The Israelites’ Achiza (Holdings) in Egypt
Rabbi Mordechai Gershon
The Pollack Family
In memory of their husband and father, George Pollack
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The Israelites’ Achiza (Holdings) in Egypt
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וַיֵּ֧שֶׁב יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם בְּאֶ֣רֶץ גֹּ֑שֶׁן וַיֵּאָחֲז֣וּ בָ֔הּ וַיִּפְר֥וּ וַיִּרְבּ֖וּ מְאֹֽד:
“And Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt in the land of Goshen, and they held property (vayeaḥazu) in it, and they were prolific and multiplied greatly.”
[Bereishit (Genesis) 47:27]
"כל פסוק זה באשמת בני ישראל הוא מדבר כי הקדוש ברוך הוא גזר עליהם כי גר יהיה זרעך, והמה ביקשו להיות תושבים במקום שנגזר עליהם גרות... ולא כך אמרו אל פרעה לגור בארץ באנו (בראשית מז, ד)? מלמד שמתחילה לא ירדו להשתקע שמה אלא לגור... וכל כך נשתקעו שמה עד שלא רצו לצאת ממצרים..."
The entire posuk (verse) speaks to the detriment of the Israelites, for the Holy One, blessed be He decreed “Your descendants will be strangers in a land not theirs” [Bereishit 15:13], yet they sought to be residents in the place where it was decreed that they be strangers … Hadn’t they said to Pharaoh “We have come to sojourn in the land” [Genesis 47:4], indicating that they did not go down to Egypt to settle there? Yet they were so well settled that they did not want to leave Egypt.
Where in Egypt Did the Israelites Settle?
The Apparent Contradiction
There is an apparent contradiction within our chapter of Bereishit (Genesis) concerning the exact location within Egypt of the Israelites’ settlement. The posuk we quoted presents Goshen as the locale for the Israelites’ settlement. It was to Goshen that Yoseph directed his brothers, as the posuk states: “And you shall dwell in the land of Goshen,” [Bereishit 45:10] and “That you may dwell in the land of Goshen.” [Ibid. 46:34] As well, when God brought the plagues of wild animals and of hail, God announced “And I will separate on that day the land of Goshen, upon which My people stand” [Shemot (Exodus) 8:18], and “Only in the land of Goshen, where the children of Israel were, there was no hail.” [Ibid. 9:26] Yet, we find that Yoseph gave his family holdings in the land of Ramses: “Yoseph settled his father and his brothers, and he gave them property in the land of Egypt, in the best of the land, in the land of Ramses.” [Bereishit 47:11] As well, the Torah’s description of the exodus relates that “The Children of Israel journeyed from Ramses.” [Shemot 12:37] Rabbi Yoḥanan Luria (c. 1440-1514) in his work Meshivat Nefesh notes an additional problem in the posuk’s statement that it was Pharaoh who commanded that the Israelites settle in the land of Ramses [Genesis 47:11], a statement apparently unsupported by other pesukim (verses).
Rashi [Ibid.] writes that Ramses is part of the land of Goshen. Ramses was either a city or a county within the land of Goshen. Thus, the verses refer to the Israelites living in Ramses which is within the land of Goshen.
Radak comments that Yoseph settled his family in Goshen and gave them agricultural fields in the choicest land of Egypt, which is Ramses, close to Goshen, in accordance with Pharaoh’s instructions. Ramban, as well, is of the opinion that Ramses was a separate land from Goshen, but it was there that the Israelites received exclusive agricultural rights to the land, while they dwelled in the land of Goshen, which was not an Egyptian residential area.
What Changed in the Manner of the Israelites Dwelling in Egypt?
In any event, the pesukim (verses) imply that the Israelite settlement in Egypt in practice differed from what was intended. The posuk "לגור בארץ באנו" (“We have come to sojourn in the land”) implies that the Israelites did not intend to strike deep roots within the land, yet they settled in Egypt for many years. The Israelites’ original intention is conveyed by Chazals’ (our Sages’) elucidation of the posuk "וירד מצרימה" (“And he went down to Egypt”) [Devarim (Deuteronomy) 26:5] – compelled by Divine decree; "ויגר שם" (“And sojourned there”) [Ibid.] – teaching that our father Yaacov did not descend to Egypt to settle there, but merely to sojourn. [Haggada]
Kli Yakar infers his critical comment from the posuk’s wording "ויאחזו בה" (“They held property”) which implies a strong connection. Indeed, Chazal taught that many of the Israelites did not want to leave Egypt and were killed during the plague of darkness [Mechilta d’Rebbi Yishmael, Parashat Bo].
How did it come about that the Israelites changed their plans and chose to settle more permanently in Egypt? How did they forget their obligation to yearn to ascend to their own Land? On the technical level, as the authors of the Haggada noted, and we quoted above, the Israelites were forced to stay in Egypt by Divine decree, and this decree enjoined them from returning to Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). However, the question is: how did the Israelites reach the point of feeling at home in Egypt, forgetting that their true home is the Land of Israel?
First Answer – Living Conditions and the Power of Habit
The Sons of Yaacov
Without doubt, being careful to not forget Eretz Yisrael, the Holy Land constituted a difficult test, both for the children of Yaacov and for the subsequent generations until the exodus. Yaacov’s children were received graciously by Pharaoh. Ramban suggests that Pharaoh encouraged the Israelites to settle in Egypt, instructing Joseph to give them homes, fields and vineyards, in order that the family of the viceroy not be despised by the Egyptians, and this made the Israelites feel at home in Egypt.
Though Yoseph’s intention was to protect his family from disgrace and embarrassment, he too inadvertently contributed to the Israelites settling in Egypt. The posuk tells us that he “Transferred the populace to the cities, from (one) end of the boundary of Egypt to its (other) end.” [Bereishit 47:21] Ostensibly, Yoseph moved the Egyptians around as a demonstration of the fact that he had purchased their land on behalf of Pharaoh and had acquired them as the monarch’s servants. However, Yoseph’s also intended to protect his family from the disgrace of being seen as refugees. [Rashi, ibid.] On some level, the intention was to make the Israelites feel more at home during their temporary stay in Egypt. Also from a spiritual point of view, Yaacov sent Yehuda to Egypt ahead of the rest of the family in order to establish study houses in Egypt, [Rashi, Genesis 46:28] so the Israelites would not feel the lack of Torah in their exile.
Undoubtedly, it is difficult for one to leave the good conditions of his dwelling place, to abandon everything with which he is familiar and move to a strange place, without resources, with no source of income and without emotional support from those who surround him.
All of the above factors influenced the Israelites to ignore the fact that Egypt is not their home. When one is well received, he feels closeness to those who receive him. The Israelites felt closeness to the Egyptians and to their land and forgot that their true place is in Eretz Yisrael. The abundance of the land of Egypt was available to the Israelites and they forgot their own Land.
Am Yisrael (The Nation of Israel)
Given that the sons of Yaacov were affected by the conditions in Egypt, it was certainly even more difficult for the subsequent generations of Israelites in Egypt to leave everything they were used to and ascend to Eretz Yisrael. One who has not had the experience of leaving his familiar surroundings and immigrating to a new land cannot imagine how complex it is. The Israelites grew up in Egypt, they knew the land well and developed affectionate feelings for some of its landscapes; some felt connected to their Egyptian neighbors and developed friendships and commercial connections with them. Certainly, the Egyptian oppressed the Israelites, who suffered from the Egyptian decrees and persecution. Nonetheless, many looked for rays of light in their setting, and most did not seek places of refuge from their Egyptian oppressors. Chazal taught that the sons of Ephraim attempted to identify the time of the redemption and, as a result of miscalculation, engaged the Egyptians in battle before the appointed time. [Midrash Shemot Rabba 20:11] However, the majority of the Israelites did not take action.
Chazal praise the Israelites for changing neither their names nor their language during their years in Egypt, and thereby maintaining a distance from the Egyptians which prevented theirs from assimilation into Egyptian culture, nonetheless, there were Israelites who did connect to Egypt. Midrash Shoḥar Tov elucidates the posuk "גוי מקרב גוי" (“To come and take a nation from the midst of another nation”) [Devarim (Deuteronomy) 4:34] with a parable: “As one who removes a fetus from the womb of an animal the appropriate time. So God removed the Israelites from Egypt.” [Tehillim (Psalms) 114:6] Shem miShmuel writes that the essence of the exile was in intermingling with the nations and in Egypt, the Israelites were as a fetus in the womb, as the Midrash says.
Second Answer – Land Holds those who Acquire It
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch offers a novel insight to our posuk: “ אחוזה (Aḥuza) occurs exclusively referring to landed property which is just what cannot be grasped … the object is not gripped by the owner, but the owner is gripped and held fast by the object, and that in fact is the case with the possession of land. Land holds its owner, he is chained to it.” In essence, real estate acts upon and asserts control over its owner. This is particularly true of one’s home, which is his natural place. Indeed, the word 'מקום' [“makom” (place)] is related to the word 'קיום' [“kiyum” (existence)]. One’s home is the place which allows him to exist and holds him, preventing him falling into the abyss. This is an especially strong spiritual effect.
This approach is manifest in the Halacha, for example in the halachic dictum that land cannot be stolen [Gemara Sukka 31a] and that the laws of fraudulent sale (ona’ah) do not apply. [Gemara Bava Metzia 47a] These halachot indicate that land is not merely a monetary matter, but on some level is connected to its owner’s identity and becomes part of the owner. Thus, just as one’s identity cannot be stolen, neither can his land. Since there is, if you will, an emotional connection between land and its owner, it is not possible to assess monetary value to determine whether fraud has been committed in its sale.
Concerning the word “makom” Chazal comment “Why is the Holy One, blessed be He called ‘Makom’? Since He is the place of the world, while the world is not His place.” The Holy One, blessed be He is the eternally existing God, Who existed before anything else was in existence, and He exists in our world and outside our world. God does not require anything in order to continue to exist. He maintains the existence of the universe, rather than the universe maintaining His existence.
We can summarize since a place affects its residents, the Israelites in Egypt were adversely affected by the place, bringing them to forget the national hope and yearning to return to Eretz Yisrael as soon as possible.
Summary of the Answers
We saw two approaches to explain the Israelites’ forgetting Eretz Yisrael during their Egyptian bondage:
1) The Israelites initially received especially excellent conditions when they settled in Egypt and therefore accepted their stay in the land of the Nile.
2) The land of Egypt held onto the Israelites and influenced their self-identity.
These two explanations allow us to understand how the Children of Israel reached the status which the verses criticize, of settling in Egypt and forgetting that their true inheritance is Eretz Yisrael.
The Situation in the Diaspora Today
God promised us in the Torah that He will return us to the Land of Israel, saying:
"אם יהיה נדחך בקצה השמים משם יקבצך ד' אלוקיך ומשם יקחך. והביאך ד' אלוקיך אל הארץ אשר ירשו אבותיך וירשתה והיטבך והרבך מאבותיך"
Even if your exiles are at the end of the heavens, the Lord, your God, will gather you from there, and He will take you from there. And the Lord, your God, will bring you to the Land which your forefathers possessed, and you (too) will take possession of it, and He will do good to you, and He will make you more numerous than your forefathers.
Rambam understands from these verses that one of Messiah’s functions, beyond reestablishing the Israelite monarchy and rebuilding the Beit Hamikdash (Temple), is to gather the dispersed of Am Yisrael and lead them back to the Land [Laws of Kings 11:1]
Undeniably, building up the Land is in full swing. We see the fulfillment of the words we say in taḥanun on Mondays and Thursdays (according to the Ashkenazi version):
"אבינו אב הרחמן, הראנו אות לטובה וקבץ נפוצותינו מארבע כנפות הארץ"
Our merciful Father, show us a positive sign and gather our dispersed from the four corners of the earth.
God has shown us this sign. The majority of Jews in the world live in Eretz Yisrael, and the Land is continuously being built up. Our hearts should cry out loudly: "מאת ד' היתה זאת היא נפלאת בעינינו" (“This was from the Lord; it is wondrous in our eyes.”) [Tehillim 118:23] Indeed, Rabbi Yehuda Alkalai (1798-1878) writes in his book Minḥat Yehuda that we must announce in a firm voice that the time has come to ascend to the Land rather than waiting for Messiah to bring us to the Land in a miraculous manner.
It is true that the Land binds its residents to it, and that abroad at times there are comfortable and pleasant conditions. Any move from place to place is difficult, all the more so, moving to a new country. At times age is a complicating factor, with the difficulties greater for children or older people.
May we be privileged to see the righteous Mashiach (Messiah) leading all of us back to the Land, our natural habitat, in a pleasant manner, with ease and in joy. And may he purify our hearts to serve God through the purity and sanctity of Eretz Yisrael.