Exile--The Absence Of Jewish Context
The descent into Egypt and Jacob's death left his family in an alien culture, forced to find a context for their traditions within themselves.
Losing the Link
However, as long as Jacob was alive, he served as a link to that setting, to that context, and prevented them from losing touch with it. Once he passed away, that link was lost, and, although the Egyptians did not yet begin to actually oppress the Jews, their existence became narrower, more straitened, without margin, context, and background.
When they looked around them, what they saw was an alien culture, an alien setting, which they had to close their eyes to, to shut out, in order to remain faithful to their inner vision. When they let themselves feel, what they felt was foreign, not their own, and ultimately threatening, so they stopped themselves from feeling, in order to remain true to their inner feelings. Jacob, therefore, could see no future in Egypt for his children, as their future was, in fact, not really there, but elsewhere, in an interior landscape to which they were forced to retreat.
I am reminded of my own grandfather, who, for me, also served as a kind of Jewish context in a non-Jewish American setting. Calling him Zayde (Yiddish for grandfather), seeing him reading the Yiddish newspaper, studying the weekly Torah portion, going with him to the small Hassidic shul he prayed in, created a backdrop for me when I was growing up that placed me somewhere other than my immediate American surroundings. He served as a kind of white fire, a setting for the black fire of the words I studied in my Jewish day school, words which, I think, would have felt totally unrelated to the life I was living were it not for Zayde's presence.
Jacob's children, with his death, were left context-less--adrift in a foreign land and culture, still in possession of the black fire of their specific traditions, but lacking the white fire of a familiar, personal, Jewish context. This is the tragedy and challenge of exile, symbolized by the lack of a margin, of space, at the beginning of Vayehi--to be condemned to live a life which can access the specifics of Jewish tradition, but without a truly Jewish context in which to live them.
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