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D’var Torah: Parashat Vayigash

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This week, the Chief Rabbi identifies the crucial ingredient for Jewish survival over thousands of years.

If you were building a new town or city what is the first structure that you would put up? You might be thinking that my answer would be a synagogue, but it is not. We learn the answer from Parashat Vayigash.

Yaakov and his family, seventy souls in all, are on their way to Egypt where Yaakov will be reunited with his son Yosef, whom he had not seen for twenty two long years. The Torah tells us, “V’Et Yehuda Shalach Lefanav El Yosef Lehorot Lefanav Goshnah – Yaakov sent Yehuda, ahead of the family to Yosef, to show Yaakov the way to Goshen.”

This does not seem to make sense because if Yehuda was going to show Yaakov the way, he would surely need to be alongside him? If he is a few days of journey ahead, how is he going to show him the way?

So the Midrash in Bereishit Rabba, as brought down by Rashi says, “Letaken Lo Beit Talmud Shemisham Teiztei Hora’ah – Yaakov asked Yehuda to open a school so that education should flow from it.”

The term ‘Lehorot’ means ‘to show the way’ but it also means ‘to teach’. Yaakov wanted to guarantee that on the very first day on which the family arrived in Goshen, the children would have a school to go to.

He knew that they would be arriving in to an alien Egyptian environment, that in the course of time, the people would integrate into Egyptian society but that it would always be crucially important for them to retain their own independent identity. It was important for them to be rooted in their own faith, to be loyal to their own traditions and to remember how central the land of Israel should always be in their lives.

The way to achieve all of this was through solid and comprehensive education.

During this coming week we will be fasting on Asara B’Tevet. A fast that records the beginning of all those tragedies which led eventually to the destruction of our Temple. In anticipation of that tragedy, Raban Yochanan Ben Zakkai famously met up with Vespasian, the Roman Governor and he asked him, “Ten Li Yavneh V’Chachmeha” – Please guarantee that even as Jerusalem is destroyed the Jewish people will have a school in Yavneh, in order to learn about their tradition. In the absence of Jewish education there can be no Jewish future.

Every key term relating to the books that we learn and those who teach them all mean one thing – learning Torah. It is from that same word ‘Hora’ah’ which means ‘to study’. ‘Mishnah’ means ‘to learn’. ‘Talmud’ means ‘to learn’ and ‘Gemarah’ is the Aramic for ‘learning’. A ‘teacher’ is ‘Moreh’ and a ‘parent’ is ‘Horeh’. Everything is centred on the importance of learning.

With this in mind, the name that we give to our houses of prayer is ‘Shul’ coming from the German, meaning ‘school’. It is a place where we daven to Hashem and a place that we congregate socially. But primarily it needs to be a ‘shul’ – ‘a school’ – a place of learning.

All those years ago, Yaakov Avinu taught us a crucial lesson for Jewish survival – successful Jewish communities are those which establish successful institutes for Jewish education.

Shabbat Shalom