“And He said, “I am the Omnipotent G-d of your father. Do not be afraid to go to Egypt, for it is there that I will make you into a great nation.” (Beresheit 46:3)
Yosef asks his father to descend to Egypt with his entire family. Yitzchak decides to travel to Egypt with his family. He arrives at Beer Sheva. There, he offers sacrifices to the Almighty. He has a prophecy. Hashem tells Yaakov that he should not fear descending to Egypt. In Egypt, Bnai Yisrael will become a great nation. Hashem will continue to protect Bnai Yisrael. Eventually, Hashem will bring the Jewish nation back to the land of Israel.
This prophecy is difficult to understand. What was its purpose? Yaakov had already decided to travel to Egypt. Why did Hashem speak to Yaakov at this point in time? It would have been more reasonable for Hashem to reassure Yaakov before he made his decision!
There is another question. Hashem tells Yaakov not to fear transplanting himself and his family. Clearly, this assurance implies that Yaakov did have some fear. What was source of this trepidation?
Sforno answers these questions. His answer is based on one essential observation. The Almighty identified himself to Yaakov as the G-d of his father Yitzchak. Why does Hashem choose this specific appellation? In order to answer this question and our other questions, some background information is needed.
Sforno explains that Yaakov had not decided to settle in Egypt. Actually, this assumption is supported by a previous passage. Yosef had asked his father to settle in Egypt. In announcing his response, Yaakov explains that he will travel to Egypt in order to see Yosef. He does not express any intention to resettle in Egypt. It seems that Yaakov’s intention was to travel to Egypt, see Yosef, and return to Canaan.
Why was Yaakov reluctant to comply with Yosef’s request? Why did he not wish to resettle in Egypt? Sforno explains that Yaakov was aware of Hashem’s instructions to his father, Yitzchak. Hashem forbade Yitzchak to leave the land of Israel. He had specifically admonished Yitzchak against living in Egypt. Yaakov was not willing to deviate from the instructions the Almighty had given to his father.
Now, we can understand the reason Hashem identified Himself as the G-d of Yitzchak. Hashem was responding to Yaakov’s decision to reject Yosef’s request. Yaakov was traveling to Egypt. However, he did not plan to settle there. He was following the instructions the Almighty had given to Yitzchak. Hashem began this prophecy by identifying Himself as the G-d of Yitzchak. In this manner, the Almighty acknowledged the instructions He had given to Yitzchak. He was saying, “I am the G-d that forbade Yitzchak to leave the land of Canaan.” Hashem then continued. He instructed Yaakov to settle in Egypt. He should not fear that this would be a violation of the Almighty’s will.
We have now answered our questions. Hashem identified Himself as the G-d of Yitzchak in order to acknowledge the admonition He had given to Yitzchak. Yaakov did not need a prophetic message in order to make his initial decision. This is because that decision was to merely visit Egypt and see Yosef. He did not plan to resettle. However, after Yaakov embarked on this journey, Hashem spoke to him. The Almighty was not addressing the issue of traveling to Egypt. Instead, He was speaking to the purpose of this journey. Yaakov should not just visit Egypt. He should resettle. Yaakov was not subject to the prohibition placed upon Yitzchak.
This raises an additional issue. Why was Yaakov permitted – even commanded – to resettle in Egypt? Sforno explains that this was absolutely necessary for the development of Bnai Yisrael. According to Sforno, this lesson is also included in the prophecy. The Almighty told Yaakov that in Egypt He would make Bnai Yisrael into a great nation. The intent of this statement is to tell Yaakov that Egypt will not pose an obstacle to the development of Bnai Yisrael. On the contrary, the Almighty is telling Yaakov that the experience in Egypt is essential to the development of Bnai Yisrael. Why is this experience so important?
Sforno responds that the people of Canaan accepted Bnai Yisrael. This acceptance would lead to intermarriage and assimilation. Sforno explains that it was impossible for the Yaakov’s descendants to fully integrate into Egyptian society. Custom would create an impenetrable barrier between Bnei Yisrael and the Egyptians. Egyptian custom even forbade the sharing of a meal with Ivrim – the name by which Yaakov, his family and followers were known. They would be segregated into a separate district. Social interaction would be limited. In this environment a small band of co-religionists could develop into a unique nation. Segregation and prejudice would prevent assimilation and absorption.
These conditions could not be duplicated in Canaan. Social barriers between the Ivrim and the indigenous peoples were minimal. Before Yaakov’s descendants could develop into an independent nation, assimilation would prevail.
Yaakov’s descendants would eventually return to Canaan, but only after they had developed into Klal Yisrael – the Jewish nation. This evolution could only take place in exile.
Sforno’ comments can be more fully appreciated if we review an earlier incident. Dina, Yaakov’s daughter, was abducted and violated by Shechem, who was a prince among his people. Shechem fell in love with Dina, and, accompanied by his father Chamor, he requested of Yaakov and his sons permission to marry her. The brothers responded that they would not allow Dina to marry an uncircumcised person. If Shechem, his father and all of the males of the city would circumcise themselves, then the children of Yaakov would agree to the marriage.
Shechem, Chamor and the inhabitants of the city agreed, and they performed the circumcisions. Three days later, while the men of the city were recovering, Shimon and Leyve, two of Yaakov’s sons, entered the city and killed all of the males. They rescued Dina and eliminated all those who might have attempted to oppose their decision.
Yaakov condemned the actions of his sons. The sons defended their behavior. They argued that they could not allow their sister to be treated as a prostitute. What was the basis of this dispute between Yaakov and his sons? It seems that Yaakov is making a compelling argument. He agreed that it would be tragic to give Dinah to Shechem. But neither he nor his sons had ever expected this outcome – that the people of Shechem would perform circumcision. However when they did perform circumcision, Yaakov and his sons were faced with the consequences of the bargain. Yaakov maintained that they should have accepted these unfortunate results and given Dinah to Shechem in marriage. Yaakov and his sons had violated their bargain. This disturbed Yaakov. The people of Canaan would conclude that Yaakov and his sons were dishonest. This would reflect poorly on their morality and ultimately on Hashem. Furthermore, Yaakov and his sons were a small family in an alien land. The other people of the land would identify with the Shechem, Chamor and their people. They would seek to avenge this wrong committed by his sons. Yaakov and his children could not defend themselves from such an attack.
The sons responded that they could not allow their sister to be treated as a prostitute. This response seems irrelevant! Yaakov shared their abhorrence for the manner in which Dina had been treated. However, he argued that the brothers had jeopardized the mission and even the survival of Bnai Yisrael. How are the sons responding to this objection?
According to Sforno, the sons disputed both of Yaakov’s arguments. They maintained that the people of Canaan were not so immoral as to condone the behavior of Shechem. They would recognize the right of Yaakov and his sons to rescue Dinah. Finally, they would understand the necessity of using subterfuge. Shechem, Chamor and their people outnumbered Yaakov and his sons. They could not rescue their sister without first disabling her captors. Bnai Yisrael would not be condemned for acting unethically. Neither were they in danger of retribution.
This incident is remarkably revealing. Before Bnai Yisrael would be prepared to posses the land of Israel, the family of Yaakov would need to grow into a nation. However, it is difficult for a family to develop into a distinct nation. A single isolated family is subject to tremendous pressure to assimilate into the surrounding nation and culture. Yaakov’s children would be faced with this pressure. How could they resist this pressure to assimilate into the surrounding peoples?
This assimilation could only be avoided if Yaakov’s children would see themselves as separate and different from the surrounding peoples. But the debate that Sforno describes between Yaakov and his children suggests that they did not see themselves as an alien family in the land of Canaan. They believed that the people of Canaan had accepted them as their own and would respect the measures they had taken to protect their interests. This attitude suggests that the environment for assimilation already existed.
This conclusion has important implications. The antecedent for assimilation already existed in Canaan. Therefore, the family of Yaakov could only develop into the nation of Bnai Yisrael in another land – a land in which they would not be permitted to assimilate. Egypt was such a land. The Egyptians could not accept Bnai Yisrael – even Yosef – as their equals. In the environment of Egypt, assimilation would be impossible.
It emerges, that according to Sforno, the exile to Egypt was a direct result of the attitudes of Yaakov’s children. They had acquired some level of identification with the people of Canaan and believed that they had been accepted by the indigenous peoples. This attitude created a perilous environment – an environment in which assimilation was a real possibility.
Based on Sforno’s analysis, it is not surprising that Jewish history is replete with instances in which assimilation is followed by persecution. The exile to Egypt is a template for these latter episodes of assimilation and subsequent persecution. Yaakov’s children were in danger of assimilating. Providence intervened and prevented assimilation though placing Bnai Yisrael in Egypt – an environment in which antipathy and prejudice prevented assimilation. This same pattern is then repeated throughout Jewish history. When the danger of assimilation develops, discrimination and persecution follow. This antipathy prevents further assimilation and Bnai Yisrael is preserved. Sefer Beresheit 45:28.  Sefer Beresheit 26:2.  Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 46:3.  Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 34:30-31.