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Not Just Aware

Prepared by Rabbi Shraga Dovid Homnick.

“These are the names of the Jewish people arriving in Egypt,” our parsha begins. The present tense which connotes a fresh arrival is explained by the Midrash to be in reference to the fact that a new stage of Egyptian travails began with Yosef’s death. A subsequent verse reporting the demise of Yosef’s entire generation, continues the Midrash, is indicative of even further deterioration. There were thus three stages: The era of freedom when Yaakov arrived, the troubles which began with Yosef’s death, and the enslavement which ensued with the decease of the rest.

The Larger Gap

It would appear reasonable to regard the final phase as the worst, in view of the fact that the Jews only underwent horrible subjugation at that point, peaking with Miriam’s birth. Yet the Torah does not highlight this development, choosing only to mark the transition from the initial state to the second, suggesting that it is of greater significance.

The Rebbe solves this question by dwelling on the spiritual distinction between Eretz Yisroel and Mitzrayim. The Torah notes Eretz Yisroel for its rainfall, while Egypt relied entirely on the waters of the Nile. Since rain embodies man’s powerlessness and dependence on Hashem’s benevolence, Egypt’s conspicuous self-reliance indicated its disconnect from G-dliness. Yaakov, however, descended to Mitzrayim and blessed Pharaoh that the Nile’s waters rise towards him, not as a boon to the local idolatrous regard for the river but rather to demonstrate that it too was impacted by holiness, that this bastion of nature was answerable to Heaven.

Experience Vs. Awareness

Therefore, throughout the first phase of the Jewish sojourn in Egypt, despite the absence of rain typical of Eretz Yisroel (how other countries with rain are also inferior is explored elsewhere), the fact that the Nile was under Yaakov’s sway meant that things hadn’t devolved too badly. The presence of Yaakov, as well as Yosef who was both physically responsible for his father’s arrival and a spiritual conduit for his blessings, ensured that Hashem’s presence remained revealed. When Yosef passed away, that revelation faded and the Jews underwent a marked decline, yet that generation still remained aware of his impact, preserving that legacy to a certain degree. After they all died out as well, however, a new generation arose which “did not know Yosef” altogether.

There were thus three successive stages of a spiritual slump: Experience, awareness and lack of awareness. The first shift to a state of no rain and a lack of direct dependence on G-d was fairly drastic, but was mitigated by the ability to behold the outcome of the blessing bestowed upon the Nile River. Once Yaakov and Yosef had passed on, that experiential ability died with them, but an awareness of holiness’s role remained. Upon the death of the entire generation, that information vanished and with that the last vestiges of spiritual awareness.

All of this would only appear to reemphasize the question of why the second phase receives more attention than the third which is when all evidence was actually lost.

Aware But Disconnected

Ultimately, however, there is only a need for evidence when something isn’t readily subject to being directly experienced, which means that both he who possess proofs and he who lacks them are in fact equal in their disconnect from the actual matter. To be persuaded of something is to be detached from it, bereft of the straightforwardness of plainly seeing it.

While Yaakov and Yosef had preserved the ability to experience G-dliness, even under Egyptian conditions, the dramatic shift to a mere awareness with their passing was only a small step removed from total ignorance. Yaakov’s descent from Eretz Yisroel in parshas Vayigash spelled the loss a sense of dependence on Hashem, but the blessing’s effect on the Nile meant that they hadn’t fallen too far. Once that disappeared as well, as our parsha indicates, it no longer mattered whether some measure of awareness remained or not.

A Tale of Redemption

The first yerida occurs in sefer Breishis, while sefer Shmos opens with the second. Breishis is “Sefer Ha’yashar,” telling of the just, like the avos and Yosef, while Shmos is about the decline into a state of exile. At the same time though, it is the book of redemption. Breishis speaks of the ‘yesharim’ going about their consistently luminous lives, unimpacted by the world. Shmos tells the story of exile, but when G-dliness is embraced even within those limitations, it is transformed into a tale of redemption, even surpassing the pre-exile heights. 

For further learning see לקו”ש חלק ו' שמות ג'