In 2018, at the age of 70, Avraham receives the prophetic vision known as
the Covenant Between the Halves. This prophecy (15: 13-17) foretold the
future of the Jews, from the birth of Yitzchak till our Exodus from Egypt.
Three stages are clearly delineated:
1. (15:13) "...your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not
theirs for 400 years..."
2. "...they will be enslaved..."
3. "...(they will be) oppressed." Note that Hashem doesn't say how long
each stage will be, only that the total prophecy will be 400 years."
The seemingly open-ended time-line allowed the Avos to "play" with the
prophecy and attempt to extend the first stage of strangers, limiting the
amount of time their children would be enslaved and oppressed. Of the 400
years from the birth of Yitzchak till the Exodus: 190 years were spent in
the land of Canaan as strangers; 124 years the Jews were in Egypt as an
enslaved nation; and for 86 years they were oppressed and enslaved.
The first stage of the enslavement began with the sale of Yoseph into
slavery. The rest of Yakov's family entered into slavery in this week's
Parsha. Following the two years of extreme famine, Yakov accepted Yoseph's
offer to voluntarily move to Mitzrayim. Although he crossed into Egypt as
the honored father of the viceroy of Mitzrayim, he was really the honored
father of the most glorified slave in Egypt. His own status was that of a
dependent upon Yoseph, who in turn was a slave to Pharaoh, making Yakov and
his family honored slaves of Pharaoh. This began the enslavement of
Avraham's children and the second stage of the Covenant Between the Halves.
A key question regarding this prophecy is, why did the Jews have to suffer
enslavement and oppression? Why not leave them to flourish in Canaan and
grow to nationhood without all the trials and tribulations?
The nature of the Jew has always been to assimilate into society. As such,
the family of Yakov could have remained in Canaan, but only a small number
of them would have maintained their allegiance to the "family". The
majority would have assimilated into the local Canaanite society severing
their familial ties to the G-d of their forefathers. The only way to insure
that the family would grow into a nation was to institute some sort of
forced isolation and separation. Slavery was that institution. However,
slavery did not need to be a negative experience. In fact, using Yoseph as
a model, slavery could have translated into the most honored and exalted
position in society.
This, in fact, was Yoseph's plan. If the only way the family can become a
nation is to separate them from society, then let them be among the elite
of society rather than the despised of society! As the elite, they will
spurn society; as the despised of society, society will spurn them. Either
way they will be separate; so why not be among the elite!
In order for Yoseph's plan to work he had to reconfigure the entire
Egyptian society so that his family would be among the elite. Prior to the
famine, the populace of Egypt was an independent constituency under the
rule of Pharaoh. Their allegiance to Pharaoh was that of free men accepting
the rule of another. Pharaoh was a servant of the people rather than the
people being servants to Pharaoh. We can see this from last week's Parsha
(41:43), where it required a royal command from Pharaoh for the people to
kneel before Yoseph, the elite slave of Pharaoh. The viceroy of Egypt did
not automatically deserve or receive public deference.
In order for his family, the family of an elite slave, to be viewed as
elite within a free society, Yoseph had to change the status of the
Egyptian population from "free men" to "slaves of Pharaoh". The events
detailed in this week's Parsha, starting with 47:11, explain the manner in
which Yoseph reconfigured the entire Egyptian society so that everyone
became slaves to Pharaoh before his family arrived in Mitzrayim. He was
then able to construct a societal framework where his family were the elite
among a nation of slaves, rather than elite slaves.
However, as history revealed, Hashem (G-d) knew better. As the glorified
and pampered elite of society, the Jew would have never wanted to return to
the land of their fathers. As the despised and oppressed of society, the
Jewish nation would want to follow Moshe into the wilderness of Sinai,
seeking respite from their oppression and freedom for their children.
The only remaining problem is how did Yoseph hope to fulfill the third
stage of the prophecy, the stage of oppression? Eliyahu Ki-Tov suggests
that the suffering of Yakov and Yoseph due to their 22 year long separation
was the oppression. However, is it possible that Yoseph hoped that the
third stage of the prophecy, oppression, would be fulfilled when the elite
Jewish nation would be forced to give up their elitist positions and wealth
within the Egyptian society in exchange for a "land flowing with milk and
honey". Somehow, I think that there is a very contemporary lesson in this
for all of us.