In his D’var Torah this past Shabbat, Rabbi Slosberg made a compelling assessment of commonalities between Joseph of our Torah portion and Nelson Mandela who died this past week. Both were somewhat arrogant as youths, both spent serious time in prison, both were treated as worse than second class citizens in the lands which they inhabited and both rose to the heights of power in their maturity.
Obviously, there are differences as well. But I’d like to focus on God’s appearance to Jacob on his way to Egypt to build on Rabbi Slosberg’s apt comparison by adding another. In this night vision, God approaches our third patriarch with a dual repetitive form of address, “Jacob, Jacob” and assures him that leaving Canaan for Egypt is the right decision.
One wonders why God has to say Jacob’s name twice and, further, why not use the ‘newer’ name Israel? Rabbi David Kimchi says it’s been such a long time since God has spoken to Jacob that the name was repeated just to assure him that God was indeed the voice on the other end of the line.
Ramban, Nachmanides, says that the reason for the reversion to the old name was that Israel, the name that stands for struggle with divine beings, will not be active during the Egyptian sojourn, that God will not, in a sense, be present to struggle with during those years of what will become slavery but only resume upon the return of the Children of Israel to Canaan many years hence. Significantly, although Joseph often gives credit to God for helping him interpret dreams and causing his slavery, imprisonment and rise to power in Egypt, there is no explicit confirmation of this divine intervention in God’s own voice.
I wondered myself whether the repetition was a way of recalling the last time God tried to get a patriarch’s attention, Abraham just before he was about to sacrifice his son Isaac. Perhaps this is God’s way of assuring Jacob that just as saving Isaac from the knife allowed the births of the future Israelites, so going down to Egypt now will be an existential necessity for those same tribes despite the future of slavery that awaits them.
Just as prison was a cauldron of maturity for Joseph and Mandela, slavery would be a prison of sorts for the Israelites to become a people, disciplined, hardened and ready for the more rewarding if sometimes more aggravating job of wrestling with God for the best way to forge our way in a world of greater freedom, opportunity and responsibility.