to this question is that there is a qualitative difference between the history of the nations of the world and that of Am Yisrael. While the history of other nations is shaped by their actions and directed by their fate, Am Yisrael is under the constant, close guidance of God. Therefore, things that are simple for other nations can be extremely complicated for us, since our fate is in God’s hands. The Holy One seeks to test and teach us by exercising His Providence. Therefore, our history is completely different from anything that has ever happened to other nations.


In fact, Yosef emphasizes this point over and over when he eventually reveals himself to his brothers. “For it was to save lives that God sent me before you” (45:5); “It is not you who sent me here, but God” (ibid., 8); “God planned it for the good, in order to perform this day and to give life to many people." All of the brothers’ difficulties in Egypt were directed by God; it was all part of the overall Divine plan that had already been told to Avraham at the Covenant of the Parts.


Already at that covenant, Avraham had been told that the settlement of Am Yisrael in their land could not come about without difficulties. In the story of the descent to Egypt we see the beginning of the realization of Avraham’s prophecy. The history of Am Yisrael, from this point onwards, is beset with difficulties and challenges – which arise specifically because of God’s special guidance, requiring more of us than of other nations. 


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