Why does the Torah feel it important to underscore that “Yaakov lived
seventeen years in the land of Egypt?” We are told that he lived a total
of 147 years, and the Torah previously gave his age as 130 at the time he
came to Egypt. The arithmetic needed to determine how long he dwelled in
Egyptian exile is not particularly challenging!
The seforim ha-kedoshim2 reveal
to us the deeper significance of our exile in Egypt: we were charged with
identifying and elevating the sparks of holiness3 that were waiting there. Be’er Mayim Chaim
adds an important footnote to this. Whatever gain came out of our
Egyptian period was not the doing of those who lived through it alone.
The process began with the avos, our forefathers. They realized
that the odds were not in favor of their children surviving in Egypt as a
distinct group, maintaining its own values. The Egyptians were well
practiced in all forms of depravity. If the Jews would have fallen into
their licentious ways, they would never have emerged! The avos
were determined to ease the experience for them by taming and
weakening the kelipah4 of Egypt,
and thereby create the possibility for their descendents to maintain a
stable existence in galus.
Soro was the first. Taken to the house of Paroh, he offered her
incredible wealth to submit to him. She spurned his lavish gifts; this
dulled the Egyptian kelipah somewhat. Yosef followed, injecting
holiness into a society best described as ervas ha-eretz5, the nakedness of the world. Potiphar’s
wife, says the Torah, importuned Yosef day after day. The Tanchuma
understands this to mean that each and every day was a battle that
required mesiras nefesh on his part. He spilled his blood to hold
on to his principles! The final encounter with Potiphar’s wife was more
difficult yet. When Yosef resisted, he made his contribution to scaling
back the kelipah of Egypt. In retrospect, this was the purpose for his
descent to Egypt in the first place. In the final analysis, both Soro and
Yosef both faced the challenge of a licentious society by safeguarding
themselves from the enticement of ervah. Soro’s success resulted
in her female descendents succeeding in safeguarding themselves long
after; Yosef accomplished the same for his male descendents.
Similar reasons dictated Yaakov’s descent to Egypt. The seventeen years
he lived there served the dual purposes of limiting the kelipah,
while strengthening the nascent force of kedushah that had been
transplanted there. Seventeen in gematria is tov, good.
The tikun of ervah specifically is identified with
tov. Without such tikun, the Jews in galus would
have lost themselves permanently through the debauchery of Egypt.
Egypt was a strange destination for a galus. It was decidedly not what
Avraham was warned about at the bris bein ha-besarim, the covenant of the
broken pieces in which Hashem informed Avraham about the impending exile.
No mention was made of Egypt in that warning. Avraham was simply told
that his children would be strangers in a land not theirs. Why, then, was
Egypt chosen to host them, instead of a less spiritually-challenging? The
seventy souls who entered Egypt were all pure souls. Why were they in
particular made to experience the unpleasantness of exile?
The upshot of bris bein ha-besarim is that the Jews would become
the am nivchar, but only after subjecting their physical selves to
purification. As holy as they were, they would not be ready to stand at
Sinai without subjugating the physical bodies that housed their souls.
Egypt, offering the most contrast and challenge to kedushah of any
place on the globe, was the perfect place to accomplish this subjugation.
To arrive at this purpose on earth, every individual must stand at his own
Sinai. A prerequisite to this is taming and harnessing his physical self.
This is a threefold process, ultimately calling for purity of mind (to
earn him a Jewish mind, in his thoughts and beliefs), purity of heart
(focusing his wants and desires), and purity of limbs (through proper
The goal of physical purification can be accomplished through self-
abnegation and fasting, purifying the natural corruption of Man’s physical
aspects. A “magic pill,” however, is available as an alternative. HKBH
endowed Torah with the ability to purify the physical self. Chazal tell
us6 that the Torah one studies in one’s
youth becomes “absorbed in one’s blood.” There is no other wisdom that has
the capacity to become absorbed in one’s very self, that can act as the
antidote to the internal seething of one’s blood for baser passions.
Rambam writes7 that Torah does not
become permanent in those whose study is pampered by creature comforts, in
those who study with abundant food and drink. This is the polar opposite
of other forms of wisdom, where a student will accomplish most when he
does not have to deal with deprivation and denial. With regard to Torah,
however, the penetration of Torah’s light to his essence is predicated
upon his success in breaking the hold of the baser parts of himself. A
student succeeds at other forms of wisdom through his own initiative and
power; not so Torah. No one succeeds at Torah study without the benefit
of special Divine assistance. That assistance is only forthcoming to
those who are deserving, to those who have “killed” themselves in
diminishing the physical in favor of the spiritual.
This, too, is alluded to at the beginning of our parshah. Yaakov
represents Torah. He sends Yehudah ahead of him to Egypt to set up a
yeshiva in advance of his arrival. He then lives there for seventeen
years, the equivalent of tov. As we all know, there is nothing
more tov than Torah.
1 Based on Nesivos Shalom pgs. 300-302 2 i.e. Kabbalistic texts 3 In the early stages of Creation, the “vessel” holding
Divine holiness burst, releasing its contents to the world that needed
them. Small sparks of this holiness fell far and wide, effectively
seeding even the most unlikely places with kedushah that needed to be
discovered and liberated. 4 Lit. shell, a case that surrounds and is impervious to
holiness, not allowing entrance to the kedushah that could otherwise
penetrate. 5 Literally, the term refers to the weakness and vulnerable
points of the land of Egypt. The still disguised Yosef uses the term to
accuse his brothers of espionage, of surveying Egyptian territory for
places that could be attacked. The Rebbe sees an allusion to a different
translation of the phrase, in which Egypt is described as the nakedness,
the most debased society of the entire globe. 6 Avos D’Rav Nosson 24 7 Talmud Torah 3:12