April 16, 2024
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Upon his southern descent to Egypt, Yaakov sojourns in the city of Be’er Sheva and experiences a dramatic nighttime visit from God, replete with Divine guarantees about his uncertain future. This scene is highly reminiscent of an earlier nocturnal encounter—Yaakov’s dream of a celestial ladder upon which angels voyaged. That earlier encounter occurred in the northern city of Beit El and also included guarantees for Yaakov’s future. At that earlier stage, the promises and guarantees are absolutely crucial for his survival; Yaakov is penniless, alone and stalked by his murderous brother. Vulnerable and abandoned, he is fully dependent on Divine assistance and assurance. The promises he receives safeguarding his passage and providing for his family are vital in steadying his uncertain future. Though the guarantees during the first encounter are crucial, the promises he receives in Parshat Vayigash may seem unnecessary. At this advanced stage, Yaakov is a wealthy patriarch, surrounded by a clan of 70 family members. He is eagerly anticipating a sweet reunion with his beloved son. He can rely upon that son to assure a comfortable landing in Egypt even during a worldwide famine. Why is Yaakov so anxious and how are those concerns addressed during this encounter with God?

In some ways, Yaakov’s trepidation in Vayigash is more acute than his earlier fears. His previous escape to the house of Lavan was a temporary sanctuary, hoping to outlast Eisav’s rage and to quickly return to his mother’s embrace. Though the episode lasted over 20 years, it had the feel of a temporary refuge rather than a historical shift. At this stage, though, in Be’er Sheva, it becomes apparent that Yaakov’s journey to Egypt will not be temporary. Indeed, in the immediate sense, his trip is driven by Yosef’s invitation, but it is also clear that broader historical forces are at play. Our Avot were quite aware of the Divine mandate that the Jews would suffer a 400-year exile in a foreign land. Though they possessed a foreboding sense of its inevitability, they could not determine the timeline of when this exile would commence. At this stage, though, Yaakov realized that the “moment” was upon him and that history was drawing him to Egypt to begin this long-anticipated trial of Jewish history. Realizing that he was facing historical forces and not just personal adversity, Yaakov was legitimately frightened about his ability to withstand the trials of a prolonged exile. Mere assurances about safety and provision are insufficient; what will guarantee his eventual return from exile with his religious and cultural identity intact?

In this southern dream, God offers a very different form of assurance: Anochi eired imcha Mitzraima va’anochi e’elcha gam aloh, I will descend with you to Egypt and I will ascend alongside of you. At this moment a dramatic new paradigm is established: Jews are accompanied into their exile by the presence of the Shechinah; at this point, the doctrine of “Shechinta b’galuta” (Divine presence in exile) is distilled. The Divine presence is cosmic and not limited to a particular location. However, the “concentrated presence” of the Shechinah is localized within the Land of Israel and within the various orbits of intensifying sanctity that climax in the inner sanctum of the Mikdash. The promise of Shechinta b’galuta effectively “de-anchors” the Shechinah from a particular geographical base and instead tethers the Shechinah to the itinerary of the Jewish journey. Where we wander the Shechinah follows, and our redemption and return is mirrored by the redemption of His presence in our world and the return of His presence to its natural base in Israel. This is the primary message of Yaakov’s dream in Be’er Sheva.

This new paradigm reshapes Jewish consciousness and Jewish experience. On the one hand, it flexes our relationship with God beyond the Land of Israel. Jews have always displayed the capacity to bifurcate our experiences: during prayer we face Jerusalem, biding our time until our eventual return. Yet, rather than sinking into survival mode we carve out meaningful and inspiring lives in these temporary way stations outside of Israel The knowledge that we aren’t severed from the Shechinah animates a Jewish life in exile with an intimate presence of God even during dark periods of Jewish history. My Rebbe, Rav Amital, was once asked, “Where was your God during the Holocaust?” To which he replied, “He was with us in the concentration camps.” The doctrine of Shechinta b’galuta lends buoyancy to Jewish experience outside the Land of Israel.

Moreover, it also lends confidence. One of the greatest challenges of a prolonged exile is the sustainability of confidence in a future redemption. The exile can become so burdensome and so grueling that we abdicate our vision of redemption. In fact, the concluding section of Vayigash is affixed to the opening section of Vayechi without the typical textual break, which normally separates adjacent parshiyot. Rashi views this textual closure as a literary metaphor to the closure of the Jewish imagination about the prospects of redemption. They had become so embedded in the exile and so broken by the bondage that their belief in redemption declined. How can redemptive consciousness be sustained in a dark period of national suffering? Recognizing that our national plight reflects the exiled state of the Shechina has always reinforced the belief that redemption is inevitable. The Divine presence cannot remain in exile for perpetuity but, at some point, will careen back to its natural location in Israel and its natural state in which the entire world recognizes the Divine presence. As this Divine trajectory is hitched to our own national arch, our prospects for redemption are likewise inevitable. This promise that God will descend with Yaakov to Egypt and follow us through our own historical odyssey provides deep redemptive conviction despite the darkness that sometimes envelops Jewish history.

Though this promise provides an ongoing intimacy with God as well as redemptive optimism, it should also provide “redemptive urgency.” As Jews, we participate in a metaphysical narrative far beyond the purview of human affairs and national experience. Our trajectory affects the Divine presence in this world, and as we languish in exile the Shechina is obscured from humanity and distanced from its natural base. Our desire to redirect history isn’t merely national but theological. Through our redemptive experience we strive to restore the Shechina to its natural condition. Complacency about redemption constitutes inexcusable apathy toward the compromised presence of the Shechina in this world. If God travels alongside the Jewish people, we have an even greater warrant to claw our way back home and reinstate the complete and unqualified condition of the Shechina. In this respect, the promise of ‘Shechinta b’galuta” both supports our successful experiences in the exile but also charges us to be more passionate and devoted to returning from that exile.

It is this “glorious bifurcation” that characterizes a heroic Jewish life—to embrace and inspire the broader world through which we wander just as we endlessly hunger for our quick return!

By Moshe Taragin


Rabbi Moshe Taragin is a rebbe at Yeshivat Har Etzion located in Gush Etzion, where he resides.

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