And Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt in the country of Goshen; and they took possession of it (47:27)
The Hebrew word vayei’achazu (“and they took possession of it”) literally means “and they took hold of it,” but also translates, “and they were held by it.” Both interpretations are cited by our sages: Rashi translates vayei’achazu as related to the word achuzah, “land holding” and “homestead”; the Midrash interprets it to imply that, “The land held them and grasped them… like a man who is forcefully held.”
This duality defines the Jew’s attitude toward galut (exile). On the one hand, we know that no matter how hospitable our host-country may be, and no matter how we may flourish, materially and spiritually, on foreign soil, galut is a prison in that it dims our spiritual vision, hinders our national mission and compromises our connection with G-d. For only as a nation dwelling on our land with the Holy Temple as the Divine abode in our midst can we perceive the Divine presence in the world, fully realize our role as “a light unto the nations,” and fully implement all the mitzvot of the Torah-the lifeblood of our relationship with G-d.
But we also know that we are in galut for a purpose. We know that we have been dispersed throughout the world in order to reach and influence the whole of humanity. We know that it is only through the wanderings and tribulations of galut that we access and redeem the “sparks of holiness” — the pinpoints of Divine potential which lie scattered in the most forsaken corners of the globe.
So Galut is an achuzah in both senses of the word: a “holding” to develop and a “holding pen” we must perpetually seek to escape.
Indeed, it can only be the one if it is also the other. If we relate to galut solely as a prison, we will fail to properly utilize the tremendous opportunities it holds. But if we grow comfortable in this alien environment, we risk becoming part of it; and if we become part of the galut reality, G-d forbid, we could no more succeed in our efforts to develop and elevate it than the person who tries to lift himself up by pulling upwards on the hairs atop his own head.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)