The Tanakh concludes with the directive to “go up” to the Promised Land, which is part of a recurring dialectic between homeland and exile. Exile is a threat to our identity and our survival. Recently, Yossi Klein Halevi spoke at the Beth Tzedec synagogue in Toronto about the growing differences between Diaspora and Israeli Jews. Among other points, he noted that Israelis think of Jewishness as a serious responsibility, while Diaspora Jews can joyously experiment with Jewish life.
The pendulum swings in this Torah portion when Jacob, who had returned to his homeland after years in Haran, seeks to reunite his family by leaving Canaan for Egypt. God encourages this move and reassures Jacob’s family by saying: “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will surely bring you back again.” (Genesis 46:3-4)
Despite our many years of exile, we survived by nurturing our inner spiritual lives. When the Torah states that Jacob “sent Yehudah ahead … to direct (l’horot) the way to Goshen” (Genesis 46:28), Midrash Tanhuma uses the word l’horot to offer one reason why we have maintained our identity: Yehudah went ahead to establish a place “to teach” Torah. Jewish education is the cornerstone of personal and public Jewish life.
In addition, Jacob’s family settled as a group in Goshen. Maintaining a connection and community is another tactic of survival in an alien environment. In contemporary Diaspora life, we create community by voluntary association and are continually challenged to find ways to care for and support our youth and our elders, our socially and spiritually vulnerable, as well as the dynamic innovators who will build our future. Only if we treat this as a serious responsibility will we have the capacity to joyously create a sustainable Jewish future in North America.