In the Torah portion of Vayigash we read how Yaakov and his family descended to Egypt. We are informed that “The number of individuals in Yaakov’s household who came to Egypt was 70.”1 But when we add up the actual number of Yaakov’s descendants listed as going to Egypt, we find only 69.

Many Torah commentators,2 as well as one opinion in the Midrash,3 explain that Yaakov was included in the count — thus making the total 70. According to Pirkei d’Rebbe Eliezer ,4 and yet another opinion in the Midrash,5G‑d entered among them.”

What is the reason for the difference in opinion?

Our Sages tell us6 that “The Patriarchs are truly the [Divine] chariot,” for “all their limbs were completely holy and detached from mundane matters, and throughout their lives they served as nothing but a vehicle for the Divine Will.”7 Because of their lofty state, the Divine Presence was openly revealed to them.8

Moreover, because of the lofty spiritual level which they attained, they merited that all their progeny also enjoy some measure of their spirituality.9 This finds expression, for example, in the pure and simple faith of today’s Jew in G‑d and His limitless abilities.10

In order for such an exalted state to be drawn down to each and every Jew, an intermediate state was necessary, a bridge to span the gap between the lofty heights of the Patriarchs and the much lower level of some of their descendants.

Yaakov’s direct descendants — the 12 tribes and the 70 souls of his household — served this purpose perfectly, in that they were neither on the exalted level of the Patriarchs, nor on a lowly spiritual level.

At the same time, in order that the exalted state of the Patriarchs be drawn down to each and every Jew in subsequent generations, it was necessary for Yaakov’s immediate descendants to find themselves in Egypt, a land where G‑dliness is concealed, and for them to overcome the spiritual difficulties of that land and reveal their faith in G‑d.

Indeed, the Jewish people were up to the task. During the Egyptian exile “the Jews believed”11 that G‑d would redeem them; notwithstanding the seemingly insurmountable barriers that stood in the way of liberation, the people had a pure and simple faith that obstacles simply did not exist for G‑d.

This is at the core of the saying of our Sages:12 “Our forefathers were redeemed from Egypt only in the merit of their faith.” Rather than faith being merely a means to an end, that faith and its revelation was the end — the ultimate purpose of the exile.

What was it that gave the Jews in Egypt the strength to withstand the spiritual degradation of that country? Herein enter the two abovementioned opinions as to who counted for the 70th soul.

According to the first opinion, it was Yaakov’s spirituality that enabled the Jews to overcome the spiritual difficulties of Egypt.

The second opinion holds that Yaakov was too far removed from spiritual exile; had his level been maintained by his descendants, they would not have been subject to spiritual exile. Were this to be so, the purpose of the exile could not have been accomplished.

The second opinion therefore maintains that G‑d Himself was included in the count. G‑d is so transcendent that He can be with His people even in exile, thus empowering them to overcome the spiritual concealment of Egypt, but at the same time remaining separate and apart — not felt by them.13

This made it possible for the Jewish people to actually experience spiritual exile and yet accomplish the purpose of that exile by revealing their abiding faith in G‑d.

Based on Likkutei Sichos Volume XX, pp. 218-223.