Jacob’s Hardship: There Is No Life But Torah
It is written, “And Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen; and they had possessions therein, and were fruitful and multiplied exceedingly. And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years; and the days of Jacob, the years of his life, were one hundred and forty-seven years” (Genesis 47:27-28).
Rabbi Yochanan said, “Whenever [Scripture] writes ‘Vayeishev [And he dwelt],’ it denotes hardship. Thus, ‘And Israel dwelt in Shittim, and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab’ [Numbers 25:1] and, ‘And Jacob dwelt in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan…and Joseph brought the evil report of them to his father’ [Genesis 37:1-2] and, ‘And Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen…and the days of Israel grew near to die’ [Genesis 47:27,29]” (Sanhedrin 106a).
These remarks must be explained point by point:
1. Was Jacob’s sojourn in the land of Goshen really so difficult, given that it is stated: “The seventeen years of Jacob in Egypt were the best of his life” (Ohr HaChaim, Vayechi) and, “The end of his life was good” (Tanna D’vei Eliyahu Rabba 5)? It is also stated, “During his lifetime [Rabbi Judah HaNasi] lived seventeen years in Sepphoris, and he applied to himself the verse: ‘And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years’ ” (Bereshith Rabba 96:5), which seems to contradict the opinion of Rabbi Yochanan.
The verse, “And Jacob dwelt in the land of his father’s sojournings” (Genesis 37:1) indicates that he lived in hardship. Furthermore the Sages say, “The Patriarch Jacob wished to live at ease in this world, whereupon he was attacked by Joseph’s Satan [i.e., he was shaken out of his tranquility by his troubles with Joseph]” (Bereshith Rabba 84:3). However our verse indicates that Jacob’s years in Egypt were happy and tranquil, since concerning the Children of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt it is stated, “and [they] were fruitful and multiplied exceedingly” (Genesis 47:27). Afterwards it is written, “the days of Israel [Jacob] grew near to die” (v.29), which indicates that all these years were good and tranquil. That being the case, why should we regard the term Vayeishev as denoting hardship?
2. Since we know that Goshen is in Egypt, why the redundant expression, “in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen”? What does the Torah want us to understand by this?
The answer is that the very act of settling down in tranquility leads to idleness, the mother of all sins, as the Sages have said: “Idleness leads to unchastity…idleness leads to dullness” (Ketubot 59b) and, “Talmidei Chachamim have no rest, either in this world or in the World to Come” (Berachot 64a). The same applies to the righteous (Bereshith Rabba 84:3). If they were to rest, they would arrive at idleness and not be so righteous, for it is only in the next world that the evil inclination is powerless. In addition, tranquility in this world seems to be a reward for good deeds, yet “there is no reward for commandments in this world” (Chullin 142a). The righteous must not want to receive their reward in this world, only in the next, where they will “sit with their crowns on their heads” (Berachot 17a).
From Jacob we learn a fundamental principle that is valid for all generations, namely that Jews should not seek tranquility in this world, even if it is available to them. Jacob could have settled down in tranquility, but he did not do so because that would have been considered as his reward, and as we mentioned, “there is no reward for commandments in this world.”
In the Talmud we find the story of Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa and his wife (Taanith 25a). She yearned for a little comfort and less hardship in this world, for they were very poor. Rabbi Chanina prayed, and his prayer was answered: From heaven a leg of a golden table was given to them. In a dream that night, Rabbi Chanina saw that the pious would one day eat at a three-legged golden table, whereas he would eat at a two-legged table. He said to his wife, “Are you content that everybody shall eat at a perfect table and we at an imperfect table?” She replied, “What shall we do? Pray that the leg should be taken away from you.” Rabbi Chanina prayed, and his prayer was again answered. The meaning of this story is that a tranquil life in this world lessens by the same amount the reward reserved for us in the World to Come.
Rabbeinu HaKadosh (Rabbi Judah HaNasi) was extremely rich. Before dying, he testified that he never derived the slightest pleasure from things in this world (Ketubot 104a), and we are aware of the great physical suffering that he experienced in life (Bava Metzia 85a). The Talmud tells us that Rabbi Elazar ben Charsom will serve as a witness against the rich, for his great wealth did not prevent him from studying Torah (Yoma 35b).
Comfort leads to idleness and sin, especially in the Holy Land, where tranquility may awaken the evil inclination. It is especially in a holy place such as Israel that a person must push himself to not be idle, but rather to practice the Torah, particularly since “there is no Torah like the Torah of the Land of Israel” (Vayikra Rabba 13:5). The Sages add, “Gehenna has three gates: One in the wilderness, one in the sea, and one in Jerusalem” (Eruvin 19a), meaning that in Jerusalem, and Israel in general, the evil inclination is very powerful. Hence a person must control it by a permanent connection to the Torah and service of G-d, in a degree of holiness befitting the Land of Israel, a land that is “holier than all other lands” (Bamidbar Rabba 7:8). It is “a land that the L-RD your G-d seeks out. The eyes of the L-RD your G-d are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to year’s end” (Deuteronomy 11:12). If we are not immersed in Torah, but instead delight in tranquility, the evil inclination will turn us away from serving G-d, and once it traps a person in its net, it distances him from the good and straight path.
It is written, “From the days of Moses up to Rabban Gamliel, the Torah was learned only standing. When Rabban Gamliel died, feebleness descended upon the world, and they learned the Torah sitting” (Megillah 21a) and, “When Rabban Gamliel the elder died, the glory of the Torah ceased” (Sotah 49a). As long as Rabban Gamliel was alive, people studied the Torah while standing, with great effort. This custom was maintained until the Second Temple was destroyed and the exile began, so great was Rabban Gamliel’s influence on his generation. After his death, however, nobody exerted such an influence on his contemporaries. Because the generation had weakened, the custom ceased.
Jacob was afflicted by the tragedy surrounding Joseph because he wanted to live in tranquility. If this occurred in a holy place such as the Land of Israel, how much more was Jacob not to live in comfort while in Egypt! The province of Goshen was prosperous and flourishing, the richest in all of Egypt, as it is written: “Settle your father and your brothers in the best part of the land; let them settle in the region of Goshen” (Genesis 47:6). There is no doubt that the evil inclination is powerful; hence a person must be careful not to seek out comfort, but instead to occupy himself with the Torah and serving G-d. In this way he will experience wall-like protection from all surrounding temptations.
Concerning the verse, “[Jacob] sent Judah ahead of him to Joseph” (Genesis 46:28), the Sages say that he did this “to prepare an academy for him there, where he would teach Torah and where the tribal ancestors would read the Torah” (Bereshith Rabba 95:3). Jacob did not wait until having personally arrived in Egypt; he made preparations in advance so that his children would immediately find a place of Torah where they could go and study as soon as they arrived, not losing a single moment.
We now see just how right Rabbi Yochanan was in saying that the expression, “And Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt” (Genesis 47:27) denotes hardship. This consisted of the effort involved in Torah study, as it is written: “Commensurate with the painstaking effort is the reward” (Perkei Avoth 5:21). The verse is praising Jacob because he persevered in the path of Torah and service of G-d, laboring without respite, even in an immoral country such as Egypt and a pleasant area such as Goshen.
What we have said also explains the repetition, “in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen” (Genesis 47:27), which points out Jacob’s virtues to us. The verse states, “They had possessions therein, and were fruitful and multiplied exceedingly” – they believed in the Torah and took firm hold of it, in the sense of, “It is a tree of life to those who grasp it” (Proverbs 3:18).
Rabban Yochanan was indeed correct in saying that the hardship refers to what is mentioned afterwards: “The days of Israel grew near to die” (Genesis 47:29). This is because in addition to all the hardships he endured during his 17 years in Egypt, an extra hardship was added. Jacob felt that it was possible, while living in the land of Egypt, to serve G-d in an exceptional way by constantly fighting against the evil inclination. He was therefore happy to faithfully serve G-d there – specifically in Egypt, in the land of Goshen. Those years were the best of his life precisely because he elevated himself in his service of G-d, advancing “from strength to strength” (Psalms 84:8). This is why he felt great sorrow when his days approached their end, for he wanted to continue serving G-d in toil and suffering. He was therefore distressed to see that he was going to leave this world and his days of serving G-d would soon end.
We learn a fundamental principle from this, namely that it is precisely while in exile that a person can reach lofty levels in serving G-d. If he does not take advantage of this, he will lose out greatly. Jacob shows each generation in this bitter exile how to elevate oneself and achieve desired perfection. It is good to do this as soon as possible, so as not to leave this world with regret for having failed in one’s task.
Afterwards it is written, “Then Jacob called for his sons and said, ‘Assemble yourselves and I will tell you what will befall you in the End of Days’ ” (Genesis 49:1). The Sages explain: “Jacob wished to reveal to his sons the ‘End of Days,’ whereupon the Shechinah departed from him” (Pesachim 56a). The date of the End of Days escaped him, yet he still revealed something to his children. By telling them, “Assemble yourselves,” he gave them two pieces of advice that would protect Jews during their long exile: First, to be united like a single person; and second, to increase their Torah study. The word asfu (from hai’asfu, “assemble yourselves”) also means “to add,” and the Sages say, “He who increases [mosif] will have his life prolonged [yosif]” (Taanith 31a). Torah study and Jewish unity would protect them against the evil inclination, which cannot sidetrack multitudes of Jews connected to Torah, and which only has power over a few weak, isolated people. The Sages have said, “If you occupy yourselves with the Torah, you will not be delivered into his hand” (Kiddushin 30b) and they add, “When they do the will of the Omnipresent, no nation nor any tongue has any power over them” (Ketubot 66b). In addition, G-d said to Moses, “Tell Israel: ‘My children! Occupy yourselves with the Torah and you need not be afraid of any nation’ ” (Vayikra Rabba 25:1). The power of unity is great, as indicated by the verse: “Ephraim is attached to idols; let him be” (Hosea 4:17). This means that even when they worship idols, they cannot be defeated if they are united. The Final Redemption will only occur because of Jewish unity, as the Sages have said: “Israel’s redemption will only take place once they are united” (Tanhuma Nitzavim 1), and it is solely by Torah that they can be. It is possible that this is what the Sages meant when they said, “He who shares in the distress of the community will merit to behold its consolation” (Taanith 11a) and, “Whoever puts effort into studying Torah in this world, G-d will place a halo of benevolence over his head” (Tanna D’vei Eliezer Zutah 17).
Concerning the verse itself (“And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years” – Genesis 47:28), we note that the word "vayechi" can be divided into two parts: (vei) and (chai). In other words, all the years that Jacob lived in Egypt were vei, filled with hardship, as we said earlier. However these 17 years (the numerical value of the word tov [good]) were all good, since Jacob conquered the evil inclination and elevated himself in Torah through constant effort. He was distressed when he saw his life coming to an end. This is something very instructive, something that we can all draw a lesson from.