Moving house is no simple matter even if it is just down the road. Knowing the neighbourhood, its people and institutions, eliminates at least some worries and limits the upheaval of relocation. Changing countries, on the other hand, requires adapting to new cultures and different societies, finding good schools, learning what the local challenges are and how to deal with them.
After over two decades of mourning Joseph’s death, Jacob descended to Egypt, reuniting with Joseph as well as escaping the famine that plagued the region. The Torah informs us of two events that happened upon his arrival. First we learn that Jacob had sent his son Judah ahead to prepare for the family’s arrival in Goshen. Next the verse describes Joseph’s enthusiasm to meet his father in Goshen, where Jacob and his family were to reside.
“He sent Judah before him to Joseph, to instruct ahead of him to Goshen, and they arrived in the region of Goshen. And Joseph harnessed his chariot and he went up to meet his father Israel in Goshen, and he appeared to him, and he fell upon his neck, and he wept on his neck exceedingly.” (Gen. 46:28-29)
The great medieval commentator Rashi cites Midrashic interpretations of both the above verses. Judah was sent ahead of the family, according to Rashi’s second explanation, to establish a house of study as a source of learning. And this, according to the verse, had to happen before Jacob’s arrival.
Rashi clarifies the next verse as well. In the simplest reading of verse 29, cited above the subject is Joseph and the object is Jacob. Thus, Joseph appeared before Jacob, Joseph fell upon Jacob’s neck and Joseph wept on Jacob’s shoulders. Rashi endorses this reading of the verse as do most other commentators. Rashi again cites the sages, explaining that although Joseph wept, Jacob did not. Jacob was engaged in reciting the shema prayer.
Our tradition accounts for blessings and prayers on special occasions such as this. The blessing of shehecheyanu, recited upon encountering an infrequent but joyous event, is prescribed by Halacha when meeting a close friend or relative after a 30 day absence. The blessing of reviving the dead is appropriate when meeting such a person after the lapse of a year. But the shema is not required at such occasions. Yet the Midrashic narrative insists that Jacob did not cry because he was reciting the shema, not shehecheyanu. What inspired Jacob to recite the shema immediately upon meeting Joseph?
Many commentaries search for explanations of Jacob’s shema. One inspirational idea is ascribed to the great nineteenth century Hassidic master, the Rebbe of Chortkov. Jacob, he explains, was concerned about the foreign influences he would encounter in Egypt, a culture which differed drastically from the values with which he built his household. Jacob felt the need to fortify himself and his family with every means available.
The Talmud states that R’ Levi bar Chama related in the name of R’ Shimon bar Lakish, “One should always unleash his good inclinations to overcome his more base urges. …If he prevails – good. If not he should engage in the study of Torah. …If he prevails – good. If not he should recite the shema. …If he prevails – good. If not he should remind himself of the day of death…” (Brachot 5a)
Jacob employed a three pronged defense, using all the elements mentioned in the Talmud. He sent his son Judah ahead to ensure a Torah academy would be open and ready for study in time for their arrival. Aware that this defense alone is not failsafe, Jacob recited the shema immediately upon entering the country, adding a second layer of protection. This defense was so important to Jacob that he prioritised reciting shema even over greeting his long lost son. Finally, knowing that he was still vulnerable, he reminded himself he was mortal. After Joseph wept on his shoulders, the verse relates that Jacob finally spoke to Joseph. But the first words out of Jacob’s mouth were about his death. “And Israel said to Joseph, “Now I may die, after I have seen your face for you are still alive.” (46:30)
We each feel different pressures when contemplating big moves and Jacob’s primary concern was maintaining his values and spiritual health. These three measures of defense, study of Torah, reciting the shema, and recalling the day of death were first utilized by Jacob to protect himself and his family from the challenges they would inevitably confront in Egyptian society.