The young grandson of Rabbi Shneur Zalman, who lived from 1745 to 1812 and was the founder of the Chabad movement, arrived home from Cheder (Jewish day school) with a question.
That day, he had learned the opening of this week’s Torah portion: “Vayechi Yaakov bi’eretz Mitzrayim, and Jacob lived in the land of Egypt,” for the final 17 years of his life. His teacher shared the remark of the commentaries, that those were the happiest years of his life, being finally reunited with his long-lost son Joseph.
“How could these have been Jacob’s happiest years,” the young boy asked, “if he lived them in the decadent culture of Egypt, far away from the Land of Israel, the land promised to him by God?”
It was a good question, his grandfather agreed. Presumably, Jacob should have preferred the quiet pastures of the Promised Land as the better place to inculcate his grandchild with his traditions.
The key to the answer, the Zaide said, was in an earlier verse, which describes how Jacob prepares to move his household down to Egypt: “And he sent [his son] Judah ahead of him.” Commentaries explain that he sent his son ahead to designate a place of study; a center where they would teach their children and keep their traditions alive.
The physical location isn’t of primary importance, explained Rabbi Shneur Zalman to his young grandson. It’s the decision to provide your children with a genuine Jewish education that ensures the continuation of your heritage.
“Jacob saw Jewish learning continue to thrive while he was in Egypt,” Rabbi Shneur Zalman said. “That’s why those years were his best.”
This young grandson, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who lived from 1788 to 1866 would grow to be the third Chabad Rebbe, a renowned Jewish leader in Czarist Russia and a stalwart defender of Jewish education against Czarist attempts to influence it.
His descendant and namesake, the Rebbe, who lived from 1902 to 1994, pointed out that this story wasn’t just about children’s education.
A person might suddenly realize that he or she lives in a spiritual "Egypt": eating, sleeping and taking care of oneself physically, but finding no meaning in daily life.
The answer is to take a page from Jacob’s playbook: “Designate a place of study.” Set aside a time for Torah study, a group session or personal moment, and contemplate the ageless lessons of Jewish tradition. Carve out a little “Land of Israel” in your day.
And then, just as Jacob in Egypt, those moments will be your best.
Rabbi Mendy Greenberg is the spiritual leader of Twinsburg Chabad, which he founded along with his wife, Mussie, in 2017.