Fear Not

The patriarch Jacob, in the twilight years of his life, learns that his son Joseph is not only alive and well in Egypt but has risen to become second in power only to the Pharaoh. He prepares to leave his home in Canaan and head to Egypt to see him for the first time in more than 20 years. While on his way he stops in Beersheva to offer sacrifices to God. There God speaks to him: “I am God, the God of your father; fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make of you a great nation” (Genesis 46:3). Commentators are puzzled by this Divine reassurance—why must God tell Jacob not to fear going down to Egypt? What is causing him to be afraid? Indeed, Jacob seems to be excited about seeing his son and enthusiastic about making the trip.

The answers offered to this intriguing question are many and varied. Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah, a 13th century French scholar, posits that Jacob is afraid that his move to Egypt will bring closer the predicted enslavement of his descendants. God reassures him that while the People of Israel will be enslaved, Jacob’s move to Egypt will also bring closer their redemption from slavery. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, who lived in Lithuania in the 19th century, taught that Jacob was afraid of the possibility that his family would lose their identity through assimilation into Egyptian religious and cultural life. Some have suggested that Jacob was afraid simply because he was elderly, and packing up and moving to a new home, especially in a different country, is a traumatic experience for someone in his stage of life. And Rashi, the great scholar whose words echo across a thousand years, wrote in his commentary to Genesis that Jacob was afraid because he was leaving the land of Israel, the land where his father Isaac remained for his entire life, the land that God promised to his grandfather Abraham as a sacred possession.

It is Rashi’s commentary that resonates with me in a deeply personal way. We have raised our children to love the Land of Israel and the State of Israel, and we are proud that all of our sons are devoted Zionists, having visited Israel countless times beginning in childhood and having spent extended periods of time studying there. Rashi’s teaching that Jacob was anxious because he might have to leave the Land of Israel speaks to us of the power and importance of Zionism. There are many ways to express our commitment to Zionism, including visiting Israel, supporting Israel with our resources, and advocating for Israel when individuals and communities choose to attack the Jewish State.

Perhaps the highest form of Zionism is to make one’s home in Israel, to live there as the patriarch Jacob yearned to do. So I am especially proud to tell you that my son Josh, who moved to Israel upon completing his college education a year ago, will officially become an Israeli citizen this Monday (he will continue to be an American citizen as well). Josh is very excited to become an Israeli. Within a year, he will be drafted by the army and, after a short stint in basic training, will likely serve for six months. Rather than trying to avoid army service, Josh will welcome becoming a soldier in the IDF and doing whatever is asked of him for the State of Israel. For many years now, as his thinking and spiritual life have grown and matured, he has aspired to live his life in Israel as an Israeli. Becoming an Israeli on Monday (the process is mostly bureaucratic and not ceremonial) will be very fulfilling for him.

And it will be very moving and fulfilling for me and Amy as well. Those with whom we have already shared this news have asked us how we feel about one of our children making his permanent home in Israel, halfway around the world. My answer is that a parent’s job, after bringing our children into the world, is to shape their character and guide them toward a life of meaning and purpose. Amy and I have tried to do that by aligning our children with the values and ways of life of Judaism. But children must be allowed and empowered to find their own pathway in life. The Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran expressed this idea eloquently in his poem “Children”:

Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you. And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts. For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.

We respect our children’s choices, wherever they may go in life. The patriarch Jacob yearned to live in Eretz Yisrael, and countless of his descendants, the Children of Israel, have sought to fulfill their Jewish identity by living in the land where Jewish civilization came into existence. On Monday, our son Josh will join their ranks and we couldn’t be more proud.

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