The Journey to Egypt and Becoming a Nation

This week’s alumni dvar Torah is by Pnina Grossman

Sefer Shemot begins by describing Yaakov’s family’s journey down to Egypt:

וְאֵלֶּה, שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, הַבָּאִים, מִצְרָיְמָה:  אֵת יַעֲקֹב, אִישׁ וּבֵיתוֹ בָּאוּ. רְאוּבֵן שִׁמְעוֹן, לֵוִי וִיהוּדָה. יִשָּׂשכָר זְבוּלֻן, וּבִנְיָמִן. דָּן וְנַפְתָּלִי, גָּד וְאָשֵׁר. וַיְהִי, כָּל-נֶפֶשׁ יֹצְאֵי יֶרֶךְ-יַעֲקֹב–שִׁבְעִים נָפֶשׁ; וְיוֹסֵף, הָיָה בְמִצְרָיִם. וַיָּמָת יוֹסֵף וְכָל-אֶחָיו, וְכֹל הַדּוֹר הַהוּא. וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, פָּרוּ וַיִּשְׁרְצוּ וַיִּרְבּוּ וַיַּעַצְמוּ–בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד; וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ, אֹתָם.1

If these psukim sound familiar, it’s because they are almost identical to those from Parshat VaYigash:

וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל הַבָּאִים מִצְרַיְמָה, יַעֲקֹב וּבָנָיו:  בְּכֹר יַעֲקֹב, רְאוּבֵן…2

Clearly the psukim are being used to establish a connection between the two stories. However, it should be noted that the repetition is not identical.  Two notable differences are:

  • In VaYigash, not only are the people of the first post-Yaakov generation named but also those of the second one. In Shemot, instead of naming the second generation it just says “אִישׁ וּבֵיתוֹ בָּאוּ.”
  • The phrase “בְּכֹר יַעֲקֹב, רְאוּבֵן“ only appears in VaYigash, and not in Shemot.

These two subtle differences actually indicate a more important distinction between the two uses of these similar psukim. In VaYigash, the story is one of Ya’akov and his sons coming down to see Yosef in Egypt and escape the famine. However, when this part of the story is retold in Shemot, it doesn’t speak of a family going down to visit their brother/son/uncle. The story is being reframed in the context of Bnei Yisrael’s developing nationhood, and is instead telling how the Israelite’s came to be enslaved in Egypt. Touching on the differences mentioned earlier:

  • VaYigash lists the names of everyone who came down to Egypt. However, in Shemot, only the first generation is relevant because they are the beginning of what becomes a nation.
  • Since VaYigash is talking about Ya’akov and his family, it makes sense to mention Ya’akov’s bechor, Reuven. However, it becomes less relevant when discussed in a national context.3

Accordingly, after this description in Shemot, Pharaoh describes Bnei Yisrael, for the first time, as עַם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל“4.”
A further connection can be seen in the Midrash on the source in Shemot

ואלה שמות בני ישראל הבאים מצרימה יעקב ובניו איש וביתו באו – שקולים הם ישראל כצבא השמים, נאמר כאן שמות, ונאמר בכוכבים שמות שנאמר (תהלים קמז, ד): מונה מספר לכוכבים לכולם שמות יקרא, אף הקדוש ברוך הוא, כשירדו ישראל למצרים מנה מספרם כמה היו, ולפי שהם משולים לכוכבים, קרא שמות לכולם, הדא הוא דכתיב: ואלה שמות בני ישראל וגו’:5

Even though the source in VaYigash also contains the word “שמות,” the Midrash chooses Shemot to connect to the Pasuk in Tehilim and compares those who came down to Egypt to stars. This is reminiscent of the Brit ben HaBetarim in which G-d instructs Avraham:

טו,ה …הַבֶּט-נָא הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וּסְפֹר הַכּוֹכָבִים–אִם-תּוּכַל, לִסְפֹּר אֹתָם; וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ, כֹּה יִהְיֶה זַרְעֶךָ.6

After which, Avraham is given an overview of what his descendants will endure in Egypt:

7 טו,יג… יָדֹעַ תֵּדַע כִּי-גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם, וַעֲבָדוּם, וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם–אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת, שָׁנָה.  וְגַם אֶת-הַגּוֹי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲבֹדוּ, דָּן אָנֹכִי; וְאַחֲרֵי-כֵן יֵצְאוּ, בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל

Now that this prophecy has begun to come true, the book of Shemot stops focusing on the stories of individual families and instead begins to focus on the birth of a nation.

Pnina Grossman is a Sharon native and Maimonides graduate. She previously attended Migdal Oz (2009-2011). Pnina transferred from Cooper Union to CCNY, where she is (still) studying biomedical/mechanical engineering. 

[1] שמות א:א-ז

[2] בראשית מו:ח

[3] This is especially true when one considers that in the long term, the tribe of Reuven does not fill a religious or political leadership role.

[4] שמות א:ט

[5] Shemot Rabbah 1:3

[6] בראשית טו:ה

[7] בראשית טו:יג-יד


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