Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, we read about the Jewish nation that is not actually a nation yet, but rather is an extended family of seventy. They leave Canaan (later to be called the Land of Israel) to their first exile in Egypt. In this strange land, the family becomes a nation with its own unique identity. Why there? Wouldn’t it have been more natural to leave the nation to form its identity in the land intended for it?
It is very difficult to exist within a foreign society and culture, and yet this is the reality chosen as the environment for the nation to establish itself. There are several reasons for this, but we will focus on two of them. Firstly, being in a foreign environment causes a person to adopt a world view in which reality is incomplete and necessitates repair. It was therefore appropriate for a nation about to be given the mission and goal of “tikkun olam”, repairing the world morally and spiritually, to grow into a reality that did not suit its existence. A person who grows up in a seemingly-perfect social reality does not feel the inner motivation to change and repair the world. The Jewish nation that came into being in an alien environment is a nation that carries within it a vision of a repaired world. As such, it is called upon to work toward advancing the world – morally, socially, culturally, and spiritually.
Also, the nation began in a demeaned social status suffering from great discrimination. One of the biggest issues any society deals with is how it treats foreigners. This question is especially important in an agricultural society like those in ancient times. Any foreigner entering the land is checked to see what advantages or disadvantages he has: Does he create more than he uses or vice versa?
The Jewish nation’s time in Egypt created the basis for the repeated warnings in the Torah regarding the proper treatment of foreigners – that person who has been disconnected from his homeland and often also from his family when exiled to a foreign land. The memory of the exile in Egypt is a foundational memory meant to inform Jewish society as one that does not reject the foreigner or stranger, but respects him and makes it possible for him to live respectably. Again and again, the Bible repeated the connection between the exile in Egypt and the obligation to respect foreigners. “And you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, since you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23, 9); “The stranger who sojourns with you shall be as a native from among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your G-d” (Leviticus 19, 34); “You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10, 19).
A nation that rose in exile can see a stranger and respect him, give him space and allow him to exist and integrate. The book of Genesis contains almost no laws or commandments because it is a book that describes the foundation upon which the Jewish nation was built: the period of the forefathers. During this time, the nation’s spiritual foundations were formed and this is when its first exile – the exile to Egypt – began. That was where the important foundation of appropriate treatment of foreigners was laid, a foundation that was to impact the independent Jewish state from ancient times until today.