Jacob is like all of us at moments when we face a challenge – moving to a new country, starting a new venture, confronting a crisis. We all feel some trepidation.
But Abravanel wants to know why going to Egypt should worry Jacob so much. Had he not, once he knew Joseph was still alive, stated, “I will go and see him before I die” (Gen. 45:28)?
Rashi says Jacob “was distressed because he was obliged to go away from the Land”. He yearned to see his son, but he still felt uneasy about leaving Israel.
It was not simply love of Israel. Nechama Leibowitz says, “Though he knew full well that he was going to a land of plenty and to live in comfort, who would guarantee that his descendants would want to leave Egypt and return to the land of Canaan? Perhaps his children would forget their destiny as they wallowed in the plenty of Egypt and would not want to leave.”
It is an old-new problem. People leave Israel for a variety of reasons. But the Diaspora already has a built-in problem of loss of Jewish identity (Ben Gurion called it the kiss of death). But for a yored (former Israeli) the thought that one might not return is an added problem.
In this context it is instructive to find what Jacob does on arrival in Egypt.
Joseph “fell on his (Jacob’s) neck and wept on his neck a good while” (Gen. 46:29). Jacob, however, says Rashi, “did not fall on the neck of Joseph and did not kiss him; our rabbis state that he was saying the Shema“.
Was that what a father does when he sees the son he thought was dead? Where was his fatherly instinct?
One possibility is that saying the Shema was tantamount to saying, “Thank God!” Another is that his first act on starting a new life was to renew his loyalty to God.
A third possibility is suggested by a Rashi comment on the second paragraph of the Shema. On the phrase, “you shall place My words upon your heart” (Deut. 11:18), Rashi tells us: “Even after you have been exiled make yourselves distinctive through the commandments, lay tefillin, affix mezuzot“.
Why does Jacob say the Shema on moving to the Diaspora? To demonstrate that his and his family’s Judaism will be especially strong there so that their Jewish identity will not weaken while they are away.
If you ask why it is davka the commandments of tefillin and mezuzah that will keep the family strongly Jewish it is that the one symbolises personal commitment and the other home and family commitment.
How strong these two marks of commitment are in the rest of the Diaspora is not certain, but in Australia 75% of Jews have mezuzot though more mislay than lay tefillin.
There is surely an argument for the intensification of both mitzvot, not simply among ex-Israelis but for every Jew.