Vayigash

Genesis 44:18 – 47:27

Four Jewish Noble Truths  

This week’s Torah portion marks the critical moment when Jacob and his clan descend into Egypt, setting up the stage for what will unfold next: enslavement, suffering, redemption and revelation. Jacob’s sons travel back to Canaan following their encounter with Joseph in Pharaoh’s court. Immediately they reveal to their father that, indeed, Joseph is alive and now viceroy of Egypt. He has invited all of them to flee from the famine of Canaan and resettle in Goshen, the most fertile land of Egypt. And though Jacob’s first impulse—moved as he is by learning about Joseph being alive—is to cry out, “I must go and see him before I die!” [Gen. 45:28], he finds himself assailed by doubts of a journey so fraught with perils for his people.

In order to seek guidance, Jacob travels south to Beersheva—a place where God had once appeared to his father Isaac. We can only imagine the wrestling taking place within Jacob between his desire to see Joseph again and his knowledge of what awaits his people in Egypt. God had expressly forbidden Isaac to ever go down to Egypt [Gen.26:2], and Abraham was given a vision of what would befall his progeny there [Gen. 15:13]. Surely Jacob knew. And this knowledge challenged his deepest yearning to be reunited with Joseph. Trying to ride out the famine in Canaan may have seemed to him a more ethical decision than to condemn his descendants to “be enslaved and afflicted for four hundred years.” [Gen. 15:13] But in a night vision, God appears to Jacob in Beersheva, reassures him, promises him that He “will make [him] a great nation there,” [Gen. 46:3] and convinces him to leave for Egypt after all.

The philosophical implications of Jacob’s decision have caused the rabbis to debate it over many generations. Did the path leading to our becoming a great people have to go through Egypt? In other words, was the suffering, the enslavement, necessary in order for us to carve out our unique national identity? Most rabbis seem to think so. In “The Torah: A Modern Commentary,” an argument, echoed by many commentators, is made that: “in Goshen there would be isolation and segregation, both of which would provide a fertile soil for the development of particular national characteristics… If oppression, too, would be part of the experience, this would be the price the people-to-be would have to pay…” [pp. 297-298]

But what about personal identity? If the biblical tale is taken to be more than just the founding myth of our people, and understood, instead, on a deeper level to relate to a universal human story, does this four-fold pattern—enslavement, suffering, redemption and revelation—apply to us as individuals as well? Many spiritual traditions the world over answer in the affirmative. Take Buddhism for example. This four-part unfolding of the biblical myth corresponds to the Four Noble Truths to which the Buddha awakened, though the Buddhist version puts suffering first. First Noble Truth: There is suffering. This is a fact of life at this level of being. Second: The cause of suffering is our craving for pleasant experiences and our aversion to unpleasant experiences; or, in other (Jewish) words, our enslavement to the deep conditioning of our ego; to the Egypt of our constricted deluded sense of self. The Third Noble Truth is freedom from suffering; corresponding to the Hebrew story of Redemption. The Fourth Noble Truth is the Eight-Fold Path of awakening; what Torah calls Revelation, and which includes the mindfulness path of Mitzvot, spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation, personal ethical discipline etc… The stories may be different; the modalities of teaching may take different shapes, but our spiritual Truths are analogous.

Jacob can’t help but go down to Egypt. And we become enslaved. That is the Jewish “First (Noble) Truth.” Consider that each of us is enslaved to the cravings and aversions of this conditioned false self we have identified with. And in this Egypt of ours, there is suffering. But God promised Abraham “…in the end they shall go free with great riches,” [Gen. 15:14] and Jacob “I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will most surely bring you back up as well.” [Gen: 46:4] And so, heeding the Divine promise in Torah, I join the Buddha in prayer: “May all beings be free from suffering and the cause of suffering.” Ken Yehi Ratzon.

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