ויחי יעקב בארץ מצרים“And Yakov lived in the land of Egypt.” (Bereishes 47:28)
The Zohar tells us that the last 17 years of Yakov’s life, which he spent in Egypt, were his best years. We are left wondering: how could the years he spent living in Egypt be considered the happiest years of his life? Yakov was very afraid of going to Egypt, the land full of idol worship and immorality. Egypt was a land full of impurity, and Yakov feared for the future of his fledgling nation if they were to become exposed to the Egyptian culture. So how can 17 years of being surrounded by impurity be considered life, much less a happy, content life?
We can understand this with the following story: The holy Baal Shem Tov once had to meet a certain noble in order to secure the release of an imprisoned Jew. While he waited in the noble’s antechamber, he noticed a large idol in the corner of the room. When he left the noble’s offices, he was very happy. “The halacha is,” the Baal Shem Tov explained to his disciples, “that an idol is considered unclean and therefore one may not speak or even think about divrei Torah when facing an idol. During the entire waiting period I tried to keep my mind free of divrei Torah. Our sages tell us that whoever denies avodah zara is considered to have fulfilled all mitzvos of the Torah. In the short time that I spent in the waiting room, by denying the avodah zara with my efforts not to think Torah thoughts, I earned the merit of fulfilling all mitzvos!”
The Baal Shem Tov was teaching his disciples that when a Jew is in a situation that is not conductive to spiritual growth, he can still achieve greatness simply by staying away from the adverse influences around him.
The following parable further explains this issue: A certain wealthy person was always fearful of being held up for his money. When he learned that someone invented bullet-proof fabric, from which protective clothing could be made, he decided to get himself a bullet-proof vest. He went to the inventor and ordered a vest, paying a small fortune for this exclusive item. He always wore his protective vest, and although this allayed his fears somewhat, he was not fully assured that it is indeed effective. “Who knows?” he said to himself. “What if the inventor is a wily swindler who charged me so much money for something that doesn’t even work?”
Several days later, he was suddenly assaulted by an armed bandit. The fellow shot at him, but the protective vest did not allow the bullet to harm him. Seeing that the vest saved his life, the man was overcome with joy. He called up the inventor and thanked him for his great product.
“I’ll tell you the truth,” he said, “I had my doubts about the vest, but now I see that every penny I gave you was well worth it.”
“I have a confession to make,” said the inventor. “I could tell that you were not fully convinced about the vest, so I sent that fellow over to assault you with a gun, just to prove to you that the vest does its job.”
Yakov put tremendous effort into teaching his children. His most fervent desire was for his entire family to be righteous. It is understandable that he feared the adverse influences they would face in Egypt. However, once they arrived in Goshen and Yakov saw that his children remained righteous, he was truly happy. Before they were exposed to the “bullets” of Egypt he could not be sure about their commitment to Hashem. But after they were assaulted with the impurity of their neighbors and they still retained their high spiritual level, Yakov was finally convinced that his efforts paid off. He was now reassured that his entire family is indeed supremely righteous.
The Torah tells us that Yakov’s children and grandchildren lived in Goshen. They did not mingle with the Egyptians but lived separately, maintaining their exalted lifestyle. They established houses of study and taught their children Torah. As Yakov watched his family blossom into a Torah-nation, his spirit was revived and he experienced tremendous happiness. Indeed, because they settled in such an impure place as Egypt, the righteousness of Bnei Yisroel was proven more than ever before. This is why Yakov’s final 17 years were the happiest of his life.
Before Yakov passed away, he told his children, “Gather around me and I will reveal to you what will happen to you at the End of Days.” (Bereishis 49:1)Yakov was telling his children that at the End of Days, before the arrival of Moshiach, the world will be full of impurity. Once again, Bnei Yisroel will face great challenges to their emunah. Those who will remain strong in the face of the surrounding influences will prove their worthiness and righteousness. When Moshiach will come, Yakov will point at them and proclaim with pride, “They listened to Yisroel their father.” (Ibid. 2)
How indeed can we overcome the influences of the surrounding culture? The above verse tells us, “They gathered and they listened.” If we will gather together in unity we will be able to remain strong, just as Yakov’s children were able to retain their spiritual level as long as they were together in Goshen. If we will stick together we will overcome the assaults of immorality and avoda zara and we will live in happiness and joy. In this merit, we will live to see the final redemption, when everyone will be helped with whatever they need. May we indeed be zoche to greet Moshiach speedily in our days, Amen.