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Why Did God Allow Israel To Be Enslaved?
Video 2 of 5
Goats and Coats
If we really want to come to grips with this question of why we thanked God for having taken us out of Egypt, it seems to me we really need to face squarely this strange prophecy that God reveals to Abraham that we talked about in our last video, that prophecy that “your children are going to be strangers in a land not their own, that they are going to be enslaved for four hundred years, the fourth generation is going to return here.”
It’s a mysterious prophecy. We know how it ultimately came to fruition, the centuries of Egyptian slavery. But the interesting question to ask is it ended up being realized that way, but did it have to be realized that way? Might here have been alternatives? Abraham’s prophecy could have actually been fulfilled in other surprising ways. And in order to understand those ways, we need to go back to some of the early stories in B’Reshit
Way back in B’Reshit the Torah records that our forefather Yaacov spent twenty long years laboring faithfully at the service of his father-in-law, Lavan. Then one day, seemingly entirely out of the blue, Yaakov decided it was time to go back home to the land of Canaan. The verse says “vayihi ka’asher yaldo Rachel et-Yosef.” It happened when Rachel gave birth to Yosef. “Vayomer Yaakov,” that Yaakov said to Lavan, his father-in-law, “shalcheini,” let me go, “v’elcha el makomi el artzi,” and I’ll go back to my place, to my land.
Something strange is going on here. The text seems to suggest that there was something about the birth of Yosef that propelled Yaakov to want to part from Lavan. “Vayihi ka’asher yaldo Rachel et-Yosef.” When Rachel gave birth to Joseph, then Jacob said to Lavan, let me go please. What was it about the birth of Yosef that made Yaakov convinced it was time to go? Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik [zatzal] once suggested a fascinating theory.
All the forefathers knew about Abraham’s dramatic prophecy but no one knew exactly when or where it would happen; it was all very obscure. And for all that ambiguity, Rabbi Soloveitchik theorizes, perhaps Yaakov saw an interpretation that rang true for him. The prophecy would have been: “your children will be strangers in a land not their own.” Yaakov, having run away from his brother Esav, no longer in Canaan, in Haran in Lava’s household—perhaps he looked at himself and said, maybe that’s me. I am a stranger in the land not my own.
And then the prophecy continued: “va’avadum,” Abraham’s children would be enslaved. Yaakov looked at himself: I’ve been working and working and working for twenty years without any cessation. It was akin to slavery. The prophecy continued: “va’inu otam.” Abraham’s children won’t just be enslaved; they will be oppressed. They will be the victim of injustices. I’ve been the victim of injustices at the hand of my treacherous father-in-law Lavan. And then the prophecy had said “arba me’ot shana,” it would happen for four hundred years.
Alright, so it didn’t happen for four hundred years. Maybe it just means a long time. I was in slavery here for a long time. It’s been twenty long years!”
God continued in the promise saying that ‘I am going to exact judgment against the oppressor,’ “va’acharei ken yetzu b’rchush gadol”—such that afterwards, the progeny of Abraham will leave with great wealth. What does Yaakov do as he leaves? He has this trick by which the sheep are going to give birth to spotted and speckled sheep. And, in fact, God helps him. Miraculously, there is all these spotted and speckled sheep. It really looked like God was vindicating him, was making sure that he left the house of the oppressor with great wealth for all of those many years with unrequited labor. It seemed like the prophecy was coming true. And finally Rav Soloveitchik says, “dor revi’i yashuvu hena”: the fourth generation will return to the land of Israel.
Ahhh, let’s see. Abraham. That’s generation number one. Yitzhak. That’s generation number two. Me, Yaakov, that’s generation number three and now my child, Yosef. I was tricked into marrying Leah, yes, I have lots of children from her. But my real wife, Rachel, her first child, the fourth generation has arrived in the personhood of this little baby Yosef.
“Vayhih ka’asher yaldo Rachel et-Yosef” and it happened when Rachel gave birth to Yosef that Jacob said “shalcheini v’elcha el-makomi el-artzi”: Let me go, and let me return to my native land. It almost evokes the words later on in Moses: “let my people go!” Yaakov thought it was him! He thought he was the fulfillment of this prophecy. We know that it was never talking about Yaakov and the house of Lavan. It was talking about Jews in the house of Pharaoh!
It’s not so clear. Let’s look at how Yaakov leaves Lavan’s house.
“Vayugad l’Lavan b’yom ha-shlishi ki barach Yaakov”: On the third day, it was told to Lavan that Yaakov had ran away. Where else in the Bible do you ever hear those words? That exact formulation, “vayugad l”X””—and it was told to “X”—“ki barach “Y””—that “Y” had fled—appears only one other time in all of the Hebrew Bible. Where is that other time? You might have guessed it. “Vayugad l’melech Mitzraim ki barach ha-am,” and it was told to the King of Egypt that the people had fled, at the actual exodus from Egypt; that’s the language. But it’s really just a quotation from the language that the Torah uses when it describes Yaakov leaving the house of Lavan. When, by the way, was it told to Lavan that Yaakov had fled? On the third day, according to the text.
Think about the third day in the context of the King of Egypt. You remember how Moses had always said just let us go for three days and we’ll come back. When would it have been told to the King of Egypt that the Jews have fled and are not coming back? By sundown, on that third day. It keeps on going. Listen to the rest of the verbs in the sentence, “vayikach et-echav imo”: Lavan took all of his brothers with him. When Pharaoh chased after the Jews, “v’et ammo lakach imo.” Pharaoh too took the people with him. The next verb that we hear is “vayirdof acharav,” Lavan takes his people and chases after Yaakov. Later on, “vayirdof acharei bnei Yisrael.” Pharaoh chases after the Jews. “Vayaseg Lavan et-Yaakov”: Lavan caught up with Yaakov. “Vayasigu otam” [the] verse says: Pharaoh and his army they caught up with the Jews.
All of these verbs, ‘vayugad,’ ‘vayikach,’ ‘vayirdof,’ ‘vayaseg,’ every last one of them, in order, they are all the same! So I ask you one more time, was Yaakov really wrong? How long in the end did Yaakov work in the house of Lavon for? Twenty years. He left at the start of the twenty-first. Don’t you think it’s just a little bit coincidental that when the Jews left, they didn’t actually leave at the end of four hundred years? They left at the end of two hundred and ten. It’s the same number multiplied by ten. It’s as if what happened to Yaakov was just a microcosm.
What happened to the Jews, ultimately, in Egypt, was just a national playing out on the macrocosmic scale of what happened in miniature to Yaakov in Lavan’s house. It really is the same thing! It could have been true. He could have been the one. Why wasn’t he the one? That’s a very interesting question. Our Sages take it up in a fascinating comment. They say “bikesh Yaakov lashev b’shalvo”: when Yaakov came to the land of Israel, he wanted to settle down in peace. After all it says, “vayeshev Yaakov b’eretz megureha avi b’eretz kanaan”: when Yaakov settled down in this land, he wanted to be the one to settle the land. The land in which his fathers were only sojourners.
But alas it was not to be. “Kafatz alav rogzo shel Yosef,” the Sages say, because the travail of the sale of Yosef caught up with him, took him by surprise. Listen carefully to what they are saying. Yaakov could have been the fulfillment of Abraham’s promise except for one little problem: the sale of Yosef. That started the cycle all over again. What happened in the sale of Yosef? Think about those questions carefully and when you do, ask yourself this question: Yaakov’s experience in the house of Lavan, we’ve seen, was just like the Jews’ experience in the house of Egypt. The way Yaakov left Lavan’s house was just like the way the Jews left Egypt. What about getting there? How did the Jews get down to Egypt and was that similar to how Yaakov got down to Lavan’s house? Could those events be parallel too?
The Jews got down to Egypt because they sold Yosef down to Egypt and slowly the family migrated down after him and soon they were slaves in a land not their own. When the brothers sold Joseph into slavery, what did they do? They looked at Yosef. Jacob was treating him like his bachor, like his first-born child. But there were other children born before Joseph who didn’t take kindly to that. Yosef is your first-born?
They took a goat and they slaughtered it, they put its blood on a coat and they brought the coat to their father and they deceived their father about the child the father thought was his first-born. What does that remind you of a generation earlier? It reminds you of how Yaakov got down to Lavan’s house. Because there was another time when a child thought that he was the bachor but his father thought that someone else was first-born. There was another time that the child took it upon himself to deceive father and the instrument by which he did so was a goat.
Yaakov brought the meat of a goat to his father and dressed up in the coats of his brother Esav and said “I am your bachor.” That which the children of Yaakov did to him, Yaakov himself had done to his own father. It’s just two stories of goats and coats. Goats and Coats 1 brought Yaakov down into Lavan’s house, into mini-slavery and later on the real descent into slavery happens in Goats and Coats 2. The children followed Yosef into Pharaoh’s household. “Bikesh Yaakov lashev b’shalva”: Jacob thought it was all over. But little did he see what was right around the corner.
His children did what he did to his own father. It would no longer be that Yaakov’s travail was the end of the story, for the story had started again. Children has once more deceived their father about the bachor and, this time, fate would decree that it wouldn’t be twenty years of slavery, leaving in the twenty-first, but it would be two hundred and ten. It wouldn't just be an individual and his family that was enslaved; it would be an entire nation.
Now listen well. If the way we got down to mini-slavery in Lavan’s household was through Goats and Coats 1, and the way we got down to slavery in Egypt was through Goats and Coats 2, don’t you think that we would need to relate to those two events the moment that we leave? How could we leave Egypt without in some way dealing with the tortured legacy of Goats and Coats? But it doesn’t seem that we do. The ten plagues happen and we go free. There doesn’t seem to be any memory of what it was that took us down to Egypt, of how we got there. Are we missing something? Is there something going on in this story of the Exodus and the tenth plague as we finally go free that we’re just kind of not catching? I think there might be. I want to explore that with you in our next video.
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