How To Strengthen Ourselves In The Exile
The beginning of our parsha states, “Jacob lived in the land of Egypt 17 years” (Genesis 47:28). Concerning this subject, our Sages have said that while he was in Egypt during those 17 years, Jacob began to “live.” He had experienced years of pain and trouble up to that point, but the last 17 years of his life were a time of true life. What exactly does this mean?
At the end of Parsha Vayigash it is written: “Israel dwelled in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen” (Genesis 47:27). This is difficult to understand, for the Sages have said: “Wherever [Scripture] writes vayeishev, it denotes trouble” (Sanhedrin 106a). What trouble lay in the fact that he dwelled in the land of Goshen? We must also understand why the verse superfluously states, “in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen,” since they essentially mean the same thing.
It is precisely this statement, however, that clarifies things. When the Children of Israel arrived in Egypt, they found themselves in dire straits, for the land of Egypt was known as a place of debauchery and unimaginable sins. At that point Jacob sent his son Judah to prepare a place of study for him, a place from which Torah would emerge. How could the Children of Israel dwell and study in such a location, given that it was so filled with sin? This is why they experienced great trouble.
Nevertheless, the Children of Israel also put an effort into overcoming their hardships, doing so precisely in the land of Egypt. This constituted a great trial for them. How so? The land of Egypt was, as we know, a beautiful land that possessed magnificent and alluring scenery. As a result, how could they dwell in the land of Egypt and devote themselves to Torah and serving G-d without benefiting from the splendor of the land? Not only that, but Goshen was the most beautiful region in all of Egypt. Let us imagine the Children of Israel living in the most beautiful parts of Egypt, studying Torah without gazing upon the beauty of the land, without seeking the pleasures of this world. Would that not constitute a great trial for a person who wanted to devote himself to Torah and serve G-d? That is why this verse is found next to the first verse of our parsha: “Jacob lived in the land of Egypt 17 years.” When Jacob also arrived in Egypt, it was precisely there – in bitter exile, far from the land of Canaan – that he settled down to study the holy and pure Torah. It was because of this fact that he truly began to live, living a life of Torah, a life of holiness. By allusion, we may add that 17 is the numerical value of the word tov (“good”). As we know, the Sages have said that the only good thing is Torah (Berachot 5a). This means that Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for the sake of Torah and serving G-d, which is why those years were a time of life for him.
We learn a great principle from this. There is nothing novel about a person staying at home and learning Torah, and it represents no great achievement on his part. This is because he lives in peace and tranquility at home, and he can therefore study in peace. However when someone dwells elsewhere – in exile, in a strange land – and it is there that he elevates himself in Torah, he invests all his energy into studying. As a result, he comes even closer to the Holy One, blessed be He. This represents a great novelty and wonder, namely that he studies Torah and proper conduct precisely in a place so distant from his home. In addition, he earns the greatest of blessings. This teaches us that studying Torah wholeheartedly is something that can help a person to easily endure his time in exile.